MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Fim Releases, Fri May 24-Thu May 30

 

NEW RELEASES

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former  scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live  action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the place to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith, who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to take replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and . in places given a  Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets  a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Timely arriving mid the GCSE season, boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves an hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please.

(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwritinghttps://www.folkradio.co.uk/2019/05/the-maes-the-maes/ dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (15)

Hailing from Sale in Chesire, not far from Timperley, as frontman with late 70s pop outfit The Freshies, Chris Sievey had a minor hit with I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk (it would have been bigger had BBC crews not gone on strike the week it was due on Top of the Pops) and cult success with I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies by the Teardrop Explodes, but by far his biggest success came when he donned a papier mache head and created the character of Frank Sidebottom, becoming Manchester’s court jester for over 25 years until his death in 2010. The character even inspired Frank, a film starring Michael Fassbender inspired by his alter ego.

He’s also now the subject of this affectionate and illuminating bittersweet documentary by Steve Sullivan that documents his life from childhood, where even at an early age he clearly sought both the limelight and complete control, through his teenage years and Beatles obsession (he and his brother went to Apple looking for a record deal and  briefly met Ringo) and his formative bands, such as the deliberately bad but compelling Oh Blimey Big Band, before hitting on the concept of the Frank Sidebottom (originally called John Smith and created for a fancy dress party), a stalker-like Freshies fan,  who, despite his odd and frankly somewhat creepy nature (he had his own cardboard puppet, Little Frank), became a hit on children’s TV shows, improvising as he went,  and secured his own Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.

With a  day job working as an animator on the likes of Bob The Builder, the success of his character overwhelmed the man behind the mask who became lost, turning to drink and cocaine to numb the alienation he felt from himself.  Decline was inevitable,  Frank ending up playing Manchester clubs leading  karaoke version of Love Will Tear Us Apart and, when he dies, he would have had a pauper’s funeral had not his manager raised £21,000 from fans.

Clearly an eccentric on uncertain mental stability, Sievey was also an innovator, at one point devising a vinyl single that, on the B-side, had digital code to enable you to play a video game on a computer, while, ex-wife Paula reveals that his chat up approach was to push her into the canal.

As well as access to Sievey’s notebooks, videos and recordings, the documentary also features interviews with friends and family, such as his former keyboard player Jon Ronson (who scripted Frank), comedians Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas, his three children (tragically the youngest, Harry, was killed in a motorbike accident not long after filming his contributions), revealing a brilliant but tormented creative genius who could have built himself a career as a visual artist had he not been so obsessed with finding music business success.  In many ways a parallel story to John Otway, who made a success out of being a failure, this doesn’t always dig as deeply as it might, but, for those who never knew about the band inside the head (and Sievey was fanatical about not being photographed without it), it’s a welcome insight into one of the great British eccentrics of our time who, may not have become a pop star but does have a bronze statue of  Frank erected in Timperely in tribute. (Sun-Wed; MAC)

Breakthrough (12A)

In 2015, three Missouri boys fell through ice on a frozen lake, two clambered out but the third, John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) sank to the bottom, spending 15 minutes underwater before firemen pulled him out and he was rushed to hospital. He had no pulse and attempts to revive him failed. But then his devout Christian adoptive mom, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), arrived and prayed to God, and he returned to life, the impossibly smiley Middle America community coming together to pray and he eventually fully recovering with no neurological damage. As directed by Roxann Dawson, this marks another entry into the Christian faith-based  genre, offering an inspirational story even if it never countenances any other possible explanations (such as the intense cold actually stopping him drowning), the soulful fireman  (Mike Colter) coming to re-examine his atheism and the surgeon (Dennis Haysbert) all but declaring it  a miracle. The only suggestion of doubt comes from John’s father, Brian (Josh Lucas), who gets to beat himself up for not having strong enough faith to think even God could pull this one off, but a widowed teacher’s question of why God choses to save some and not others is dismissed almost as soon as it’s raised in much the same way as John’s feelings of being unwanted or Joyce’s own backstory are just cursory narrative asides.

Regardless of whether you buy into the beliefs, there’s no denying the film has inspirational power (as well as paying due respect to the medical teams, although Joyce does berate one doctor for daring to talk negatively in her son’s comatose presence), most notably in a scene as the community and John’s schoolfriends gather outside the hospital to sing for him to wake up, the incident also bringing traditionalist Joyce and their  new progressive pastor (Topher Grace) together after  previously being at loggerheads. Ultimately, it’s preaching to the choir, but some of the notes have resonance beyond the church doors. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City; Mon-Fri:MAC)

 

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Approaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Mockingbird)

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as  Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and Trevor  are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien. (Electric; MAC)

Vox Lux (15)

Written and directed by Brady Corbet, part-narrated by Willem Dafoe, this opens in 1999 with a Staten Island high school classroom shooting of which only 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. Following convalescence for her spinal injury, she performs a song co-written with her more musically talented older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) in commemoration of the victims that, with a lyrical shift from I to we, turns her almost overnight into a superstar, picking up a never named sleazy cynical manager (Jude Law) and a major record deal brokered by high-powered publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), flying out to record an album and having a hedonistic Super 8 hitting the town montage in Stockholm, heading to L.A for a video shoot and losing her virginity to an angsty British goth musician who, as she observes, makes “the sort of music the boy who attacked me used to listen to.”

Genesis closing in the aftermath of 9/11, the second act fast forwards 18 years with Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become something of a diva, and is attempting to make a comeback with a hometown stadium show after her career nosedived in a cocktail of scandals. She also now has a teenage daughter (Cassidy), who is closer to Eleanor, a not entirely suitable guardian, from whom Celeste is increasingly estranged.

Ironically, on the morning of the show, a terrorist incident takes place at a Croatian beachside resort, the gunmen mowing down tourists while wearing masks inspired by Celeste’s video, bringing things full circle. This obviously rakes up past painful memories, her tensions compounded by a prickly diner conversation with her daughter,  a meeting with the press and her subsequent getting wasted.

There’s little doubt that Celeste is something of a monster, but the film seeks to explain why she has become what she is (insecurity seems to be another reason given she’s not the world’s best singer and it’s her sister who writes the material), exploring themes of lost innocence and the walls erected to shield yourself that only serve to push others away (“I’m a private girl in a public world” run the lyrics of one of her songs).

Featuring throbbing electro pop by Sia, a jarring score by Scott Walker (his last work) and shot on 35mm in a dizzying style that swings between slo mo and pumped up montages to complement Celeste’s excess and over-the-top appearance, it fires off barbed but often wise lines that stick in the mind as well as the flesh. Portman is outstanding but full marks to Law too, giving one of his best  performances in years and if the climax in a lengthy concert sequence leaves questions unanswered, the paradoxical notions of the often toxic nature of celebrity set against the euphoria it can bring others resonate long after. (MAC)

 

 

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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