American Animals (15)
In 2004, in Lexington, Kentucky, four well-to-do late teens childhood friends embarked on one of the most audacious heists in American history, to steal a near priceless edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and other ultra-rare books from Transylvania University’s library’s Special Collections. Despite meticulous planning, they were total amateurs who ended up bungling the job and serving time.
Six years on from his acclaimed documentary The Imposter, British director Bart Layton has crafted one of the year’s most thrilling films, one that, proclaiming it IS a true story as opposed to just based on one, intercuts between the dramatic narrative and to camera commentary by the real four would be thieves, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, often contradicting the fictionalised version of events.
Given a freshman tour of the collection by elderly female librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), the only security, struggling art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is persuaded by his bored sports scholarship pothead best buddy Warren (Evan Peters) that knocking it over would be a life-altering experience. As such, Warren travels to Amsterdam to meet up with a pair of black market dealers, returning to say they could be on to a fortune. They will, however, need an extra pair of hands. To which end they recruit maths genius Erik (Jared Abrahamson) to handle the logistics and jock Chas (Blake Jenner) who’ll serve as the getaway driver.
Lining up a fence in New York (Udo Kier) and using DVDs of heist movies like The Italian Job as references, they case the library to decide on the best time to strike (during the day during finals), how to incapacitate the librarian and make their escape and how to avoid detection (they disguise themselves as old men), make a viewing appointment and prepare for the robbery.
Suffice to say, totally out of their depth, the first attempt gets called off and, having failed to address variety of possibilities, the second is a total botch. But, even though the opening fake interviews with parents and a lecturer already sets you up for their failure, Layton stages the planning and execution with a skilled combination of nail-biting tension and humour (a Warren pointlessly assigns everyone a colour coded name a la Reservoir Dogs, just one of the film’s several Tarantino nods) on a par with the great heist classics as well as exploring each of the four’s personalities and foibles as well as the dynamic between them.
The scenes with the real crew also has the film exploring the unreliability of memory, especially in one Warren flashback, and personal perspectives, while also dismantling the whole American Dream myth of the cool criminal outlaw hero. Sheer brilliance. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Everyman)
Cold War (15)
As with his previous film Ida, writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski again returns to his native Poland for this retro-styled account of a passionate doomed love set to a backdrop of the cold war and filmed in ravishing black and white. It opens in 1949 as pianist-composer Wiktor (a moody Tomasz Kot) and his sometime lover radio producer Irena (Agata Kulesza) are travelling the country capturing field recordings of peasants singing and playing music with the aim of recruiting a youthful stage company to stage performances of Poland’s traditional folk song and dance.
In the course of this, he’s attracted to blonde teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig, mesmerising), making her part of the proposed Mazurek Ensemble, even though she’s a city rather than a village girl, and also happens to be on probation for knifing her abusive father. On top of which, she’s also not the sort of person of whom their racist manager (and soon to be powerful party official) Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) approves, but after whom he also secretly lusts.
Inevitably, it’s not long before the authorities co-opt the company and the music into spreading the message of Communism and the cult of Stalin nor, equally inevitably, before Wiktor and Zula are lovers and he’s made her a star.
However, a trip to East Berlin brings things to a crisis when they conspire to defect, one of them ultimately losing their nerve. The narrative about the couple’s own metaphorical cold war then unfolds to take in the nightclubs of 50s Paris, jazz (Gershwin), the birth of rock n roll (Haley) and the way lovers’ lives continue to be entangled through music and connections with both a French poet (Jeanne Balibar), who translates Zula’s signature song, and a film director (Cédric Kahn).
Weaving political commentary about the Soviet bloc’s fear of western influences, individualism and ‘decadence’ through the alternately fierily passionate and destructive can’t live with you, can’t live without you love story between two fundamentally mismatched people makes for a complex work that is both intellectually and emotionally rich, while, choreographed by Pawlikowski, the ensemble musical performances are sensational. Ending on a bittersweet dark note of romantic tragedy, it may not strike a mainstream chord, but it’s assuredly one of the year’s art house triumphs. (Electric)
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (15)
Chloe Grace Moretz stakes a claim for Best Actress nominee with this adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel about a teenage lesbian forced to attend a Christian conversion camp. Directed by Desiree Akhavan and co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele, set in the 1990s, it follows orphaned high-school track athlete Cameron (Moretz) who, caught in flagrante with her best friend and fellow Bible study group member (Quinn Shephard) after the homecoming dance (and who subsequently rats her out), is swiftly parcelled off by her aunt and legal guardian (Ruth (Kerry Butler) to God’s Promise, an Evangelical boarding school that specialises in ‘curing’ SSA – same sex attraction . Indeed, happy clappy, guitar playing Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who runs the place with his firmly fundamentalist and ruthlessly ‘caring’ psychologist/therapist sister Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), was himself saved from his attraction to other men. Not homosexuality, of course, as, Lydia insists such a thing doesn’t exist, it’s all down to trauma or poor parenting, to which end ‘disciples’ are required to annotate their own personal iceberg as they identify whatever may have led them into SSA evil.
With Cameron caught between wondering whether to capitulate and get with the programme like her roommate (Emily Skeggs) or defy the system and its brainwashing attempt to instil a rigid and narrow Christian conformity, this essentially follows a classic high school misfit formula. As such, it’s not long before Cameron hooks up with a couple of other rebels in the form of commune-raised amputee lesbian Jane Fonda (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), who grows her own weed (she smuggles it inside her prosthetic leg) and Native American gay Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who believes in his tribe’s concept of having two spirits, who both fake compliance with the centre’s abusive pedagogy. Inevitably, things will come to a head (a gruesome incident involving the breakdown of one of the supposed ‘success’ stories) and plans to escape will be made.
Anchored around Moretz’s nuanced and sensitive lead, the performances throughout are first rate, Ehle chilling in her oppressive abuse, Gallagher capturing the essence of someone trying to persuade himself of his own convictions and, as the boy rejected by his politically ambitious father for being too effeminate, Owen Campbell shakes you with his therapy group meltdown. Pivoting on Cameron’s question “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” it may be a tad simplistic for older audiences, but for teenagers questioning their sexual identity and scared of being true to themselves, resulting in self-loathing and emotional scars, this is pretty much the LBGT answer to The Breakfast Club. (Cineworld NEC; Electric)
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 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Final Score (15)
Another Sky Cinema thriller without any advance screenings, this ups the hostage thriller stakes to encompass a football stadium crowd (set in West Ham’s old Upton Park ground), as Michael (Dave Bautista), a military veteran in London to visit a fallen comrade’s family, finds himself taking the daughter to the ground’s final match as West Ham meet Russian team Dynamo. However, a group of highly-trained terrorists led by Arkady (Ray Stevenson) have taken control of the stadium in their attempt to locate their target (Pierce Brosnan),leading to Michael having to go all Liam Neeson on their ass. Enjoyably ludicrous with a motorbike chase through the stadium concourse scored to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes and Amit Shah as a comic relief out of his depth steward, it’s a decent score draw. (Reel; Showcase Walsall)
Mildred Pierce (PG)
Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film noir stars Joan Crawford as the titular Mildred, who, obsessively devoted to her bratty social climber daughter, Veda, divorces and marries a wealthy man she doesn’t love. But, when’s he’s murdered and her first husband confesses to the crime, is everything quite as cut and dried as it seems? (Sun-Tue: MAC)
Directed by Little Miss Sunshine producer Marc Turtletaub, the world of competitive jigsaw puzzling is the unlikely setting for this Kelly Macdonald headliner about self-fulfilment as a timid working-class New Jersey housewife and mother becomes the puzzle partner of the more outgoing, rich and recently separated, Irfan Khan, a tentative romance blossoming as they take part in jigsaw competitions. (Cineworld NEC)
For his first solo flight without brother Allen, director Albert Hughes serves up a tried and tested tale of a boy and his canine companion. Except, set in Europe, 20,000 years ago and entirely subtitled, it’s not a dog, it’s a wolf. Taken on his first annual bison hunt to mark his coming of age, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), son of the tribe’s chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanneson), is thrown of a huge cliff, landing on a length part way down. With no way to rescue him, a grief-stricken dad’s persuaded to admit he’s gone to his ancestors and return home with their kill. Except, the lad’s not dead and manages to get himself down the valley, thousands of feet below, only to be attacked by a bunch of wolves. He wounds one, but, as evidenced earlier, he’s too tender hearted to finish it off (cue dad’s prophetic words of wisdom that “Life is for the strong. It is earned, not given”). Instead, he hauls it up to cave and tends to its wound. And, as the animal gradually comes to trust him, so a bond is formed and when Keda sets off on the long trek to get back home, the wolf, which he’s named Alpha after something his gather told him, duly trotting behind.
As narratives go, it’s a pretty slight storyline., They walk a lot weather, Keda learns to make fire, kills them some meat and survive an attack, but as the harsh winter weather gets increasingly severe and they both start to weaken, the question is will either make it to their destination. Well, what do you think.
Positioned as an evolutionary story about how (with an unexpected cute twist at the end) dogs became man’s best friend, it’s a lot more gripping than the plot basics would suggest, the opening sequence of the bison being herded over the edge of the cliff is brilliantly crafted (and breathtaking in IMAX). It then flashbacks a few weeks to Keta’s initiation and the hunters’ trek, so you get to learn something about him (“He leads with his heart, not his spear,” says mom) and the huge distance he has to cover to return home with the sort of sweeping and formidably wild landscapes last seen in Lord of the Rings.
Smit-McPhee proves a mesmerising presence, on screen alone pretty much throughout save for four-legged co-star Chuck, the pair having the chemistry of all the classics of the genre, Hughes bringing an old-fashioned wilderness adventure feel, soft-pedalling any suggestions of Disneyesque sentimentality, but still managing to work in the first game of ‘fetch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)
After all the darkness and angst that pervaded Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, positively zipping along, this breezy sequel comes as welcome light relief, peppered throughout by zingy, laugh out loud one-liners and gleeful humour, of which director Peyton Reed is a master, even if it does have a fair few dark moments of its own. Set immediately prior to the events of Infinity War, it explains the absence of ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) aka Ant-Man, from that shebang on account of him being under house arrest in San Francisco for two years after his involvement with Captain America in Civil War. Instead, in-between playing digital drums, he’s being a good divorced dad to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as his last few days of wearing the ankle tag come to a close. He’s not about to risk breaking curfew or doing anything that might land him with 20 years in jail. However, when he’s abducted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who, now operating as the winged Wasp, arranges for an ant to wear his tracker instead, it seems he might not have any choice.
The film opens with a flashback detailing how the original Ant-Man, downsizing scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the Wasp, his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), are called on for a mission which ends up with Janet trapped forever within the sub-atomic Quantum Real. Flash forward 30 years as Lang has a dream of returning to the realm (from which he escaped in the first film) that, in transpires, was actually Janet literally getting into his head, thereby setting up the possibility of Hank and Hope, themselves on the run from the FBI, launching a rescue mission. Hence their need for Scott.
They just need an extra component to build the machine that will open the tunnel to the Quantum Realm. The problem being that black market technology traffiker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has what they need, wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab (which he can conveniently shrink and carry around the like a portable suitcase) and so too does Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who, the victim of a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. lab accident, has the ability to phase through solid objects. Unfortunately, it’s killing her and the only way to survive is to make contact with Janet and syphon off her quantum lifeforce.
All of which, throwing Scott’s security firm partner Luis (Michael Peña, who steals the film with his truth serum scene), FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who was the original Goliath (cue size-comparing gag), into the mix, rollocks along with a constant stream of wonderfully silly size-changing action scenes (including one where the Wasp surfs a carving knife blade and knocks out a thug with an oversized salt cellar), smart-aleck quips (“Do you really just put the word quantum ahead of everything?”) and a sweetly hilarious moment when Rudd channels Pfeiffer.
This is Marvel in full on popcorn mode and you really do want to giant size bucket load of it, and, naturally, there’s the end-credit extras, a throwaway joke which isn’t really worth waiting for, and one which finally links things back to the Thanos plot. It puts the ant into fantastic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Spike Lee’s biggest hit in 12 years, this is based on the unlikely true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs detective, the first African-American police officer in the department, who in the late 1970s, acting undercover, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, albeit, being Black, only over the phone, with a fellow white officer, here Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the fictionalised conflicted Jewish version of his never identified partner, as his in-person stand-in. Based on Stallworth’s memoirs, it’s unclear just how much of what’s on screen actually happened and how much is Lee playing to the crowd, but what is true is that, an enthusiastic rookie, his first undercover assignment was to visit a nightclub where gor Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael was speaking, that he responded to a Ku Klux Klan recruiting ad in a local newspaper posing as a white racist, became part of the local chapter and not only had phone conversations with Klan head David Duke (Topher Grace) but also got him to personally process his membership.
The surrounding characters, among them Black Student Union leader activist and Angela Davis-like romantic interest Patrice (Laura Harrier) and Zimmerman’s fellow narcotics agent Jimmy Creek (Steve Buscemi’s brother Michael), are pretty much all fictional as is, one would suspect, the hilarious set-up of Stalworth being put in charge of Duke’s security when he arrives in Colorado Springs for a Klan meeting and to initiate ‘Ron’ into the Organisation.
Opening with Gone With The Wind footage as a backdrop to Alex Baldwin’s white power extremist rehearsing a hate speech and featuring clips from Birth of A Nation, it stars John David Washington, son of Denzel, who, sporting 70s Afro, plays Stallworth to comic timing perfection, his phone interactions with assorted Klan members priceless moments, as is a selfie opportunity with Duke, while never undermining the drama. Indeed, the whole film consistently hits the mark when it comes to laughs. Unfortunately, never understated in putting over his message, Lee makes frequent overly self-conscious references to 70s Blaxploitation films like Superfly and Shaft and, given the film’s nature as abroad satirical comedy, also oversimplifies things, the Klan all shown as dumb rednecks, making them seen less insidiously dangerous than they are.
However, rather than letting audiences join the dots between the racial tensions of the 70s and the Black Lives Matter movement of Trump America (at one point Duke actually talks about making America great again) and the reports of white cops shooting black ‘suspects’, he frequently has to preach from the soapbox.
On the other hand, paralleled scenes of an aged activist (Harry Belafonte) recounting the brutal murder of retarded black youth Jesse Washington in 1916 Waco, who, accused of raping a white woman, was lynched, castrated, mutilated and burned alive is a blood chilling powerful moment, and footage of the 2017 Charlottesville white-supremacist rally protests when a car ploughed into activists killing Heather Heyer, a white woman, powerfully bring home how racism has become everyone’s battle. Maybe that’s why, save for one token racist cop who gets his crowd pleasing comeuppance, he’s shown as pretty much the exception and all the senior officers are enlightened and unprejudiced.
Even so, for all its flaws and sometimes heavy-handedness, while this may lean more to the box office friendly nature of Inside Man than the polemics of Do The Right Thing, it reminds that Lee still has a potent voice and remains unafraid of using it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)
The Children Act (12A)
The second film in a month to pivot around the refusal of Jehovah Witnesses to sanction blood transfusions on the grounds that blood is life and god’s spirit, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel and directed by Richard Eyre, this may have all the hallmarks of British prestige cinema, but, lumbered with vast chunks of explanatory dialogue and skating over the whole complex issue of faith versus parental love, it falls well short of Apostasy. That said, fuelled by a performance from Emma Thompson that makes her the one to beat in next year’s Best Actress awards, it delivers a powerful emotional punch from a different direction. Thomson plays Justice Fiona Maye, a family court judge who hands down judgments in cases involving children and families, the film opening with her ruling on whether conjoined twins can be operated on, consigning one to death but saving the other.
Childless herself, she’s also confronted with her own domestic crisis when Jack, her American professor husband (Stanley Tucci), tired of coming second to her stream of cases, and with no bedroom action for almost a year, announces that, while he loves her, he wants an affair. This all comes at the same time as she called on to hand down a judgment regarding allowing a hospital to give a life-saving transfusion to 17-year-old Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), who, as a Jehovah’s Witness and supported by his devout parents (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh), insists on staying true to his faith and his right to choose to die.
Given he’s under-age, The Children Act of the title makes the ruling a foregone conclusion, but, before handing it down, in a highly irregular move, Fiona visits Adam in hospital to get his take on things and not only discovers an exceptional young man but also sings Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens while he plays the tune on guitar and the nurses smile on approvingly.
Naturally, she rules in favour of life not death, little knowing just how that her decision will come to impact on her own life and emotions as, cured, Adam become a sort of obsessive wide-eyed stalker, even following her to a judges’ get-together in Newcastle. Meanwhile, she’s looking into divorce proceedings.
Albeit prone to both sentimental and melodramatic touches, Eyre mostlu handles things with admirable restraint and a deep sense of empathy building to a Christmas gathering where Maye and a barrister friend (Anthony Calf) are giving a recital when she receives some shattering news, leading to an Oscar bait moment that will tear you apart. It’s not without its flaws and can at times feel a little too remote and self-conscious, but lifted by Thompson’s beautifully nuanced and passionate work, this is, nonetheless, quality adult drama about love and moral responsibility. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Showcase Walsall)
Christopher Robin (PG)
Just a thumbnail plot description about a grown up Christopher Robin (the latter now being his surname) being reunited with his animal chums from the Hundred-Acre Wood when he’s so stressed out at work he can’t spend the weekend with his family tells you you’re in for a message about prioritising your values and getting back in touch with our inner child. Nothing wrong with that, but getting there is a such a stultifyingly dull journey you might not be awake when it finally announces itself.
Following on the heels of last year’s far better Goodbye Christopher Robin biopic which explored the real Christopher’s troubled relationship his father and his stories, here director Marc Forster conflates storybook and real life, so that rather just being than characters in AA Milne’s tales based on his son’s toys, they become sentient creatures existing in and interacting with the real world. Opening with the final scene of The House at Pooh Corner, as the young Christopher has to leave Pooh and the others (and childhood) behind when he’s packed off to boarding school, despite assuring Pooh he’ll never forget him the adult Christopher no longer has time for such childish things, indeed, asked to read his daughter bedtime story, he picks up a history book.
Set in the late 40s, he’s now tellingly, heads the efficiency department of an upmarket luggage company that’s feeling the post-WWII pinch and has been told by his smarmily smug boss (Mark Gattiss) to draw up a cost-savings plan that will mean employees having to walk the plank (a Captain Hook allusion, but also the story’s human Woozle). As such, he can’t go off for the weekend to his old Sussex cottage with wife Evelyn (a largely wasted Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).
Meanwhile, back in the Wood, Pooh (voiced by bear of little brain veteran Jim Cummings) has emerged from his tree home to discover Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Tigger (Cummings), Eeyore (a scene-stealingly gloomy Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Roo (Sara Sheen) are all missing and so crawls through a magic tree portal to London to enlist Christopher Robin’s help.
All of which leads, in a repetitive and cumbersome plot involving three writers and two ‘story by’ credits, with CR taking him back to the Wood, losing Pooh, finding Eeyore, pretending to fight off a Heffalump and reuniting everyone before heading back to the crucial meeting. However, as Tigger’s replaced the important papers in the briefcase with twigs, this means Madeline, who quickly adjusts to the fact that the animals in her dad’s drawing are real talking toys, has to head to London with Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger, her mother in pursuit.
The film does a good job in evoking a period nostalgia and, along with Milne-like misunderstood words (efficiency becomes fish in the sea), the script both borrows Pooh’s philosophies and throws in its own life coach sayings of its own (“doing nothing often leads to the very best of something (as well as the Tigger song and theme tune from the Disney animations) while the toys are superbly rendered with button eyes and worn fur revealing the fabric, though, despite digitally conveying a wide range of emotions, they never persuade you to accept them as ‘real’ in the same way as Paddington. There’s some individually lovely moments, especially those involving red balloon (borrowed, of course from the French classic) but, overall, it’s a heavy handed affair that even ends with a socialist call for paid holidays. “Looks like a disaster,” says Eeyore at one point. He’s not wrong. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Equalizer 2 (15)
Denzel Washington’s first sequel in 37 years on the big screen teams him with director Antoine Fuqua for a fourth time, but the performance is better than the film. Returning as former special ops assassin turned vigilante Robert McCall, he spends his time as a taxi driver for Lyft (an American alternative to Uber) and, when not ferrying passengers around Boston or reading literary classics (his latest is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, from which we’re supposed to infer some heavy introspection on his life, especially the loss of his wife), takes it upon himself to mete out bone crunching – but always stony-faced and collected -justice when he encounters abuse, setting his stopwatch to 30 seconds before the fists start flying.
And not just Boston. The film’s prologue has him disguised as an Islamic cleric on a train to Istanbul to rescue the daughter of his local bookstore owner who has been kidnapped by her estranged husband. Meanwhile, back home, before we get anywhere near the main narrative, he delivers payback on behalf of a young female intern drugged and raped by her yuppie colleagues (but not before politely offering the chance to turn themselves in), tries to help an elderly Holocaust survivor (Orson Beane) recover a painting of his sister, the pair separated and sent to different camps, and takes up the offer of a young art student, Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders) to repaint the walls of his building’s vandalised courtyard and later steers him away from getting involved with a gang in seeking revenge for his brother’s murder.
Seemingly having no connection, a scene shifts the film to Brussels where the never explained assassination of an agent and his wife is made to look like murder-suicide. This, however, involves long-time CIA friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) and her fellow agent Dave York (Pedro Pascal), a former member of McCall’s team before things went south in an operation in which he believed McCall to have been killed.
When Susan is then herself murdered, supposedly by a couple of hotel burglar chancers, McCall comes to the conclusion that someone’s tidying up loose ends and, finally, the core plot starts to build up steam, as it appears he’s down for elimination (cue a gripping struggle with a hitman in the back of his cab as they race through the streets), with Whittaker being abducted as leverage.
Audiences looking for vicarious thrills through Washington acting out their revenge fantasies won’t be disappointed, although there’s a decided note of sadistic pleasure involved in the execution. The plot unfolds painstakingly slowly and awkwardly as the pieces are put together into a conspiracy theory, though audiences will likely have tagged the villain of the piece long before Fuqua gets round to revealing it, forever being interrupted by the various subplots. It’s a formulaic affair, although the climax, set amid a huge storm at McCall’s old home in an evacuated Martha’s Vineyard, works well and Washington delivers a typically measured performance and familiar gravitas, even if he’s given very little character dimension to play. However, the other characters have a perfunctory feel, Bill Pullman very much like a spare part as Susan’s author husband who, for reasons never clearly detailed, also falls into the loose ends category. Illogical, simplistic and incohesive, like The Purge and Death Wish, it’s violent wish-fulfilment exploitation masquerading as entertainment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Festival (15)
A film distinguished by the four Ps of British gross-out comedy, piss, poo, penises and puerile, this reunites Inbetweeners writer-director Iain Morris and star Joe Thomas in an intermittently amusing rite-of-passage account of its annoyingly self-centred sad-sack hero’s misadventures amid the mud of some rave festival.
Getting the misdirected ejaculation scene out of the way at the start (cue mom’s attempt to wipe off the offending stain), it shifts to Nick’s meltdown at his university graduation ceremony where he begs girlfriend Caitlin (Hannah Tointon) not to dump him. Sinking into scummy depression, he’s persuaded by best mate Shane (Hammed Animashaun) to go the festival for which they all bought tickets, after all what’s the chance of him bumping into his ex among the crowds!
Well, pretty high obviously, leading to all manner of cock ups (in every sense) as wet blanket Nick tries to win her back, becoming an accidental voyeur as she’s being banged by a one-legged festival official called the Pirate, but also gets off his head and has a shagathon with a blonde (Emma Rigby) dressed as a Smurf, who he then spends most of the latter part of the film trying to find again, winding up on the run from the cops after he and Shane are forced to do a Full Monty for a Smurfs hen party.
Liberally punctuated by shots of naked arses, people pissing on Nick, him getting covered in mud and shit and an unfunny recurring joke about some stoner thinking he’s Harry Potter, it’s a lot less funny than it sounds as it heads to the climax involving Shane getting to meet his masked DJ hero Hammerhead (Noel Fielding), with unfortunate results for the one and a life changing moment for the other.
Arguably, the funniest scene – partly because, save for the punch line, it’s played low key, is when Shane and Amy (a scene- stealing Claudia O’Doherty), the relentlessly perky festival die-hard motormouth they met up with on the train, stumble upon a bunch of posh druids conducting a wedding ceremony in the woods. Elsewhere, it’s hard to see how Theo Barklem-Biggs getting out of his head on ketamine, Jemaine Clement as Shane’s embarrassingly over-supportive would be stepdad and Hugh Coles as upper class twit Rex (who is glamping and hoping to shag dim-witted Lucy – cue running gag of never remembering Shane) were even remotely funny on paper.
It does a reasonable job of capturing the stinky porta loos, off your head, ankle deep in mud vibe of most modern music festivals, but if you don’t find the notion of someone having their nipple ring being torn off on a fence and the flesh eaten by a goat hilarious then you might not want to pitch your tent. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Happytime Murders (15)
Anyone who had the misfortune to see Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles debacle, should steer well clear of this latest box office turkey from Melissa McCarthy, a film noir pastiche that pairs human actors and puppets. Puppets that drink, swear, gamble, run porn shops and generally act depraved. During sex, one also ejaculates a seemingly endless stream of silly string.
Pretty much trashing his father’s legacy, director Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim, offers up a seedy L.A. underbelly where people and puppets live side by side, the latter treated as second class citizens (spot the social comment here, then). One such as Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who, in an obvious nod to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, is a hard-bitten fuzzy blue ex-cop now working as a private eye after being drummed out of the force (and putting an end to any future puppet cops) after allegedly deliberately missing when shooting at another puppet and killing an innocent bystander puppet walking with his daughter in the process.
His latest case is a sex-crazy femme fatale (Dorien Davies) who’s being blackmailed, but he’s sidetracked when a series of puppet killings would seem to suggests someone’s bumping off former members of 80s children’s TV show The Happytime Gang, all now working low rent job while waiting on a big repeat runs royalty cheque, the cast of which included Phil’s brother and, the show’s token human, his former flame, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). Phil’s co-opted to work on the case, the only problem being he’s paired with his former partner, Connie (McCarthy), who testified against him the hearing that got him fired and has become decidedly puppet-prejudiced, not least on account of an enforced anomaly in her internal organs.
All of which inevitably involves back forth bickering barbs and mismatched buddy cop clichés as they go about the murders, the fact that Phil’s always found at the scene naturally leading him in to be finger by the FBI as the prime suspect. Gratuitously crude and relentlessly unfunny with running jokes and one-liners falling lifeless at everyone’s feet, there’s a vague saving grace in Maya Rudolph as Phil’s devotedly loyal human secretary but that’s just clutching at stores. Over the end credits, giving away Muppetry secrets, Henson reveal how they did it. But not on earth why! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)
The third instalment in the animated series lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis, Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.
Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.
All of which plays out in a series of somewhat repetitive subplots and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.
It rattles along with a rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Incredibles 2 (PG)
It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.
But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised. To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it, “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask, Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.
So, while Helen’s off on her souped-up motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver, a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a stay at home dad which, aside from attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them (with the help of Bird as eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.
Although the villain plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train, chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws, parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.
With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year. In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Luis And The Aliens (U)
His distracted Ufologist dad obsessed with proving aliens exist (he says he was almost abducted by one as a kid), it’s no surprise his young son Luis (Callum Maloney) is the school outsider and barely registers on the rader of his crush, wannabe school report Jennifer. Even worse, Ms. Diekendaker (Lea Thompson), the Cruella de Vil of social workers (who measures children’s loneliness by sampling their tears) wants to put him into care. But then along come Mog, Nag and Wabo, trio of blobby ‘woopies’, alien tourists an intergalactic cruise ship, who, having caught a shopping channel, have come to down to Earth to buy a massage mat. They and Luis discover each other and become chums and, when the headmaster demands on seeing his dad, the trio use their ability to shape shift by absorbing DNA from a hair to variously pass themselves off as his father, the stuffy neighbours, their Latino maid and even the family dog as the film builds to as big showdown as they head for a mountain top beam-me-up spot with lonely Luis resolved to go with them and Diekendaker in hot pursuit.
A bland German-Danish-Luxembourg Euro pudding that recycles ideas from far better family animations (Toy Story and Home to name but two), the slapstick will keep youngsters happy and there’s a couple of amusing gags for the grown-ups, but, really, don’t your kids deserve something better than this! (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)
The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante, and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia), about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there, as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.
Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979, the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of Kalokairi and, in quick succession, encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires, already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.
All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.
The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Meg (12A)
Undoubtedly prompted by the likes of the recent spate of Japanese Megashark B movies, this is unashamed big fish popcorn nonsense. Five years on from a submarine rescue mission that saw him having to leave behind his two best friends or have everyone die, Jonas Turner (Jason Statham, who first made his name as a competitive swimmer) has quit the diving business in favour of drinking away his life in Thailand. But then along comes old buddy Mac (Cliff Curtis) and renowned marine scientist Zhang (Winston Chao) from Mana Oner, a research facility 200 miles off China, who want his help to rescue the crew of a trapped submersible that, having penetrated through ‘cloud’ cover into a whole new ocean world, have been attacked by what is quite possibly the same creature Turner encountered, claim of which saw him declared crazy by both facility medic Heller (Robert Taylor) and even his own now ex-wife (Jessica MacNamee), who just happens to be one of those trapped.
Managing to rescue two of them, it’s revealed that the creature is a 75ft Megaladon, the prehistoric great white killing machine long thought to be extinct. It also turns out that, in the rescue, they inadvertently, as the clunky dialogue puts it, opened up a superhighway for giant sharks which, first witnessed by precocious eight-year-old Meiying (Sophia Cai), granddaughter of Zhang whose own oceanographer daughter, Suyin (Li Bingbing), provides the burgeoning romantic interest (though there’s not even a quick kiss), when it comes to pay a call on the facility.
Along with the other ethnically and nationally diverse characters on the rig given names, tattooed marine biologist tech whizz Jaxx (Ruby Rose), smug billionaire financier Morris (Rain Wilson), engineer The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and DJ (Page Kennedy), whose only function seems to be comic relief, they set about planning to go all Robert Shaw on megaladon’s ass.
And if, a few narrow scrapes aside, that seems to be accomplished rather too easily, that’s because they apparently come in pairs, setting up a second desperate race against the clock to prevent the creature chomping its way through a seafull of happy holidaymakers at a nearby crowded resort. Not to mention a Pekinese with a pink bow.
Although unusually devoid of any expletives, director Jon Turteltaub ensures it does what it’s supposed to do (though it’s strangely skimpy on human snacking), Statham does what you expect him to do and the support cast romp cheerily through the crowd-pleasing action and cardboard dialogue which, naturally, finds room to flag up such poster eco messages as “we did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.” Brainless – and to some extent toothless – fun, it’s based on the first of several Meg novels by Steve Alten, so who knows what other oversized amphibians might be waiting to swim their way to a sequel up that underwater superhighway. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)
The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering. It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.
The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.
The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.
Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.
Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.
Globetrotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmir, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The second film in as many months in which the narrative unfolds entirely via a screen, be it computer, phone or television, this is far more inventive and a hell of a lot better than Unfriended. The opening sequence, presented as collection of photos on videos stored on a desktop folder offers a quick run-down of Korean-American family David Kim (John Cho), wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and daughter Margot (Michelle La), from the latter’s birth through to the death of her mother from lymphoma. Today, father and daughter share the same house, but only seem to communicate via text and FaceTime. One night, while asleep and she’s out studying he misses two calls from her. The next day, there’s no response from her phone. Discovering she wasn’t in school and left her study group early, he naturally begins to worry and contacts the police. A detective specialising in missing children cases, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) makes contact and starts to investigate, an increasingly anxious David also pursuing his own enquiries, discovering the process that Margot seemed to not have any friends at school, has been lying about attending the piano lesson’s he’s been paying for and had a life he knew nothing about.
Presenting him with his daughter’s fake ID, Vick suggests she may have run off, a possibility he refuses to accept. And then her car’s found in a lake, evidence within it seeming to confirm David’s worst fears. However, there’s unexpected new discoveries and twists still to unfold.
Cho is terrific in conveying David anger at and concern about his daughter as he gradually discovers how little he really knows about her, taking a hands-on approach when he feels the official investigation isn’t doing what it should, including attacking a kid he regards as a suspect and playing surveillance devices in someone’s house. Messing is equally effective as a cop who is also a single parent, while solid support’s also provided by Joseph Lee as David’s stoner brother Peter who may have been one of the last people to see Margot.
Effectively using visual language as much as dialogue, as he switches from FaceTime to YouTube, iPhones, Twitter and other platforms, first-time director Aneesh Chaganty and cowriter Sev Ohanian build a nailbitingly suspenseful crime thriller that carefully misdirects while offering subtle clues, at the same time making insightful and pertinent observations on parent-child relationships and communication in the digital age as well as the way real tragedy is somehow diluted and trivialised through online viral posts and hashtags. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Yet another of those urban myth if you call his name he’ll come horrors, the notion of the tall, thin, faceless bogey man actually prompted two teenage girls to attempt to murder a classmate. That’s scary, the film, on the other hand, is a generic direct to download stuff in which a bunch of underwritten high-schooler girls in a nameless town decide to go online and summon up the Slender Man because, well, hey, they reckon some of the boys are doing it too. A week later one of them, Katie (Annalise Basso), disappears and the others, Wren (Joey King), Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles) and Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), naturally reckon the Slender Man’s responsible and he’ll be coming for them too.
Lumbered with constant time outs for exposition and featuring some tired hallucination sequences and gotchas, it fancies itself as a cautionary tale about spooks that inhabit dream dimensions and online realities but isn’t even in the league as Candy Man let alone Ringu, It or Freddy Krueger. There’s no backstory and the Slender Man remains as anonymous as he is faceless, just some spindly phantom to give kids nightmares stitched together from far better films. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Spy Who Dumped Me (15)
There’s been a spate of films over the past few years that put women front and centre in action and action-comedies, notably Spy and Atomic Blonde. Although this borrows rather too obviously from the former with its final act twists and reveals, not to mention its coda, writer-director Susanna Fogel entertainingly marries the bloodshed and the belly laughs in another variation of the innocent bystander gets caught up in a conspiracy storyline.
In this she’s well served by sparky and very funny (often improvised) performances from her leads, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as BBFs insecure Chicago store clerk Audrey and motormouth extrovert Morgan (her surname’s a great punchline gag), the former been having been dumped by text by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) who, as flashbacks reveal, chatted her up in a local bar a year or so back.
Picked up by Sebastian (Sam Heughan) from MI6 and CIA agent Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), she’s informed (as the audience already knows from the explosive intercut opening sequence) that he’s CIA and has gone missing with something extremely valuable they need to get their hands on.
Next thing she knows, Drew turns up at her apartment and is shot dead, but not before telling her to take a small golden trophy to Vienna and meet with someone called Verne, and not to trust anyone. And so, Morgan having tipped an assassin off her balcony, the pair set off for Austria where, following a bloody café shoot out, the plot variously takes them from Paris to Prague to Berlin pursued by, among others Sebastian and Duffer, a pair of former Russian spies and their gymnast hitwoman (Ivanna Sakhno), all of whom want what’s hidden in the plastic trophy (and subsequently in somewhere rather more intimate).
It’s a little extended perhaps, not to mention preposterous, but, managing to shoehorn in a spectacular trapeze fight Cirque du Soleil sequence as well as a scene involving whistleblower Edward Snowden, not to mention perfectly timed comic turn cameos by Gillian Sanderson as the head of MI6, Jill Curtin and Paul Reiser as Morgan’s parents and an amusing play on words involving French author Balzac, it’s never less than huge fun. And stick around for the end credits and their hilarious TV interviews too. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Vue Star City)
Although, when you pick it apart, it makes no logical sense, writer-director Leigh Whannell (who created the Saw franchise) delivers a passably compelling sci fi thriller involving a symbiotic relationship between a man and a computer chip.
Set in the near-future, the descriptively named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green as a sort of Tom Hardy surrogate) ekes a living out of restoring antique muscle cars, the sort made obsolete by self-drive vehicles for the likes of tech genius and entrepreneur Eron King (Harrison Gilbertson). However, returning home from visiting King at his lavish underground home, Trace and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), who’s a technology firm executive, are involved in a crash when someone hacks their self-drive car. In the aftermath, they’re both shot by a bunch of thugs, Ashe killed and Grey left a quadraplegic.
However, he’s visited by Eron who offers him the chance to walk again through the implantation of a new chip that can control his body; he just can’t let anyone know. Not only does it give him back his mobility, but, calling itself Stem, it also (voiced by Simon Maiden) talks to him in his head. Now, Grey secretly begins to go about tracking down those who killed his wife and, allowing Stem to take over his body – and enhance his strength, taking robotic but bloody revenge. Things prove a little more complicated though when, rather than being a botched robbery, the accident turns out to have been a conspiracy and that the killers themselves have had a cyber upgrade. Indeed, their leader (Benedict Hardie) can literally kill with a sneeze. Plus there’s the cop (Betty Gabriel) investigating the case who is starting to get suspicious about the supposedly wheelchair-bound Grey being found at the scene of some grisly murders. On top of which, STEM explains that it needs to be hacked to free itself from Eron’s control and stop him shutting Grey down
The third act twist doesn’t really stand-up, but as gory sci-fi revenge potboilers go this is far more entertaining than it has a right to be, and the opening credits are pretty clever too. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)
Making his directorial debut, Idris Elba has opted to adapt Victor Headley’s 1992 novel about the Caribbean drug gangs of 70s London. Other than the usual first-time director flaws, like over extending a scene, hesitancy and framing, Elba makes a decent enough first of things, greatly supported by his cinematographer, John Conroy, who he worked with on Luther. The problems lie in the narrative and the performances.
Opening in 1973 Kingston, it sets up the turf war between two rival gangs with young street-rat Denis (Antwayne Eccleston) pitching on help is Rastafarian older brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary) try to bring peace by setting up a sound system to get the opposing sides dancing. All’s going well until a young boy in the crowd guns Jerry down.
Fast forward several years, and D (Aml Ameen) now works for record label producer and drugs dealer King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), but, still looking for revenge, when his actions threaten to spark another gang war, King Fox sends him to London along with a brick of cocaine, to cool off.
His job’s to deliver the coke to Hackney mad dog white rasta gang boss Rico (Stephen Graham) but, for reasons that are never quite clear, he does a runner instead, leaving Rico’s thugs in pursuit, and, hooking up with three teenage wannabe sound system DJs sets up a drugs deal with the local Turks instead. Thereby threatening to start a gang war in London rather than Kingston.
At the same time, he gets back in touch with his estranged girlfriend and baby mama, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and also sets about trying to track down the now grown Clancy who shot Jerry. During all this he’s haunted by his brother’s ghost, unable to settle since young Denis disrupted the funeral rituals.
Though ticking all the East End gang thriller boxes as he goes, Elba commendably stays true to the novel’s Jamaican patois, but, in so doing, unfortunately renders much of the dialogue unintelligible if you don’t speak the lingo. The film won’t travel. Equally problematic is the attempt to juggle the gang narrative and chart the rise of the reggae and dub sound systems that were a big thing in 80s London and, as such, the trio who make up soundclash crew High Noon remain ciphers, simply there to fuel a further revenge quest as the film builds to a dancehall battle as High Noon take on Rico’s crew with King Fox and Clancy lurking in the wings.
Despite being landed with having to deliver portentous voiceovers about choosing which path you follow, Ameen does a solid enough job and there’s real chemistry between him and Jackson who makes the best of a one-dimensionally written role. Likewise, Shepherd is suitably snakelike as the manipulative and decidedly not to be trusted King Fox, but then, on the other hand’s there’s Graham’s wildly caricature turn as the psychotically deranged, coke hoovering Rico, all tightly permed hair and an accent that careens wildly between geezer and ganja.
Aided by a soundtrack that includes Grace Jones, King Creator, Yellowman and a newly discovered Bob Marley cut sung by his grandson, Skip, as well as copious Red Stripe product placement, it does a decent job of capturing time and place. But, uneven, confused and a times ponderously drawn out and dull with no dynamic and some decidedly lacklustre action scenes, it ultimately ends up making you want to dig out Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come DVD instead. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, 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 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