MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Oct 19-Thu Oct 25

NEW RELEASES

Halloween (18)

Dismissing the  previous nine sequels (if only), director David Gordon Green picks things up 40 years after the original. Still not having spoken a word, Michael Myers (Nick Castle), the Haddonfield serial killer in the William Shatner mask is in a  secure mental facilty, now under the supervision of Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a prison shrink fascinated to know what Myers feels when he kills, while his intended victim, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) lives in heavily fortified PTSD seclusion, largely estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), resentful of how she was raised in a  climate of fear, who tries to limit her contact with granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

In a plot device whose only purpose is to reunite Myers and his mask, a couple of British podcast reporters (Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall) visit both Myers and Strode to try and get them to talk about that night. They inevitably wind up among his first victims when, in a manner only briefly mentioned, Myers causes the bus transporting him to a new prison to crash and escapes, setting off on another spree of butchery (presumably to counter a teen’s dismissive comment that the original film’s five murders was pretty lightweight compared the slasher films it inspired) as he makes his way to find Strode, she equally keen for a reunion so she can kill him.

With her, Sartain and Officer Hawkins (Will Patton whose character wasn’t in the original despite what the screenplay claims), on his tail, Myers bloodily despatches (albeit mostly offscreen) a clutch of locals as they go about celebrating Halloween, among them some of  Allyson’s friends, though not, diappointingly, her jerk boyfriend, even if even, expanding his range beyond babysitters,  he draws the line at babies. Having satiated the casual slasher fans appetites, including throwing in a twist that’s dispensed with even before it really registers, things climax back at Strode’s where she and Myers play cat and mouse among what seems to be more rooms than your average hotel and Karen and Allyson take refuge in the secret basement.

Although the score retains Carpenter’s theme, the narrative rewrites the past by dismissing the notion, as in the 1978 film and subsequent sequals, that  Laurie and Michael are siblings as urban myth, but otherwise stays fairly true to the Carpenter blueprint, even if there’s rather less than it would like to thing to its  musings on the nature of evil and the way it can take its toll on and infect others, the camera lingering on the a knife held by one of the characters in the final shot would seem to nod to Rob Zombie’s  2009 remake.

Surrounded by a cast of largely annoying characters, Curtis revisits her final girl persona in solid style but, never especially scary and with no particular character depth, while diehards will enjoy the closure, the often confused and repetitive screenplay fails to create much by way of atmosphere or involvement to engage a generation largely unware of the franchise’s chequered history and reared on more flashy boogeymen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Columbus (12A)

The feature debut by Korean-American video essay director Kogonada is very much of an art house persuasion, a slow, understated humanist meditation on modern architecture and the human condition that is at once intellectual and suffused with deep emotions.

When his estranged father, a celebrated modernist architect, is hospitalised in a coma after collapsing,  book translator Jin (John Cho) flies in from Seoul to Columbus, Indiana where he crosses paths with recent high school graduate  and architecture nerd Casey (Haley Lu Richardson). Recently graduated from high school, she’s not applied to college so she can stay home and care for her mother (a moving turn by Michelle Forbes), a recovering drug addict, and now works in the local library alongside  her Doctoral student friend Gabriel (Rory Culkin) with whom she engages in long and profound discussions.

Both having ambiguous feelings about their parents, having met casually Jin and Casey start to hang out, she taking him on a tour of the city’s architectural landmarks, Deborah Berke‘s Irwin Union Bank, Eliel Saarinen‘s church and his son Eero’s “Miller House”, talking about  her personal responses to their designs and meanings within the built environment.

Although there’s hints of Jin becoming increasingly attracted to Casey, the relationship never develops beyond friendship, he trying to persuade her to follow her dreams of being an architect, she questioning his feelings for his father, each affording the other insights into how they see the world and themselves.

With Parker Posey as an old flame and now a colleague of Jin’s father, the film is in no hurry to reach an end, the narrative punctuated with long and erudite discussions, including knowing treatise by Gabriel about the myth of a reducing attention span, using video games and books to explain that it’s the interest in the subject that dictates the attention paid. It requires patience, but those prepared to invest their time will be rewarded by  consummate understated performances, a dissection of emotions, desires, needs and fears, flashes of affecting humour and, above all, the exposure to a collection breathtakingly designed buildings and their connection to the physical, cultural and emotional landscape within which they exist. The film asks us to consider the way in which we construct our own selves and connections, and how, like building, we have no purpose unless we allow life inside. (Until Mon: MAC)

           

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (PG)

The original Goosebumps, in which he played a fictionalised version of R.L.Stine, the books’ creator,  reignited Jack Black’s stalled career after a string of flops. For the sequel, however,  while his name doesn’t  appear in the credits, he only makes a fleeting appearance towards the end (albeit in a coda that sets up a third film), but does provide the voice of psychotic ventriloquist dummy Slappy, essentially Stine’s version of Chucky.

The film’s actual stars are a trio of kids, mid-teens Sarah (Madison Iseman), her younger, electricity-obsessed video game geek brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), the latter both regular victims of the school bully. Sam proposes setting up a business clearing unwanted junk, which brings them to Stine’s long abandoned house where they come across a locked book hidden in a secret compartment and, of course, open it.

Bad move, as this was Stine’s first and still uncompleted story, one in which Halloween comes alive and, before they know it, now freed from the book, Slappy has entered their lives and, rejected when he creepily tries to become part of their family,  determines to create his own, with Sonny’s mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) as his own mom, putting the town under a Gremlins-like siege of Halloween spooks and monsters, including turning the local hardware store clerk (Chris Parnell) into a green ogre and animating the giant purple balloon spider monster in the garden of their Halloween obsessed next door neighbour  (Ken Jeong).

So it’s up to the kids to get the monsters back into the book and shut down the old electricity generating tower built by Nikola Tesla, which  Sonny has been trying to duplicate for his science project, and which is giving Slappy his power.

Featuring a  cameo by the real R.L. Stine, it’s far more fun than might be expected with inspired visual touches such as the two boys being attacked by giant fang-toothed gummy bears as well as a sly throwaway Stephen King gag involving a red balloon,  the young leads avoid the Scooby-Do cartoonishness into which such characters can descend, McLendon-Covey provides some smart grown-ups humour while director Ari Sandel handles the mayhem with energy and flair as well as delivering the central message about overcoming your fears.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hunter Killer (15)

Increasingly Scotland’s answer to Steven Seagal, having saved Earth from a climate apocalypse in Geostorm, Gerard Butler now helps prevent WWIII when, as the untested commander of a hunter killer submarine, this ill-timed pro-Russian nonsense sees him come to the rescue of Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the Russian president, who’s been taken prisoner in a coup staged by his Minister of Defence (Michael Gore) who reckons nuclear war will be good for his country’s morale.

Butler plays Joe Glass who, when first a Russian sub and then an American are blown up in the Arctic Ocean, is despatched aboard the USS Arkansas by Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) to find out what happened.

Determining that the Russian sub was sabotaged, he rescues the survivors, among them his counterpart (Michael Nyqvist) and, although Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman, phoning it in), who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to go in hawkish and Def Con 1 hot, the clearly Hilary-modelled President (Caroline Goodall) authorises to go along with Fisk and NSA analyst Jayne Norquist’s (Linda Cardellini) plan to send in a bunch of Navy Seals (headed by Toby Stevens) to extract Zakarin so he can  cool things down.

The screenplay freely dispenses with any sense of logic or reality while the dialogue is carved out with the subtlety of a hammer and chisel, a clunkiness to which Butler duly rises as he delivers lines like “if it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it” and “We’re no different, you and I – we’ve been down here together for our whole careers.”

There’s a degree of underwater tension that comes with pretty much all submarine movies, but, with  a cast that basically falls into good Russians, bad Russians and heroic Americans, and some piss poor CGI adding to its many faults, this puts the sub into sub-par. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mandy (18)

Yet another gonzo performance from Nicolas Cage, drawing on such influences as Sam Raimi, Dario Argento and Nicolas Winding Refn and apocalyptically scored by Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannson (and with the credits sequence featuring King Crimson’s Starless), director Panos Cosmatos  piles on the blood, excess and delirious hallucinogenic visuals for a revenge splatterfest aimed at art house extremists and midnight horror geeks alike.

Set in 1983, it starts Cage as Red, a lumberjack (note, if a chainsaw appears in the first scene, it will go offer later in the film) who shares his woodland cabin life with pulp-fiction cover illustrator wife Mandy (a compellingly weird Andrea Riseborough). Their idyllic existence is shattered, however, when a Satanic cult, Children of the New Dawn, which includes fanatical Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) and the witchy Mother Marlene (Olwen Foure) and is headed up by Messiah-complex madman Jeremiah (a wildly over-acting Linus Roache), passes through. The latter takes a fancy to Mandy who is duly abducted by a demonic deformed  bike gang and dosed with psychedelic drugs before, after she rejects him, being set alight while, bound with barbed wire,  a beaten and crucified Red is forced to look on.

Escaping, fuelled by vodka and rage, he forges himself a fuck-you battle-axe and, also armed with a crossbow,  sets off to track them down, getting drenched in buckets of blood and gore as he goes before finally cornering Jeremiah. His dialogue kept to the bare minimum once his revenge begins, Cage is in his element, snorting coke off shattered glass, wild-eyed and screaming as he wields carnage and the film gathers to a high pitched climax, taking in an hallucinated tiger, Heavy Metal-like animation and even an hilariously demented kiddie’s TV commercial featuring the Cheddar Goblin along the way.  The fact that the title is not just the name of Red’s wife but slang for MDMA, or ecstasy, should give you a good idea of the sort of ride you’re in for. (Electric)

 

Vs. (15)

Rap battles, like dance-offs and sing-offs, are more normally associated with American films, which may, to some extent, explain a certain hesitancy about this, the feature debut of British video director Ed  Lilly. That said, pitched as 8 Mile meets Boy A and set in the not entirely glamorous surroundings of Southend, there’s still much to admire about this rites of passage dram with its message about finding an outlet for anger and frustration that doesn’t involve violence, at least not the physical kind.

Leaving behind the latest in a string of foster homes, 17-year-old Adam (Connor Swindells), given up by his teenage single mother when he was five, is on probation for violent behaviour  and his last chance before being sent to a secure unit. He’s relocated to his original seaside hometown where he hooks up with Makayla (Fola Evans-Akingbola), who introduces him to the local battle rap scene – a series of verbally combative, often scathing taunting of your opponent – that she promotes and to which he takes like a duck to water, gradually establishing a  name for himself – Adversary to be precise – but also sparks the hostility of reigning rap champion Slaughter (real life rapper Shotty Horroh), who once had a thing with Makayla, setting the film on a Rocky rap path to the final beach showdown.

En route, Adam’s probation officer arranges for him to meet his biological mother (Emily Taafe, not looking much older than Swindells), to whom he’s previously unwittingly gone for a haircut, she contrivedly  recognising him by a white patch as she wields the clippers, which, needless to say doesn’t go well, storming out saying he wishes she’d given him up at birth.

He also takes things too far on stage, breaking the unspoken rules by getting too personal and inadvertently outing one of the characters  setting up the predictable lessons in humility, understanding and forgiveness that culminate in the not entirely convincing melodramatic finale in which even his saintly caring foster carer (Ruth Sheen) comes to admire his way with words.

Lilly brings a striking cocktail of neon and grit to the film’s visuals and, while they lack the flash of their American counterparts, the battles are both unsparingly ferocious and amusing. However, an undeveloped subplot involving Adam’s fling with a single-mother (Ellie James) is both half-heated and glaringly schematic, while, no Eminem, Swindells struggles to convey Adam’s emotional turmoil and too often you can feel him acting. On the other hand, Evans-Akingbola is an engaging presence as is feisty real life female rapper Paigey Cakey while Horroh provides a solid boo hiss factor, only to become something of a smiling pussycat in the final moments. It may fall back on well-worn cliches,  but it’s also a refreshing new look at the country’s underground youth culture.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

A Simple Favour (15)

Served up as Gone Girl meets Gaslight with more twists than your average hairpin bends, Paul Feig puts a dark spin on his familiar female-centric buddy comedies that situates this closer to Spy and The Heat than Bridesmaids. Widowed following a car accident that killed her husband and step-brother (revelations about which add further spice to the mix), over-enthusiastic single Connecticut mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosts a mommy video blog offering cookery tips and homespun wisdom, the first of which sees her bringing new viewers up to speed on the disappearance of her best friend, high-powered, masculine-dressing fashion and fragrance company PR exec Emily (Blake Lively). Flashback then to their first meeting at school  where their respective kids, Miles (Joshua Satine) and Nicky (a super-annoying Ian Ho) want a playdate, leading the clearly supercilious Emily to reluctantly invite Stephanie back to the palatial luxury but monochrome home she shares with writer husband Sean (Henry Golding), who’s never followed up his first and only bestseller. Over the course of a few weeks, the pair, neither of whom seem to have ever had a BFF,  get down to some serious bonding over high strength martinis, even though the never less than candid Emily, snapping at her for taking her photo, cautions about being her friend. One day, Stephanie gets a call asking if she can do her a favour and pick up Nicky after school because she’s got a crisis to handle. This she duly does, but as the night wears on she starts to get increasingly concerned. The more so, given Emily’s not answering her phone and a visit to her office and a skirmish with her arrogant boss prove unproductive, other than to discover a photo with a cryptic  message scrawled on it under Emily’s desk. The cops are duly called in, Stephanie spends time with Sean helping out and things spark between them and, when Emily’s body turns up in a lake, they become lovers.

However, the fact that he took out a massive life insurance policy before she vanished, and the fact they were having financial troubles,  starts to stir muddy waters. Could he have been behind her death?  But, working from Darcey Bell’s novel, the plot has further surprises up its sleeve, with Stephanie, whose blog updates are going viral,  now beginning to think she may have been set up.

Revealing more would ruin the first of several twists, though sussed audiences will have already guessed what’s going on, as Feig continues to build the suspense and thrills, throwing in misdirections here and there and scattering a steady helping of with solid  comic support provided by Andrew Rannells as judgemental, gossipy fellow parent Darren.

Each defined by their wardrobes, black-suited Lively is super cool as the oversharing Emily who loves to shock while pink-cardigan Kendrick extends her familiar likeable if somewhat naïve always ready to help enthusiasm into Nancy Drew territory, only Collins letting the tangled three-way relationship down with a character lacking any real sense of depth. The observations about the pressures of motherhood and being a woman in a man’s world tend to be little more than set-dressing, but, even if the old appearances and reality routine is well-worn, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer still squeeze an extra dose of frisson from things as truths from all quarters (“Secrets are like margarine — easy to spread, bad for the heart”) begin to surface while a soundtrack of French pop, notably Serge Gainsbourg, fizzles in the background. At the end of the day, there’s actually less here than meets the eye, but that’s more than enough to be an enjoyable guilty pleasure. (Vue Star City)

 

A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way should safely see the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bad Times At The El Royale (15)

Anyone who saw writer-director Drew Goddard’s unhinged Cabin In The Woods will doubtless be expecting madness of a similar scale for this film-noir pastiche. They won’t be disappointed, even if there’s no similar twist reveal and you’re left with more questions than answers.

Inspired by the real life Cal Neva Resort & Casino in Lake Tahoe, the titular hotel, a seedy retro-kitsch establishment that’s seen better days, but still boasts some glorious art deco stylisngs, straddles the states of California and Nevada. Some ten years ago, in a guy checked in and hide a bag of loot under the floorboards of his room before being gunned down by a never identified visitor.

Fast forward to 1969 and, with the mild-mannered concierge (and apparently sole employee) Miles (Lewis Pullman) finally emerging from his narcotic stupor, three new arrivals check in: slick talking Southern travelling vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm) who insists on staying in the Honeymoon Suite; Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a  Catholic priest with incipient dementia; and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a back-up singer whose dreams of Motown stardom have ended up playing lounge bars. They’re subsequently joined by a fourth guest, the sharp-tongued Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) or, as she signs the register, ‘Fuck You’.

Suspicions that they might not all be what they seem are soon confirmed when Sullivan starts removing surveillance bugs devices in his room and then discovers  a secret corridor with two way mirrors into the rooms and a camera. Looking in on Emily, now armed with a shotgun, he sees her drag in an unconscious, gagged and bound girl (Cailee Spaeny) and tie her to the chair.

From this point on, things get seriously twisted and bloody. Told in chapters that unfold the characters’ backstories and replaying events from different perspectives, everyone has a secret to hide, things building to a blood climax with the arrival of Manson-esque cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) looking to recover something that’s been taken from him.

Tapping into the Cal Neva’s mythology of it being bought by Sinatra and his mob cronies and used as a pervy shag retreat for high ranking politicians, we learn very little about the hotel’s shadowy owners  who employ Miles (who is in desperate need of confession) to film guests for subsequent blackmail, but  such murkiness is part and parcel of the film’s pulp thriller charms, holding back Miles’ story until last for very obvious reasons.

It’s hard not to view this as all a bit Tarantino-lite with a nod to Hitchcock for good measure and Goddard takes rather too long in teasing the audience with the realities behind the appearances. However, those sufficiently patient to indulge him will be rewarded with not just a whole bunch of classic soul numbers (many sung unaccompanied by Erivo) but a barrage of unexpected jolts and thrills as they start to root for at least some of these losers to make it through, unwittingly as much the voyeurs as those watching through those one-way mirrors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

 

Crazy Rich Asians (12A)

Following swiftly on the heels of Searching  starring South Korea-born John Cho, as directed by Jon M. Chu this goes an ethnic step further with the entire cast either Sino-American or hailing from South-East Asia, as in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc., the first such film out of Hollywood since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993. Unapologetically lavish and wall to wall with wish-fulfilment images of  mind-bogglingly ostentatious wealth, it opens with the arrival of Young family matriarch Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, superbly playing what might have been a cold dragon-lady) and her kids at a New York hotel to be given short shrift by snobbish, racist staff. A crowd-pleasing pay off and several years later, the now grown, Oxford-educated and ultra-handsome Singaporean Nick Young (Henry Golding) wants his Chinese-American economics professor girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to come with him to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding back home so he can introduce her to the family. What she doesn’t know is that the Young family are multi-millionaires and run a global real-estate empire, though you suspect she might have got an inkling when they get on the plane and he has his own private suite.

All seems to be going swimmingly, Nick’s grandma, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) and family CEO, seemingly especially taken with her, until, that is,  Eleanor takes her aside her aside and  politely but very firmly informs her  that, not being pure Chinese and raised by a single-mother working class immigrant (Kheng Hua Tan), she’s not good enough for the Young heir apparent and that family comes before everything.

And what a family. Aside from mom’s class prejudice,  one of Nick’s cousins, Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang) is an obnoxious preening frat boy, another, the flamboyantly gay Oliver (Nico Santos), is the family’s self-proclaimed rainbow sheep while a third, Astrid (Gemma Chan), who hides her extravagant purchases so as not to embarrass her insecure lower-class husband, has her marriage falling apart around her. The latter two, however, become Rachel’s  allies, while also in her corner are her rich, wide-eyed ultra-exuberant old college roommate, Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her no less eccentric and hopelessly inappropriate father (Ken Jeong).

A sweeping romance mingled with a satire on the conflict between old-money attitudes and nouveau-riche ambition, it takes in an all-expenses paid  shopping orgy hen part on a private island and an international waters bachelor party aboard a luxury  liner, but even these pale beside the wedding itself that has the bride gliding down a watery aisle and performances by both the Vienna Boys’ Choir and  Cirque du Soleil, the whole thing ending atop Singapore’s most extravagant hotel. Yet, balanced against this there’s also small intimate moments, such as a scene between Nick and Rachel concerning what he’ll have to give up to be with her and a pointed game of mahjong between her and Eleanor.

A sort of pumped up Meet the Parents by way of a Chinese Cinderella with a soundtrack that includes Chinese versions of Material Girl and Money (That’s What I Want), it’s a real feast. (Vue Star City)

 

First Man (12A)

Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning La La Land also reaches for the stars, or, rather the moon.  The true story of how, on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong came to be the first person to set foot on the lunar surface, following his journey through the NASA space programme of the 60s, it reinforces his skill as a filmmaker, taking the perspective of the astronauts in capturing the physical and claustrophobic nature of those early manned flights with more authenticity than any previous film, taking audience inside the cockpits as they roll and shake like high tech bucking broncos. But it also brings into focus the human ambitions, fears and doubts of those involved, whether they’re wearing the space suits or not.

It launches in 1961 with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a pilot engineer, walking away from yet another X-15 crash after bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere. Back home he suffers a professional setback when he’s grounded and a personal tragedy when his young daughter, Karen, succumbs to cancer.   He and his wife, Janet (Clare Foye), have a son and, before long, a second is born, but living with loss continues to haunt Armstrong, both that of his child and of the fellow astronauts who die in the course of first the Gemini and then the Apollo missions. He remains stoical, well aware this is all part of what he and the others signed on to do, that “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.”  Or, as Jan puts it, “we got good at funerals.”

With the Russians leading the space race, beating America to the first space walk, the pressure is on to get to the moon and Armstrong’s recruited to  join the Gemini programme alongside the likes of Ed White and Gus Grissom, who alongside  Roger Chafee would die when their capsule caught fire during a  test. Understandably, news that he’s been chosen for the moon mission makes both his wife and kids anxious and there’s a powerful scene when, on the night he’s setting off, she tells him to talk to his sons about how me might not return rather than spend the time packing so as avoid things. And even then he distances himself by treating it as a press conference, asking “Are there any other questions?”

There are several ‘off-duty’ moments involving the space pilots and their families, underscoring that, whatever their job, they were still ordinary men who had a beer together and played with their kids. Likewise, the film largely avoids the backroom stuff about budgets and politics while scenes at NASA with NASA director Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Chief of the Astronaut Office, serve to remind that they were essentially flying the seat of their pants and learning as they went, or, as Jan  puts it during one particularly tense episode, “You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”

The support cast are solid, Corey Stoll making the most of playing Buzz Aldrin as a loudmouth pain in the ass, while, increasingly chain-smoking, Foye rises above the familiar wife at home role to wear on the surface the emotions that her husband kept buried. However, it’s Gosling who delivers a deeply soulful and internalised performance as Armstrong, troubled but quietly commanding when the need arises, who anchors the film as someone who, calm under pressure, you’d want by your side when your space capsule and potential grave refuses to respond to commands.

Given the repetitive nature of the in-cockpit sequences and the constant baffling techno-chatter crackling over the radio, there are times when viewers might get restless, but ultimately Chazelle carries you with his crew and, even almost fifty years on, the sight of that first footprint on the moon dust still hold that same sense of wonder. But it pales beside the emotional impact of Armstrong’s moments alone on the moon, an act that is entirely speculative, but which rings heartbreakingly true. The film may celebrate a historic moment in man’s journey to the stars, but it is firmly planted in the human heart. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The House With A Clock In Its Walls (12A)

A visually overstuffed fantastical romp (written in 1973, the source novel predates Potter, but the influences are clear in the film) Jack Black plays Jonathan Barnavelt who, when his sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, sends for  his orphaned, pilot goggles-wearing nerdy 10-year-old nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) to share his eccentric mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan.

Already troubled by things (moving pictures, etc) he catches from the corner of his eye, when Lewis discovers Uncle Jonathan prowling the house and attacking the walls with an axe, having heard rumours of a murder having happened there, he packs his bags and seeks to flee. Which is when Jonathan reveals that he is a warlock and his lilac-clad interconnecting neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), with whom he keeps up a banter of affectionate mutual insults, is a sorceress.

Now Lewis wants to learn magic too, which gives rise to some amusing but redundant moments before  director Eli Roth, dialling down from his usual horror fare, remembers the plot, which entails, as per the title, a clock hidden in the walls by the deceased Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan), his uncle’s former showbiz partner and even more powerful wizard who went away to war and came back on the dark side.

Suffice to say, young Lewis is tricked into ignoring the one house rule and ends up raising Izzard from the dead, thereby putting into motion the plan hatched by himself and his wicked supposedly murdered wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) to turn back time and eventually eradicate mankind. Yes, the clock is literally ticking and now it’s up to Lewis, Jonathan and Florence (whose spells have been on the frizz since a past tragedy) to save the world.

There are some individually strong moments, such as the trio battling killer pumpkins (though even that’s worked past its shelf life), but otherwise the script is thin and repetitive with too many stretches that drag on with nothing much happening.

Vaccaro, who probably peaked in the two Daddy’s Home clunkers, is cute but miscast and the subplot involving him and the school bullies only seems to exist to set up the school gym scene in the trailer, Black is thankfully in mostly restrained silliness mode while, winking at the camp, Blanchett sports the distant expression of someone who knows there’s a paycheck at the end of the day. The house makes a persuasive bid for a set design Oscar, even if some of the CGI (the pet living armchair and a topiary Gryphon that supplies the film’s toilet humour – shitting twigs) is on the dodgy side, while  toys that come to threatening life should scare younger kids into dropping their popcorn. But, as its all winds down,  for a film about magic, enchantment is sorely lacking.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)

When a  hacker blows the cover of all of MI7’s agents, the only way to track them down is to recall one the retirees. Among them is Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), currently working as a geography teacher with a sideline in training his pupils in espionage techniques. After accidentally eliminating the other candidates (cameos by Michael Gambon, Edward Fox and Charles Dance), MI7 boss Pegasus (Adam James) and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) have no choice but to assign the obliviously bumbling English to the job, who, along with his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) insists, in addition to a gun and other retro spy kit gadgets that are now out of fashion, on going totally analog so they can’t be tracked. This also includes him driving a weaponised snazzy red Aston Martin

Quickly, but not before burning down a French restaurant, English identifies the source of the attack as coming from a luxury yacht, Dot Calm, which, with one of the funniest throwaway gags involving magnets, they infiltrate and cross paths with Russian spy Ophelia Bulletova (former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko).

Meanwhile, following yet more cyber attacks, the PM, looking for a way to bolster her image at the upcoming G12 summit,  is trying to recruit smarmy and slick billionaire tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who immediately fixes the latest attack and, recommending she divert all the country’s servers to his,  agrees to come on board. He also happens to own the Dawn Calm.

Reprising his 007 spoof character after a seven year gap, in keeping with a world where the likes of Spy and Kingsman have restyled such parodies, there’s a little less slapstick and a little more self-aware sophistication  this time round. Even so, the screenplay still finds plenty of room for Atkinson’s unique brand of physical comedy, including scenes involving letting him loose on the London streets in a virtual reality headset and displaying his caffeine-high dance moves.

The climax, set in a Scottish castle, in which English attempts to stop Volta while wearing suit of armour is a touch drawn out and the screenplay frequently obvious and telegraphed, but, ably supported by Miller’s ever reliable straight man, Kurylenko providing the glamour and Thompson on fine comic form as the flustered, and exasperated PM looking to put her own prestige and survival before the country (drawn your own satirical conclusions), Atkinson mixture of accidental heroics, smug self-delusion, elastic expressions and perfect timing ensures that this is far more family friendly fun than some reviews would have you believe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

King Of Thieves (15)

The third film to relate the events of the 2015 Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary, director James Marsh takes his cue from classic British heist movies, even including clip from The Italian Job for a flashback to the younger version of Brian Reader (Michael Caine knowingly playing to type).

Reader was the recently widowed 77-year-old thief who masterminded the obligatory one last big score robbery eventually carried out by his  crew of dodgy pensioner old lags, the intimidatingly volatile Terry Perkin  (Jim Broadbent), the partially deaf  lookout John Kenny Collins (Tom Courtenay), ineffectual Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) and bruiser geezer Danny Jones (Ray Winstone), later to be joined by the not entirely with it incontinent Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon). Plus, the younger, tech-savvy comrade calling himself Basil (Charlie Cox) who, having entry into the building, took the idea to Reader and who has never been identified.

Adopting a very late 60s style, the film’s divided into two halves, the first the setting up of the heist and the second, Reader having pulled out over a dispute, the when thieves fall out section as the spoils are divvied up and those who feel they’ve been cheated out of their dues seek to get their proper share. Meanwhile, the cops are on the case following the CCTV trail.

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Vue Star City)

 

The Little Stranger (12A)

Based on the Sarah Walters novel and set in late 40s Warwickshire, director Lenny Abrahamson’s period Gothic horror follow-up to Room teases a ghost story but is actually about possession of a different nature.

It’s grandeur fading, Hundreds Hall is a stately pile belonging to the Ayres famil, matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), her former RAF pilot son Roderick (Will Pouter), badly burned and scarred, physically and mentally,  in the war, and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who’s returned home to care or her brother.  Called to treat the maid, Betty (Liv Hill), Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleason), recently back from London to become a partner at the local surgery,  offers to apply a new procedure he’s developed to ease the pain in Roderick’s leg. It also transpires that he became enthralled with the place when he visited with his mother herself a former maid there, for a garden party back in 1919 where he took part in a group photo, only to be obscured by Suki, the young Ayres daughter who died of diphtheria shortly after. As revealed later, he also took a memento.

As he continues to treat Roderick, Faraday grows closer to Caroline. All the more so when, following an incident her brother is removed to a psychiatric hospital. He, like Betty, is of the belief that there’s something malevolent in the house but it’s not until late in the film, as a little girl is injured, servants’ bells start to ring of their own accord and markings are found in the nursery, that  that the film raises  suggestions of a poltergeist nature, possibly to do with the dead girl. Faraday meanwhile seeks to try and further cement his relationship with Caroline while yet another tragedy befalls the family.

Affecting the clipped speech of those vintage classic stiff-upper lip drawing room British melodramas, a poker-faced Gleeson is terrific, hinting at perhaps ambiguous motives in insinuating himself into the family while Wilson soars as the emotionally wounded Caroline, crushed by disappointment and suffocating under the burden of the house, her family and the past.

Dropping in references to the advent of the NHS and the lands sales under the new Labour government and the parallel decline of the old ruling class, it subtly addressing matters of social class, envy and aspirations with village-stock Faraday serving as the not necessarily reliable narrator with his buttoned-up demeanour, but occasional private displays of intense rage. Complemented by an eerie score and the muted brown tones, much unfolding at night or in shadows, never resorting to the cheap scares of something like The Conjuring, the gathering dread and notion of a psychological-manifestation haunting build to the final shot revelation that will either leave you chilled or baffled. (Mockingbird)

Night School (12A)

The funniest thing here is in the opening sequences when audiences are expected to buy Kevin Hart as a teenage high school student, although, once you get past the unnecessary fart and vomit gags, and, of course, Hart’s tendency to mistake shouting and using a high-pitched voice as acting, there are  a few other amusing moments. The film also raises a salute to inspirational teachers, though probably taking students into a boxing ring to smack them in the face or pin them with wrestling moves to get them to focus might not get the Oftsed approval.

Hart is Teddy Walker, a high school dropout working as a BBQ grills salesman and living beyond his means to impress high class design executive girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Things look to be on the up when he’s promised he’ll take over the business, but no sooner has he proposed to Lisa than the whole thing goes up in flames  and, deep in debt, he’s forced to look for another job. His friend and former classmate Marvin (Ben Schwarz) would hire him as a financial analyst, but first he needs to get his high school diploma, having walked out of the test 17 years earlier.

While telling Lisa that he’s got the job, he returns to his old school to sign up for night school only to discover his former geeky nemesis, Stewart (Taran Killam), is now the principal, an uptight power freak with a  habit of using black talk, and still harbours a grudge for an old humiliation. However, overworked teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), with whom Teddy’s had an earlier run in at the traffic lights, agrees he can join her class, a bunch of other underachievers all working for their GED comprising  robot conspiracy nut Jaylen (Romany Malco), dorky Mac (Rob Riggle), Mila (a teenager trying to avoid juvenile detention) Mexican immigrant and aspiring singer Luis (Al Madrigal), a former waiter who got fired in Teddy’s attempt to avoid paying the bill, Bobby (Fat Joe), taking lessons from prison via Skype, and Theresa (comic highlight Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24) as a put-upon, sexually frustrated mother of three.

What little plot there is entails the class bonding, breaking into Stewart’s office to steal an upcoming test, and Teddy getting expelled, reinstated and dumped by Lisa as well as working behind the counter of, in an inspired touch, a Christian Chicken takeaway serving God’s own poultry. Unfortunately, such imagination highs are few and far between in a screenplay that plods a wholly predictable route (though it does avoid any student-teacher romance) en route to Teddy discovering why’s he academically-challenged and fulfilling his potential.

It’s a given that Hart is very much a  Marmite presence,  but Haddish rises above the script’s bitch slap clichés to make Carrie a straightshooter and dedicated teacher while the film is at its best when the class works together in rhythm. Even so, despite the pro-education message and the occasional touching moment, as directed by Girl Trip’s Malcom D Lee, with at least three endings,  it all feels like an extended series of sketches looking for a sitcom. A pass grade at best. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nun (15)

Continuing to milk The Conjuring franchise, this is positioned as a prequel to The Conjuring 2, bookended with cameos from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and kicking off with the latter’s painting of a scary-looking nun and the figure appearing in the hallway. Cut then to 50s Romania  and a remote castle abbey from where, following some spooky stuff down in the catacombs, a young nun hangs herself.  Her body discovered by young French-Canadian  Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) while delivering vegetables, the Vatican duly send specialist priest Father Anthony Burke (Demián Bichir)  and  young novitiate Irene (Taissa Farmiga, though nothing’s ever made of the connection) given to psychic visions to investigate.

Naturally, before long they’re up to their rosaries in dark passages, graveyards, walking dead and a plethora of black habit-clad nuns who may or may not be real.

It’s all down to the good old standby of some demon from hell, this one’s called Valak,  having broken through to the other world and seemingly roaming the castle in the guise of the aforementioned  malevolent nun who’ll haunt Lorraine Warren a couple of decades later, meaning our intrepid trio have to cast him back and seal the portal, for which they’ll need some drops of Christ’s blood which, wouldn’t you know, happen to be concealed somewhere within the walls.

Director Corin Hardy barely goes a couple of scenes without having some shadowy figure in a  habit scurry across the screen or loom behind one of the characters, occasionally switching tack for a boo moment by having a nun loom over someone with their face contorted into blood dripping fangs. Oh, and snakes. Presumably, this is designed to stop the audience noting that there’s no actual coherent plot (a flashback to a failed exorcism by Burke and undeveloped appearances by the boy he failed seem to come from screenplay pages they forgot to shred) and at times the film threatens to collapse into a campy Hammer spoof rather than sphincter-tightening scares that, as in the Conjuring itself, might have a passable grounding in reality. The result is an entertaining enough Tales from the Crypt knockoff. Never boring but still palpable stuff and nunsense. (Vue Star City)           

Smallfoot (U)

Form and content are at distinct odds in this latest musical animation, an amusing family friendly perspective reversal concept tale about Yetis and humans for the post-Trump, fake news generation.

Living high up in the Himalayan mountains, beyond the cloud cover, Yetis live a contented life governed by the rules handed down over the years in the form of the ‘stones’. They believe that they originated from the backside of the great yak in the sky, that their mountain is held up by giant woolly mammoths who have to be kept cool by machines that generate water from ice, that the sun is a giant snail that has to be woken every morning to travel across the sky and that there is no such creature as a smallfoot, it’s just something to scare the kids.

But then, one day, Migo (Channing Tautum), eager to take over from his dad (Danny DeVito) as the one responsible for waking the snail every day (by firing themselves at a giant gong and striking it with their protective helmet, witnesses a plane crashing into the show and – even more – his first sight of a human: a smallfoot.

However, when the wreckage is swept away, he has no proof and is firmly reminded by the tribe’s elder, the Stonekeeper (Common), that the sacred stones say that the smallfoot doesn’t exist, and claiming they do is tantamount to saying  that their whole belief system is a lie. When Migo refuses to recant, he’s banished from the village.

There are, however those who believe him; fluffy purple Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Meechee (Zendaya), who’s actually the Stonkeeper’s daughter and Migo’s secret crush, comprise the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society and  they come up

with a plan to lower Migo below the clouds to find the evidence he needs.

Which is where he crosses paths with Percy Patterson (James Cordon), a nature show presenter who, in an attempt to boost his flagging viewing figures, wants his assistant to dress up as a Yeti so he can fake the discovery.  To cut to the chase, Migo ends up taking him back to the village where he proves something of a hit, even though neither understands the others language (Yetis hear high pitched squeals, humans hear fierce growls), all of which threatens forces the Stonekeeper to reveal some historical truths to Migo in order to get him to tell everyone he’d made a mistake.  Further to which, Meechee having herself gone down the mountain to take the ailing Percy home, she and Migo get a personal taste of the Stonekeeper’s account of how humans treat so called ‘monsters’.

Save for Common’s Let It Lie rap about Yeti history (good) and Cordon’s karaoke version of Under Pressure (hideous), the songs are  basically Frozen-lite, but, despite  the repetitive narrative (and inconsistent character scales), the cartoonish physical  comedy and colourful characters will keep the kids amused while the grown ups ponder such heavy messages about questioning religion, authority and society’s rules and whether a lie is sometimes better than the truth that are a long subversive way from the familiar be yourself, love everyone Disney life lessons of your usual kid’s movie.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe and looks set to lower the odds on star Tom Hardy stepping into Daniel Craig’s 007 shoes.

He plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduced a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, but whether he ever gets to wreak it will depend on whether, after what will doubtless by a blockbuster opening, Venom proves word-of-mouth poison. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Wife (15)

Again underlining her status as one of the greatest actresses of her generation, until she finally explodes at the film’s ending, Glenn Close gives a master class in understatement and restrained tension as Joan Castleman, the sixty-something wife of older celebrated author, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), her former struggling university professor (Harry Lloyd) who divorced his wife to marry her, his star student (Annie Starke). As the film opens, persuading her to have sex to calm him down, he’s nervously awaiting news from Sweden, the pair subsequently bouncing up and down on the bed to celebrate his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Their daughter due to give birth at any moment, they take their son, David (Max Irons) himself an aspiring writer and resentful of his father’s seeming lack of support or interest, with them to receive the award as, between being fussed over by Swedish officials and flashbacks to university days and their ensuing affair,  the film slowly unfolds the relationship between Joan and her husband. Flirting with the young official photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned to shadow him in Sweden, we learn Joe’s had several affairs, to which Joan, who enjoys the comforts of being married to such a prestigious writer,  has turned a stoical blind eye. But there’s more to it. The flashbacks reveal that, back in the day, she herself had literary aspirations, her university essay ‘The Faculty Wife’, based on Joe’s marriage, held in high esteem. However, at a literary function, a minor female author (Elizabeth McGovern) cautions her to give up all hopes of being taken seriously or read, publishing being a highly chauvinistic domain. And so, it would seem, that Joan abandoned the idea and settled into becoming the dutiful, long-suffering wife, coaching him on his responsibilities and manners. At cocktail parties, Joe always acknowledges her as his inspiration and muse, but  adds that, no, she doesn’t write. And Joan smiles and carries on. However, Joe’s would be warts and all biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who’s contrived to also be in Sweden for the awards, has his own theories and is determined to wheedle out the truth, even if Joan refuses to spill the beans.

Anyone who knows the story of French authoress Collete (itself a soon to be released film) will have sussed out the marriage’s creative dynamic well before the subsequent revelations, summed up in a line about how “there’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.” As such, the logic feels flawed as to why such a clearly strong-willed  and talented woman would meekly accept the  situation, not even wishing to bask in reflected glory, or why she finally says enough is enough following the awards-ceremony in which he showers her with praise, saying he could not be the writer he is without her. Indeed, as the flashbacks show, it was she who, working at a publishers, got them to  look at his work and facilitated his masterpiece, The Walnut.

Adapting Meg Wolitzer’s 1992-set novel, director Bjorn Runge has a keen eye for the trappings, amusingly drawing out the red tape and absurd protocol of such events, the couple even being awakened to a candle-lit serenade. But, he lacks imagination, the flashbacks have none of the main narrative’s brittle edge and he also overdoes the resonances and narrative design, with David’s work in progress mirroring his mother’s essay in depicting a marriage in crisis while Joe’s chat up line involving James Joyce quote about falling snow is made literal in the final moments.

Pryce does a decent job in shaping Joe as not a bad man but one who’s weak and narcissistic, while Slater is excellent as the slippery journo, the café chat between him and an inscrutable Joan a particular highlight, but this is unquestionably Close’s film, rising above the flaws in the material to command the screen and keep you engaged even as you’re questioning the plausibility. (MAC)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton 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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