MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Nov 15-Thu Nov 21

 

NEW RELEASES

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

By the Grace of God (15)

Directed by François Ozon, this grippingly powerful film tells the true story of how a  group of men from  Lyon, all of whom had been abused by the same Roman Catholic priest, Father Preynat  (Bernard Verley), as young scouts,  came together as adults to form an organisation, Lift the Burden, seeking to bring him to justice and, perhaps more importantly, bring to account the Church hierarchy, here in figure of   Cardinal  Barbarin (François Marthouret), the Archbishop of Lyon, which, while fully aware of what was happening,   professed ignorance, covered things up and even allowed him to continue working with young boys.

It begins in 2014 with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a well-to-do family man and still-devout Catholic who’s disturbed to discover the priest’s continued activity and who, after a meeting is arranged with Preynat at which he admits his guilt but never asks forgiveness,  pressed ahead by filing charges, and the ranks gradually swell with other equally semi-fictionalised, victims, among them François (Denis Ménochet) an atheist who initially refuses to get involved but then becomes the activist group founder, surgeon Gilles (Éric Caravaca) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a vulnerable near-genius whose abuse has left him emotionally and physically damaged.

As well as fuelling frustration and anger in the confrontations with Church figures who seek to mollify and prevaricate, the film also features no less unsettling scenes when the abuse victims ask their parents who, knowing what was happening, didn’t do anything either (““We all have our problems” says one victim’s father), underscoring the power the Roman Catholic church held over its followers. Often uncomfortable in its revelations of the abuse the men endured, but always proceeding in a restrained manner as justice is pursued, the film holds you in its grip throughout, culminating in a press conference scene where Barbarin is confronted with the extent of his awareness, his self-protecting contradictory assertions and his failure to act, ending with a title card about the then forthcoming trial and verdict. He was found guilty in March of failing to report the abuse, which extended from 1986 to 1999, involving scores of victims,  and received a suspended six-month prison sentence, which he’s appealing and, who, though no longer leader of the Archdiocese of Lyon, remains an Archbishop, while Preynat was finally defrocked in July. A long and often difficult film to watch, but, with the issue still alarmingly prevalent, essential. (Electric)

Last Christmas (12A)

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

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

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

 

Little Monsters (15)

A playful and suitably bloody zombie virus comedy from Australia, this takes a while to get going, spending rather too long in introducing Dave (Alexander England), a shiftless, 30 something who once led long defunct heavy metal band, God’s Sledgehammer, always blames others for his problems and has commitment issues, he and his girlfriend constantly hurling constant abuse at each other (watch out for a very funny throwaway birthday cake sight gag in the restaurant scene). When they inevitably break up, he crashes with his single mom sister (Kat Stewart) and his bullied, allergic young nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) where his inappropriate language and irresponsibility (such as explaining to the kid what a douche bag is) don’t go down well. Not to mention having him dress as Darth Vader in an attempt to win back his girlfriend, that ends with Felix getting an early lesson in the facts of life.

Prologue out of the way, the pace picks up when, helping with the school run (where he bangs the door against one of the class bullies behind), he lays eyes on the kids’ primary school teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) and, smitten, claiming God’s Sledgehammer is a Christian Rock outfit, volunteers to help in the upcoming school visit to a  petting  zoo cum mini-golf course which just also happens to be the location for the filming of show by kiddie TV favourite Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) in his green polka-dot suit with his puppet co-star Frogzy. However, Teddy turns out to be  a sociopathic, misogynistic drunk sex addict resentful that, mentored under Pacino,  he never got to be a real actor, while  Pleasant Valley Farm happens to be next to a U.S. Military base experimenting with regeneration and from which the zombie outbreak occurs,leading to assorted farm stock, staff and kiddiwinks being either turned or chewed up. Next thing you know, the place is overrun, or perhaps overlurched,  with them and Dave, McGiggle, Miss Caroline and her class are holed up in the gift shop surrounded by hungry flesh eaters while the army are planning to contain things by dropping a bomb. On the gift shop.

In a film that includes a slow getaway on a tractor and trailer, pursued by an army of zombies singing along with the kids to If You’re Happy and You Know It, Gad and England (whose growing up is the film’s arc) are great fun, but, showing a real gift for comedy, sporting a yellow (and soon to be blood spattered) dress, it’s Black Panther/Us star Nyong’o who is the undeniable main attraction, relentlessly upbeat as she determines to keep the kids safe, pretending it’s all a game and singing Taylor Swift’s Shake It Up while accompanying herself on ukulele and proving far tougher than she might seem. Sheila of the Dead of the dead then. (Electric; Fri/Sat: Reel)

Non-Fiction (15)

A relationships comedy of manners directed by Olivier Assayas, set in contemporary Paris this is quintessentially French, the dialogue  awash with cerebral discussions (frequently round a dinner table) about politics, art, entertainment and, more pertinently, the future of publishing in the era of digitisation yet where print is enjoying revival, while unfolding the story of two couples (the French title translates as Double Lives) who are cheating on each other.

Alain (Guillaume Canet) heads a publishing house and is looking to keep up with technological changes like e-books and has brought in techsavvy upwardly mobile Laure (Christa Théret) as his new head of digital operations and with whom he is also sleeping. He’s married to Selena (Juliette Binoche, wonderful), an actress fed up of playing a  cop (though she prefers “crisis management expert”) on a French TV crime drama. She’s been having an affair for the past six years with Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a grumpy ageing hipster author still living off the success of an early novel and who is one of Alain’s clients, albeit with increasingly shrinking sales. Alain, however, declines to publish his latest, a thinly veiled ‘autofiction’ about the affair, but which he says is based on a fling with a TV presenter. Meanwhile, Leonard, who asks Selena to champion the manuscript, is living with his longtime girlfriend Valérie (Nora Hamzawi, wonderfully non-verbal), a political aide to a Socialist politician too focused on an upcoming election to massage his wounded ego.

In many ways a French farce for intellectuals, it unfolds with a wry sense of humour amid its many conversations before reaching some sort of epiphany and resolution for at least one of the characters, Assayas including a very cheeky allusion to Leonard describing he and Serena having oral sex during a screening of Michael Haneke’s Holocaust drama The White Ribbon, whereas it was actually while watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and, in talk of turning the new novel into a movie, an in-joke about casting Juliette Binoche. At the end of the day, this is a somewhat self-indulgent and slight outing by Assayas, but it’s also an undeniably amusing – and if you read books – thoughtful trifle. (Until Tue; MAC)

ALSO SHOWING

The Irishman (15)

On Netflix from next week, understandably the major cinema chains have opted not to show this, that and the fact that at over three hours it bites into the number of screenings and ticket sales. As such, it’s been impossible to preview Martin Scorsese’s highly acclaimed mobster epic, working from a script by Steven Zaillian and based on the assumed murder of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa and starring the heavyweight cast of Al Pacino (Hoffa), Robert De Niro (Hoffa enforcer and alleged killer Frank Sheeran), and Joe Pesci (mob boss Russell Bufalino) alongside Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin and Stephen Graham.

Described by many as Scorsese atoning for supposedly glorifying violence in films such as Good Fellas and set over a 30 year period (albeit mostly in the 50s) and taking in the JFK assassination as an underworld conspiracy, it is clearly a must see; whether that’s a three and a half hours in an indie cinema auditorium or in front of a TV screen is your choice.  (Everyman; Mockingbird; Reel)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)

Having made his spin-off big screen debut in 2015, Aardman Animation’s woolly mischief-maker returns to raise the baa with a second family friendly claymation feature (the title both a typical bad pun but also the name of a haunted house attraction at Farmer Ted’s in Ormskirk) to delight all ages, all without barely  a single distinguishable word of dialogue.  Life on Mossy Bottom Farm is pretty much business as usual with the farmer’s wardrobe not having extended beyond jumper and red underpants and his dog, Bitzer, clamping down on every attempt by Shaun to engage  in any non-sheep activities, one of which, involving  Frisbee, ends up in wrecking the combine harvester.

Meanwhile, in the woods, on the way back from the chippy, a man sees an alien spacecraft land, emerging from it a cute kiddie alien with big floppy telekinetic-power ears and a talent for vocal imitation who, it transpires, is called Lu-La and who, playing around back on her own planet, accidentally managed to trigger the family spaceship and has ended up on Earth.

Discovered by Shaun hiding out in the barn and eating his pizza, the thrust of the story is he, the flock and, eventually, Bitzer, trying to help her return home to her parents, meaning they first have to find the device that powers the ship, the problem being that she’s been hunted by the men in yellow from the Ministry of Alien Detection and, for reasons of her own, their alien obsessed boss. Meanwhile, all the talk of aliens has created a local media buzz, attracting all manner of UFO seekers, something Farmer looks to cash in on by getting the sheep to build him a sci-fi theme park, Farmageddon, and charging £30 a pop for admission so he can buy his new dream harvester.

As you would expect, the film is stuffed with sci-fi movie references, notably nodding to the monolith moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the coded notes of Close Encounters, the X-Files music and even an appearance by Doctor Who (Tom Baker version) with a portaloo Tardis. On top of which you get a reminder not to overdo those sugar-rush drink, a running gag about poor mobile phone reception in the countryside while the tacky Farmageddon itself nods to all those shoddy pop-up Santa experience rip-offs.

Making up for inspired silent-movie styled physical comedy for what it lacks in dialogue, while subtle claymation facial features impart a wide range of emotional responses, this is glorious and very British fun. Shear enjoyment.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Abominable (U)

Essentially E.T. but white and furry in marketable plush fashion, this latest from Dreamworks animation opened well in the States, but its success is likely more down to a dearth of other family films rather than any inherent charm. Escaping from the laboratory where it’s being held captive, a young Yeti fetches up on the roof of the Shanghai building where teen loner Yi (Chloe Bennett from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who, real name Wang,  is, in fact American Chinese) lives with her widowed mother and gran, the latter frequently hidden behind the mountain of pork dumplings she’s constantly  cooking. Soothing the creature with her late father’s violin (which she claims to have sold), Yi, with the help of vain childhood friend med student Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, a direct relation to the Sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his 1953 Everest climb) and his nerdy cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) who live downstairs,  sets out to take Everest, the name they’ve given their new chum, back to his home in the Himalayas, travelling across China on a  journey her dad always meant to take.  However, they’re being chased by a zoologist, Dr Zara (Sarah Poulson), who sports a pet gerbil on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot and works for Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an aged collector who wants to prove yetis exist to  dispel the humiliation he’s suffered for years, and has ordered her and his strongarm hirelings to recapture the creature. Although, it turns out Zara has her own agenda.

Pitched very much at younger kids, it’s all very predictable and, with its repetitive chase sequences, at times, somewhat dull. However, when not focused on the plot as such, the landscapes, including a musical interlude time out (cue Coldplay’s Fix You) at  a 233-ft tall cliffside Buddha carved during the Tang dynasty, and the fact that Everest has magical powers to control nature offer some moments of ravishing beauty (and an attack by giant blueberries, prompting one of the film’s butt jokes) as the film dutifully ticks off life lessons about friendship, family, and finding your place in the world.  Trailing the far more enjoyable Smallfoot, this has its heart in the right place but seems unlikely leave much of a  footprint in the box office snow.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

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

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

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

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Countdown (15)

It seems even ancient demons are going techno these days. At a party, a bunch of teenagers download an app called Countdown which tells you how long you’ve got until you die. One of them (Anne Winters) learns she has three hours left. Well, it’s just  prank, anyway. Even so, she decides to walk home rather than risk a lift with her drunk boyfriend. He crashes right on schedule and  branch goes through the seat where she would have been sitting.  However, at the same exact moment, she’s killed by a mysterious force in her bathroom. But, rather than follow the others at the party, they’re forgotten about as the film focuses on newly qualified nurse  Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) who also has the app but doesn’t take it seriously until the aforementioned boyfriend dies in an apparent hospital accident and she checks his phone.  With just over two days to go, she cancels a gathering at her mother’s grave with dad and her kid sister (cue guilt issues over  mom’s death) and gets a message saying she’s violated the contract. So, since the app won’t delete, it becomes a literal race against the clock to save herself and, naturally, her sister (Talitha Bateman), one which involves Matt (Jordan Calloway), a handsome stranger in the same predicament (and also plagued by guilt over a family member’s death), a phone shop owner (Tom Segura) who hacks the app and, for  a moment, seems to have sorted things, and a geeky comic relief demon-enthusiast priest (P.J. Byrne) who obligingly just happens to have an old book explaining the curse’s origin and a means to solve it, either by someone surviving  the countdown by one second or dying before their allotted time is up.  Oh yes, and there’s also a hospital doctor (Peter Facinelli) with a thing for sexually harassing nurses.

Making his big screen debut, writer-director Justin Dec does a workmanlike job serving up the obligatory flickering lights, sudden appearances by ghostly figures and the usual rote ho hum jump scares, but fails to provide anything resembling backstory or internal logic (why do the good guys get to die young and the creeps and racists live to a ripe old age?) and, while he moves things along at reasonable clip, there’s never any real thrills, sense of atmosphere or much by way of involvement with the half-formed characters. Ending with an overly optimistic promise of an upgrade, although you might take away a message about always reading the terms and conditions small print, the only countdown you’ll be thinking about is the seconds ticking away to the end credits. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Doctor Sleep (15)

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

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

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

At two and a half hours, it takes a while to find the flow, the early going coming across like a series of unconnected sequences (the whole turning of paedophile stalker Snakebite Andi could have been cut), but as the narrative slowly gels, while not scary horror as such, it casts a decidedly creepy spell as it plays out its predictable good vs evil drama even if having eight years pass before anything really happens seems pointless. While Ferguson steals every scene she’s in (you almost find yourself wanting a spin-off), McGregor is on good form while newcomer Curran is a quietly determined sensation calling to mind Elle from Stranger Things. There are, of course, several direct allusions to the Kubrick film, not least Danny peering through the hole in the hotel room door made by his father, but it was perhaps not the best idea to use not even vague lookalikes for flashbacks to mad Jack (ET.s Henry Thomas plays the bartender Danny speaks to as his father’s ghost) and terrified wife Wendy. That aside, this shines brighter than some reviews would have you expect. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (Showcase Walsall)

Gemini Man (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Good Liar (15)

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

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

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Judy (12A)

Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play End of the Rainbow about the last months of Judy Garland’s life when she played a colourfully variable season at London’s Talk of the Town (sometimes dazzling, sometimes drunk), inevitably, directed by  Rupert Goold and written by first timer Tom Edge, reality and what you see on screen are often very different things. Certainly she was pelted with food by the audience when she appeared late, drunk and slurring, but it’s unlikely, even as a gay icon,  she ever went back to  a flat shared by two gay fans (for post-show scrambled eggs and the final scene where they boost her in time of mid-song crisis is most certainly fiction. That said, this is very faithful in portraying the desperate loneliness and insecurity that crippled the former child star of The Wizard of Oz, even if Rene Zellweger’s electrifying, note perfect (and inevitably Oscar scooping) performance is far better than the film that contains it.

Opening the story at the tail end of 1968, deep in debt Garland return to her hotel from a show (for which she’s paid the princely sum of $150) featuring her youngest  children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she’s informed she’s been thrown out because of her unpaid bills. With nowhere else to go, she winds up at the home of her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), with whom she’s involved in a  custody wrangle, who makes it very clear what he thinks of her parenting.

Given her reputation of being difficult and unreliable, if she wants  to raise the money she needs to keep her children, she has to accept a five week season at the Talk of the Town, under impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), although the kids have to remain behind.

Arriving in London, she’s feted as a superstar, but a combination of crippling insecurity, insomnia, pills and drink, leave her refusing to rehearse and having to be frog marched on to the stage by exasperated but sympathetic (real) production assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) where, once in the spotlight, she knocks them dead with a rendition of  I’ll Go My Way by Myself. It’s kind of downhill from that point, hitting rock bottom when her impulsive brief marriage to the much younger  Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a chancer with an eye on making a  fortune off her name, blows up in her face and she’s sacked. On top of which, Luft turns up with some unwelcome news about what the children have decided for their future.

All this is regularly punctuated with flashbacks to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) who, as Dorothy Gale won the world’s hearts with Over The Rainbow, but was bullied and verbally (and it was  rumoured sexually) abused by tyrannical movie mogul Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery)  who, to get what wanted on camera had her dosed up with appetite suppressants to keep her thing, amphetamines to keep her awake and sleeping pills for her anxiety-induced insomnia, an addiction that stayed with her as she grew, compounded by alcoholism. If you weren’t already aware Garland’s nightmare existence at MGM, from which she was eventually ‘let go’ in 1950, this is a real wake up call., and further serves to elicit empathy and understanding when you see the adult Judy acts like a diva and collapsing into self-destruction.

The problem is that Zellweger’s performance is so intense, so fierce and so compelling, and her self-performed musical numbers so exhilarating, that the film around her pales into a somewhat rote biopic of underwritten supporting characters (though Buckley does emerge with honours) with brief interactions between Garland and  the likes of daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Talk of the Town musical arranger Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson,  skiffle star Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgleish), whose show she most definitely did not usurp as seen here, and, as her younger self, frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, a potential young romance rejected here in favour of the roar of the crowd.

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

On a basic level, it’s all of an overly busy, overlong and often incoherent if visually dazzling mess in search of a story and complete with  final scene of a maternal Maleficent that should never have left the editing room, but  there’s no denying there are still copious pleasures here. And those cheekbones. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Midway (12A)

The story of the June   1942 naval battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific was previously told back in 1976 with a  cast featuring such stellar names as Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda,  Robert Mitchum and James Coburn. Spectacular as it was at the time, it’s not a patch on  this retelling by director Roland Emmerich who, taking his cue from 40s war movies, opens up with a stupendous recreation of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour  and then proceeds to deliver even bigger set pieces as the Americans take the war to the Japanese fleet with pilot eye views of dive bombers dropping their payload on enemy carriers while surrounded by anti-aircraft flak that takes the lives of many of them. Unfolding at just over two hours, the pace never flags as the film hews to historical authenticity, such as how the Japanese carrier Akagi was crippled when bombs hit a  closed hangar full of armaments was ; it even shows how director John Ford was at Midway filming things. While there are inevitable composites in the rank and file, it’s primarily centred around real life figures such as fearless/reckless pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), Admiral Halsey  (Dennis Quaid), commander of the USS Enterprise, Edwin Layton (PatrickWilson), the Naval attaché intelligence officer whose warnings were dismissed), Charles Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), fleet admiral who led the U.S. Naval forces, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) who led the symbolically crucial attack on Tokyo, and navy fighter pilot Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). In a welcome objective presentation of events from the side of the no less courageous and strategically daring Japanese, in the same manner as Tora! Tora! Tora!, there’s also  Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).

Unusually for Emmerich, better known for disaster blockbusters, while undeniably big popcorn bucket entertainment with a side order of patriotic gung ho, there’s also a gravity to the film and characterisation that goes beyond heroic stereotypes.  Sure, as did the earlier film, the dialogue can come across as the sort of war movie clichés that riddled John Wayne movies, and, inevitably, the navy wives (such as Mandy Moore) are very much in the background, but, while we’ve had the likes of the revisionist Inglourious Basterds and Fury, there’s not been a WWII movie on such a scale in years. Critics said the 1976 film marked the end of American WWII epics. This may just be the rebirth. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Official Secrets (15)

In 2003, as the Blair government prepared to join the United States in a war on Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Katharine Gun (Kiera Knightly), a British GCHQ translator, read a memo sent by a high ranking American official about monitoring  certain members of the UK Security Council so they could obtain material they could use to blackmail them into voting in favour of a war. Her conscience troubled by the fact that Tony Blair was lying to the British public about the threat Hussein posed  (“Just because you’re Prime Minister, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!”  she rails at the TV even more reading the memo) and that the United States was trying to strongarm its way into a second Gulf War, she leaked the memo to an anti-war activist friend and it eventually found its way into the hands of Martin Bright (Matt Smith), an investigative reporter at The  Observer, a  paper which, up to that point, had been supporting the government’s stance.

When, after validating its authenticity, they ran a front page splash about US dirty tricks, an investigation as to the whistleblower naturally followed with Gun, to save her  co-workers being put under constant pressure and surveillance,  eventually declaring what she had done (noting that her loyalty was to the British public not the British government), and that she had acted to try and prevent an illegal war and save potentially thousands of lives. She did so knowing that she could be imprisoned for breaking the Official Secrets Act and potentially putting her immigrant husband  Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, at risk of being deported, a situation prompting a  race against the clock sequence here that may or may not be dramatic licence.

Give it’s all public record, it’s no spoiler to say that no less dramatic but entirely true is the fact that, less than half an hour into her trial, the prosecutor announced they were withdrawing all charges, the reasons having to do with damaging information her lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) had gathered about Lord Goldsmith’s volte face to declare the war legal.

Directed and co-written by Gavin Hood, while no All The President’s Men or, indeed Vice, which also addressed the manipulation of the war,  and far less flashy than either, it is a solid political conspiracy thriller about events that continue to reverberate and provoke righteous outrage about the collusion between Bush and Blair to blatantly lie about weapons of mass destruction and imminent threat (an Official Secrets Act loophole Gun’s lawyers used to validate her actions in practical terms) to justify the war. It does sag slightly midway, but once the decision to charge Gun is made, the urgency,  intensity and the sense of threat (notably in her meeting  with a Scotland Yard inspector) crank up. Supported by a dishevelled Rhys Ifans as The Observer’s vocally volatile  D.C. correspondent Ed Vulliamy, Matthew Goode as Bright’s war-correspondent colleague Peter Beaumont and Conleth Hill as the paper’s  truculent editor Roger Alton, it’s Knightley’s well-nuanced performance, part moral indignation, part scared and vulnerable, that lift the film and keeps you engaged, even if you know how it all ended.  Here, as Gun, she declares that her only regret in doing what she did was that she failed. To stop the war perhaps, but to open the public’s eyes to the duplicity and corruption of their governments, far from it. And a reminder to be careful of using spellcheck. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

The Peanut Butter Falcon (12A)

Clearly informed with the spirit of Mark Twain (who is referenced in the dialogue), this charming tale of a growing friendship between two society outsiders could prove the year’s biggest sleeper indie hit in much the same way that films like Juno and The Station Agent did before.

Dumped in an underfunded Richmond nursing home after being dumped by his parents,  Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a wrestling-obsessed Down syndrome 22-year-old is constantly trying to escape, finally managing to run off into the night, clad in only his underpants, with the help of  his aged, slyly surly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern).

Hiding out under a  canvas sheet on a boat belonging to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled crab fisherman who’s poaching from fellow fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf),when Tyler’s forced to take off  after setting fire to his rivals’ traps, the accidental buddies find themselves embarking on an odyssey by foot and raft down the Southeast coast after the initially reluctant Tyler promises to take him to a wrestling school in the Florida bayou run by his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church). On the run, Tyler’s being pursued by Duncan and Ratboy looking for revenge while Zak’s volunteer carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), has been ordered to find him and take him back.

As crafted by writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, it charts a well-worn coming of age, self-worth discovery road movie path with the friendship growing between the two unlikely travelling companions through their shared feelings of worthlessness and isolation as they head for their destination, try and evade their pursuers, encounter assorted adventures and eccentrics along the way and Zak takes up the wrestling name of the title.  The comedy is gentle and affectionate, with only Zak ever mentioning his affliction, poignantly describing  how he’s referred to as a retard but never losing his resolve or determination to follow his dream while, as self-appointed protector, Tyler gets to come to terms with the guilt that’s been haunting him. Eleanor’s impulsive decision to join them on the  journey feels a touch narratively contrived, but the blossoming romance between her and Tyler and the building of a new family is never forced. The chemistry between the two leads feels organic and genuine, their banter and interaction of an improvisational nature, a guileless La Boef  winningly low key as the irascible but warm-hearted Tyler while the more extrovert Gottsagen, with his good-natured humour and emotional nuances, engages empathy without ever asking for pity. It has a simple charm that lingers long after the end credits.  (Until Wed: MAC)

Sorry We Missed You (15)

Where their previous film, I, Daniel Blake, ultimately found a note of hope among its portrayal of a broken Britain,  this latest from Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty is pretty much relentlessly bleak in its angry portrayal of a zero hours nation. A Newcastle construction worker who lost his job and with it any hope of a mortgage in the crash of 2008, now struggling to meet the rent but proud of never having been on the dole, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) signs up for what looks like a nice little earner as a ‘quasi-freelance’ parcel firm delivery driver for PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast!), run by the pragmatic, empathy-challenged Maloney (Ross Brewster), the self-styled Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards. Meanwhile his devoted and selfless wife,  Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), is a contract nurse and in-home carer, on constant call. Because Ricky needs to buy a white van for the job, rather than rent one from  the company at exorbitant rates, she has to sell her car and use public transport, paying her own travel costs, to visit her disabled, vulnerable and sometime very demanding old folk clients.

Working impossible hours, neither of them have much time for their two kids, artistic but stroppy  Seb (Rhys Stone), who hangs out with a graffiti  gang and falls foul of the law and sparks tension with his dad, and his smart kid sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) who eventually takes it upon herself to bear the family’s burdens. But they struggle along, a brief sunny moment being when Ricky takes his daughter out on the round with him.

But, as the pressures mount, Ricky soon comes to learn the pitfalls of being his so called own man. There’s no conventional employment benefits, if he missed  deadline, recorded on the scanner ‘gun’, he’s penalised, if he loses the hugely costly gun he has to replace it, if he can’t work he has to arrange another driver and loses his money. He doesn’t even have time for a toilet break, he has to carry a plastic bottle with him. A plot point that  sets up the film’s big dramatic turning point as Ricky become subject to more and more of the firm’s ‘sanctions; and the debts pile up and the family begins to fall apart.

A damning indictment of the gig economy where you’re always running just to stand still, even with its flashes of humour, it can feel a little relentless and there’s times when the dialogue seems awkwardly improvised, but the naturalness of the central performances and the warmth of the family connections, even when under duress, draw you in. There is, thankfully, a moment of catharsis courtesy of Debbie, but ultimately, the all too depressingly real message is that there is no new dawn, just the start of another day.  (Electric; MAC)

Terminator: Dark Fate (15)

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

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

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

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

There’s a welcome vein of humour as well as some charged socio-political commentary  with the scenes set around the Mexican border and the core cast all deliver strong performances and, while Arnie is, well Arnie (“I’m very funny”, he quips), there’s a soulfulness between him and Hamilton who, returning to the franchise after 30 years, is sensational. Which is a good thing since, with this ending with a Logan moment, and hinting at a new beginning rather than a conclusion, it seems those Sarah Connor Chronicles might be in for at least one more chapter. She’ll be back. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Zombieland: Double Tap (15)

A knowingly self-referencing sequel to the 2009 gleefully politically incorrect Stateside Shaun of the Dead styled cult hit, narrated direct to the audience in voiceover by Jesse Eisenberg, this reunites the original characters, all named for their hometowns, neurotic rules-obsessed Columbus (Eisenberg), NRA poster boy redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), snarky, moody Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who, at the start of the film, decide to hole up in the White House. The zombies, as  a quick rundown and a nod to The Walking Dead explains, have evolved and, while there’s still the clueless Homers, there’s now seemingly indestructible T-800s, named, of course, after The Terminator in just one of the film’s countless pop-culture gags.

Less of a plot and more of a string of road movie encounters punctuated by a steady stream of hilarious, banter-riddled dialogue, things get underway when, Little Rock wanting to find someone her own age and Wichita nonplussed by Columbus’s proposal, the pair take off. However, when the former hooks up with  Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a pothead pacifist hippie – and worse, a musician – steals the car and heads out for a like-minded safety zone community called Babylon (after the David Grey song), Wichita returns to the fold to get help finding her, except, in her brief absence, Columbus has acquired himself  a dumb-blonde pink-clad airhead girlfriend named Madison (a terrific scene stealing Zoey Deutch) who’s been hiding out in a Mall freezer, rather naturally making for somewhat awkward tension between him and Wichita as they all set off  after Little Rock, a journey that will take them to a decayed Graceland and an Elvis museum saloon run by the feisty Elvis-obsessed Nevada (Rosario Dawson) and a brief encounter with Columbus and Tallahassee’s mirror images, monster truck driving Alpha-male Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and the twitchy Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch) before the final apocalyptic showdown with a horde of T-800s.

Barely a second goes by without some quip, sarcastic put down or visual gag, hitting the target more often than not, among them Elvis’s blue suede shoes, the animated on screen appearance of Columbus’s rules, a running gag about their minivan, a throwaway Zombie Kill of the Year moment, and an amusing revelation about the fate of Bill Murray. Yes, it essentially plays as a rerun of the original with some added quirky characters, but written by Deadpool duo Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, directed by Venom’s Ruben Fleischer and gleefully acted by all concerned with tongues firmly in cheek,  it has verve, energy, irreverent hilarity and, of course, copious amounts of head-popping gore. All topped off with an inspired surprise cameo credits sequence.  Like the zombies, switch off your brain and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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