MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Jan 12-Thu Jan 18

NEW RELEASES

Darkest Hour  (PG)

The third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Insidious: The Last Key (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Already a Golden Globes triumph and heading up the BAFTA nominations, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls,  decides to poke things back into life.

The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar contender Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye.  Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet aslo sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.

With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.

When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works,  as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.

McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

All The Money In The World (15)

It would be a pity of the now 80-year-old Ridley Scott’s film about the kidnapping of Paul Getty, the grandson of J Paul Getty, the richest man in the history of the word, was overshadowed by the fact that, in the wake of  sexual harassment allegations,  he had to reshoot large elements to replace Kevin Spacey  with, ironically, his original choice for the role of Getty Sr., Christopher Plummer. It’s likely to prove even more ironic should Plummer get the Oscar nomination his performance warrants.

Adopting a thriller approach, the film unfolds  the 1973 kidnapping of  the teenage Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) by a faction from the left-wing Red Brigade in Italy and how Getty Sr. flatly refused to pay the $17 million ransom to secure his release. It then follows the investigations by the Italian police alongside attempts by Paul’s mother, and Getty’s former daughter—in-law, Abigail (Michelle Williams), to get the old man to relent and negotiations with those responsible by Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who now works as fixer for the Getty family.  When the gang get fed up of waiting, they sell the boy on to another, more highly connected syndicate, and the stakes get higher.

However, while it offers the procedural details and duly places a focus on one of the kidnappers  (Romain Duris) who developed a sympathy for and friendship with Paul and, at least in this telling, helped him escape from his second set of captors and later avoid getting killed, as written by David Scarpa, the film isn’t actually about the abduction, but is, rather, a morality meditation on the nature of wealth and power, where value and worth are not necessarily the same.

There’s a chilling moment when, asked how much he’d pay to ransom his grandson,  Getty replies with a cold smile and a shrug, “nothing”.  Pragmatically, that makes sense, in the same way governments don’t openly negotiate with terrorists, but here it’s all about the deal, the terms and conditions, where human life becomes just another asset, to be invested in or not depending on whether  the return justifies the investment. It’s brilliantly underscored in a later sequence (revisited at the end in an almost Rosebud moment), where, you assume, Getty has come to negotiate for his grandson’s release, only to learn that, after declaring he has no money free, it’s about something else entirely. Even when he gathers Abigail, her junkie ex, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), her lawyer  and the Getty board round the table to propose agreeing to the ransom, it’s only because he’s found a way to make it tax deductible. More to the point, the terms of the loan indicate a resentful and bitter Getty’s long-game dynastic agenda regarding his grandchildren, his ‘blood’ (suggesting he felt that Abigail had already  kidnapped them when she traded alimony for custody).  The film’s point is that money and power are addictive and can destroy you if not controlled (underlined by a 1971 flashback sequence that shows how Getty was reunited with his estranged and broke son with an out of his league offer that would lead to dissolution and divorce), and Getty, who supposedly believed himself  the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian,  has no intention of not being in control, even if it means sacrificing those he loves.

Keeping the pace and tension ratcheted, at times it also sports a black humour, not least in the, presumably true, touch of Getty having had a telephone kioks installed in his English stately country pile for guests to use  because, as he tells his young grandson in the flashback, “a Getty is nobody’s friend.” On the other hand, there’s also the grisly moment when young Getty has his ear graphically sliced off.

Suitably shot in cold greys and dark browns with flickers of firelight and shadows, it’s magnificently realised and, while Plummer may be the film’s  lightning rod, the other central actors, Williams, Whalberg and the young Plummer, and are all rock solid, delivering a thoughtful morality play for the mammon generation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Ballad Of Shirley Collins (12A)

Both with her older sister Dolly and in her own right, Hastings-born Shirley Collins was a founding member and pivotal part of the English folk revival of the 60s, friends with Ewan McColl and lover of Alan Lomax, with whom she travelled southern America helping to document the country’s  traditional folk music. Ths sisters’ 1969 album, Anthems in Eden, is regarded as one of the seminal releases in the English folk music heritage, as are her own Sweet England, False True Lovers and Sweet Primeroses.

However, in 1979 then married to Albion Dance Band founder Ashley Hutchings and working with him as part of the National Theatre, her husband abruptluy announced he was leaving her for another woman. Confronted with this woman coming to shows and staing in front of her wearing her husband’s jumpers, Collins suffered a trauma that left her unable to sing. Diagnosed with dysphonia and forced to abandoned the only career she wanted, she ended up working, among other things, in her local benefits office.

Featuring archive home movie footage, voice recordings and interviews with Collins, Rob Curry and Tim Plester’s documentary both reflects on her history and follows her as, then 81, she nervously prepared to record Lodestar, her first album in 40 years. A touch slow going at times with a few too many shits of sleepy idyllic landscapes, nevertheless it’s an insightful and illuminating portrait of one of the great names in English folk music who at her best, as she says without any hint of “was the essence of English folk.” At one point, regretting her experiences, she muses, “There are some great female voices around now, but I’m not one of then. And I wish I was.” This documentary proves she is.  (Tue: MAC)

 

 

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Empire Great Park;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory..

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hostiles  (15)

Set in 1892, when a violent Comanche raid on their homestead leaves her husband and two young daughters dead, young pioneer wife  Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) escapes into the woods clutching her murdered baby. At which point, Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper switches focus to a fort in New Mexico as  Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a steeped in blood legend of the  so-called “Indian Wars”, for whom killing savages is his job,  is given no choice but to accepts an order direct from the President to escort cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi exuding typical gravitas), a former nemesis responsible for the deaths of many of his men,  back home to Montana,  along with his family (Q’orianka Kilcher among them), to die.  Blocker’s last mission before retirement, assembling a small hand-picked troupe (Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet), they set off north, naturally coming across the burned out cabin and adding the understandably traumatised but ultimately resilient Rosalie along the way.

Inevitably the numbers in the party dwindle as the journey progresses, variously through the selfsame Comanches, fur trappers, a murderer deserter (Ben Foster) Blocker acquires en route to be delivered to prison and, eventually a final shoot-out with landowners in Montana who don’t take kindly to Indian burials.

A slow, deliberate Western road trip to redemption as Blocker’s anti-Indian hatred is slowly replaced by compassion, to the extent he ends up calling Yellow Hawk ‘friend’, it’s a pretty straightforward and, at times, simplistic commentary on the way Native Americans were dispossessed and treated as less than human (at one point, one of Blocker’s soldiers, haunted by his guilt, apologises to the Chief and asks for mercy before committing his own act of redemption),  but also about how the past should be buried if there’s ever to be any hope of moving forwards. Even so, Rosalie’s bonding with Yellow Hawk’s young grandson and the final cathartic moments feel honestly and authentic, not least thanks to yet another deeply nuanced and world-weary  performance from Bale, his soul-shaking torments perfectly matched by Pike in some hugely emotional moments of her own. It’s slow and, at two hours plus, a tad overlong, the emphasis more on introspection than on action (though what there is brutal), but, while unlikely to attract a large audience, those who invest in a ticket won’t be disappointed.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Molly’s Game (15)

Having penned the screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, not to mention TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is already one of the great screenwriters and he now makes his Scorsese-influenced debut as a hyphenate, both writing and directing the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful who, her career shattered by a frozen stick on a ski course, went on to set up and run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game before until arrested by heavily armed FBI agents.

Based on Bloom’s  titular memoir in which she declined to identify the celebrities and other high fliers who took part in the games, the film cuts back and forth between the run up to the court case  and the events leading up to the bust. In the former, with the Feds pressuring her to name names, specifically the members of the Russian Mafia she’d unwittingly welcomed into her circle.she’s represented by initially reluctant and alpha male defence attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba as  a fictionalisation of Bloom’s actual  -white – lawyer, Jim Walden) increasingly frustrated by his client’s seemingly self-destructive streak. The backstory begins in California with Bloom becoming personal assistant to a guy (Jeremy Strong) running a sideline underground poker game, gradually becoming the brains and making connections with the regulars, most notably malicious movie star Player X (Michael Cera allegedly based on Tobey Maguire). When her boss gives her the elbow, Bloom relocates to New York and sets up on her own game with an even bigger buy-in, recruiting sexy hostesses, poaching his players and quickly pulling in a well-heeled array of  others and somewhat inevitably developing  drug habit that ultimately affects her judgement.

In many ways its entwined themes of power, money and pride are a gender spin mirror The Wolf of Wall Street, without the excess, being Sorkin, it’s inevitably packed with rapidly delivered dialogue and a heady barbed and witty exchanges, but he still keeps up a cracking sense of pace and tension while exploring moral codes, the importance of reputation (at one point Bloom refuses to disclose names  because her reputation and dignity are all she has left) and women trying to succeed in a world dominated by high-powered men.

Eventually devolving into a court room drama (presided over by Grahame Green’s judge), the ending is, as in real life, something of an anti-climax, but the back and forth tables turning scene between Bloom, Jaffey and the FBI prosecutors is up there with the best of John Grisham.  As the complex, determined yet also vulnerable Bloom who seemingly has no private  life, Chastain gives another Oscar-worthy performance to rival last year’s Miss Sloane and, although often  confined to reaction or exposition advancing sequences Elba makes for an imposing, magnetic figure and does get arguably the best speech . As Bloom’s tough-love psychologist father, Kevin Costner delivers another outstanding support turn, highlighted by a scene with Chastain at the ice skating rink in Central Park where he delivers several years of psychoanalysis in a few minutes while Chris O’Dowd provides dry humour as the poetic-tongued, drinking problem player who sets up the Russian introductions.  It may be Sorkin’s first time at the director’s table, but this holds a Royal Flush. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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 – 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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