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

NEW RELEASES

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferdinand (U)

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

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

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

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call wortwhile. (From Sat: Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NOW PLAYING

A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

This seasonal offering reunites the main cast of the original movie, a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms, for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Vue Star City)

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story this year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (MAC)

Better Watch Out (15)

Arriving a year after its US release, this provides the obligatory seasonal black comedy horror and fully deserves to become a festive season  favourite with its cocktail of Home Alone and  Funny Games. When squabbling husband and wife, the Lerners (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) set off for a dinner party, they leave their beloved 12-year-old Lukas (Levi Miller, last seen in Pan) in the safe hands of his regular babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). What neither they nor she know, is that Lukas has the hots for her and he and his geeky best friend  Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have devised a plan for  Lukas to make a move on her. The idea is that they’ll fake an intruders in the house scenario so that Lukas can come to the ‘rescue’, except things don’t quite go that way and, far from being a  sweet if overly hormonal pubescent, Lukas is a psychopath in waiting.

Suffice to say Ashley finds herself bound and gagged to a chair, her current and former boyfriends don’t fare too well and what begins as a prank turns murderously sadistic, bloody and horrific. Laced with knowing irony and a solid set of jump moments, effectively directed and well acted by its largely unknown cast, this makes a welcome counterpoint to Hollywood’s predictable baubles and bonhomie of  Christmas cheer.  (Vue Star City)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

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

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

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

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Disaster Artist (15)

Released in 2003, starring and written, produced and directed by tinsel town wannabe Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and  nationality (sporting a  strangled, word-mangling Eastern European accent, several belts, shades, straggly black hair and a weathered appearance, he claimed to be  19  and from New Orleans) and with no perceptible talent in front of or behind the camera, making Ed Wood seem like Hitchcock, The Room was swiftly proclaimed to be one of the worst films ever made. However, rather than vanishing into oblivion, it gradually gained cult status for its stilted acting, erratic subplots  and staggeringly terrible script, eventually being tagged the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It even made back its $6million budget and turned a profit.

Now, James Franco, who, let’s face it, has known his fair share of awful movies, has produced, written,  directed and starred in this hysterical biopic based on the book of the same name documenting the film’s production. In what could prove the ultimate irony, it could even find itself among the Oscar nominees.

Franco’s brother Dave plays the baby-faced Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book), a struggling actor in San Francisco who, after  murdering Waiting for Godot, is impressed by classmate Tommy’s fearless bravura  reading  of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire  in an acting workshop (headed by Melanie Griffiths) and the pair form an unlikely friendship, eventually resolving to stick together and head to L.A. to make it in the movies. Inevitably, singularly ungifted,  neither get any breaks and so, on impulse, they decide to make their own movie, with Tommy in the lead as the man betrayed by his girlfriend with Greg in a major supporting role. However, when the cameras begin to roll, Greg quickly realises that Tommy might not quite be the man he’d imagined him to be, his lack of talent rendering scenes excruciating while his quirks (such as recreating a set exactly the same as the alley next to where they’re filming) make things a nightmare for everyone involved.

With a crew that includes Seth Rogen as  script supervisor (and ostensible director) Sandy Schklair,  Josh Hutcherson as 27-year-old cast as a mentally disabled teenager, Jacki Weaver as the actress trying to fathom out her pointless breast cancer subplot  and Zak Efron unrecognisable as a gangster, the film also includes priceless cameos from Judd Apataw as a testy producer and Sharon Stone as Greg’s agent while Alison Brie sparkles as the bartender who becomes his girlfriend and Bryan Cranston as himself. Plus, of course, Wiseau in person.

Franco is mesmerising as the unfathomable, indefatigable and seemingly oblivious Tommy, the film brilliantly recreating scenes from Wiseau’s film note for note as seen in the side-by-side comparisons over the end credits, his sympathetic performance underscoring the core message about believing in yourself even when that belief may be misguided,  pointedly reinforced in the film’s finale as monumental disaster and unqualified triumph go hand in hand.

Ultimately, although it hints at insecurities and hang ups and Franco’s screenplays offers moments  between Wiseau and Sestero that feed into The Room , you learn no more about Tommy or his motivations on screen than anyone knows about him off it, but that’s really not the point. No one ever sets out to make a bad film and this is a terrific love letter to the fire that drives someone to get behind a camera and make something for audiences to share and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; MAC; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)

There can be few people who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ self-published 1843 festive ghost story of redemption  which, it’s fair to say, was hugely instrumental in the way Christmas came to be celebrated. However, equally, it’s fair to say that few will be aware of its genesis and the autobiographical elements it contains. Based on Les Standiford’s non-fiction book about its writing, director Bharat Nalluri offers up a warm slice of Sunday afternoon family movie entertainment as the film traces how the famous story came together.

Dickens (Dan Stevens, most recently seen as the shaggy half of Beauty and the Beast) is in a slump. His last two novels, Martin  Chuzzelwit and Barnaby Rudge, weren’t exactly bestsellers  and his recent account of his travels in America remains gathering dust on bookshop shelves. About which smarmy rival William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) isn’t reticent in reminding him. On top of which, he’s hit a writing block, is living somewhat beyond his means (redecorating the grand London house he’s just bought) and on top of which his father (Jonathan Pryce), a kind but irresponsible sort who, never good with money, has taken to flogging his son’s signatures, has turned up from Bristol with Charles’ mother (Ger Ryan) to spend the Christmas holidays. And, to add to the money worries, his long-suffering wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark) has announced she’s expecting their fifth child.

Needing funds, with the help of his ‘manager’, John Forster (Justin Edwards), he convinces his publishers that he’s working on a new book, a Christmas story which he intends to have in the shops before Christmas Day, just a  few weeks away. Now all he has to do is come up with a story and write it.

Passing a cemetery, he bumps into a grumpy old codger, the only mourner at a funeral, and inspiration begins to form. Next thing you know, he’s being visited by the character he’s inspired, eventually naming him Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who comes to serve as a sort of ghost-writer, advising him on plot details and the like.

Likewise, other people  he encounters are translated into characters in the book (a bit like The Wizard of Oz), a couple dancing the streets become the Fezziwigs, banker-lawyer Haddock (Donald Sumpter) is recast as Jacob Marley the new maid Tara (Anna Murphy), whose bedtime tale  to the children sparked the idea of a ghost story, surfaces as the Ghost of Christmas Past while Forster (in a  sitting for Simon Callow’s preening illustrator) inspires Christmas Present and Dickens’ sister, brother-in-law and their invalid son provide the template for the Cratchits. Readers will also note how snatches of dialogue from those Dickens meets also find their way into the story.

Quite how much of this is based on fact and how much speculation is uncertain, but it makes for suitably whimsical telling while, as Dickens is struggling to come up with an ending as the deadline approaches, things take a dark turn with memories of a revisit to the shoe blacking factory to which he was consigned as a boy when his father as carted off to debtor’s prison as well as moments that show his self-centred, narcissistic and short-tempered uglier side as he lashes out at those around him as his ‘blockage’ becomes an increasing problem.

The film does a good job of bringing the writing process to life, but, part due to a typically vanilla performance from Stevens, it never comes to life in the same way as the similarly conceived Shakespeare In Love, which imagined the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet, but it should still go down nicely with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie. (Odeon Birmingham)

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stronger (15)

The second film based around the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but where Patriot’s Day detailed the hunt for those responsible, David Gordon Green’s film focuses its attention on the story of one of the survivors, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs below the knee, identified one of the bombers and  subsequently became a reluctant hero and the symbol for the Boston Strong movement.

It is not, as might be expected, a film about his road to recovery and learning to walk again on artificial legs. Although such elements naturally form part of the storyline, this is about a different kind of growth, from the immature, unreliable figure we see at the start to a very different person at the closing credits. This is mostly told through his relationship with ex- girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who, after any number of occasions when he’d not turned up as arranged,  he had gone to cheer on at the finishing line. Naturally, this also leads her to feel a sense of guilt which may, in part, explain why the two of them get back together, but there’s more to the relationship than his need and her feelings of blame. Running alongside this is the interaction with his overbearing and dysfunctional working class Boston family, primarily his divorced, alcoholic possessive mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) and, adapted from Bauman’s memoir, the film doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels between how she (and to a lesser extent the others) looked to bask in his limelight in much the same way that the city wheeled him out  at Red Sox games as an inspirational symbol. Neither they nor Patty step back and consider how Jess might be dealing with the divide between the hero he’s paraded as and the troubled victim he sees  when he looks at his shattered body. Green underscores this with traumatic flashbacks to the bombing and, in a moving scene between him and Carlos Arredondo, the man who saved him at the scene, a very pointed reference to post traumatic stress disorder.

That meeting also serves as Jeff’s epiphany and the moment when he looks beyond himself and his bouts of self-pity to see what his experience might mean for others. It’s also the moment when despite several intense close up moments emphasising Jeff’s anger, confusion and helplessness, after playing in a somewhat polite minor key, finally catches some sort of emotional fire.  Gyllenhaal delivers a terrific performance and character arc that balanaces dram and humour and he’s well matched with Maslany who finds her own strength to defy Patty and work past her guilt as well realise she can’t let  Jeff’s situation blind her to his propensity to be a selfish screw up. Green has delivered an inspirational film rich in humanity, but in doing so he’s remembered to leave  the rough edges and mix the bitter with the sweet.  (Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wonder (12A)

In many ways, a pre-teen variation on Mask, the 1985 movie starring Eric Stoltz and Cher about a boy with a facial disfigurement, this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel charts a year in the life of science geek and all round brainy 10-year-old Auggie Pullman as, after being home-schooled, he enters middle school for the first time. Directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it features another outstanding turn from young Jacob Tremblay, the child star of Room, as August ‘Auggie’ Pullman who, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation inherited from both his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), has had  extensive reconstructive surgery on his face.

With scars along his cheeks that pull down the corners of his eyes, he’s not as disfigured to the extent Stoltz’s character was, but, if even the slightest blemish can be an embarrassment for any child entering puberty, understandably Auggie’s condition makes him particularly hyper-sensitive, so that whenever he ventures outside with his folks he wears a toy astronaut’s helmet.  He even sometimes wears it at dinner.

However, his mother, who put her career on hold to raise him, feels it’s now time that he goes out into the world sand mixes with others, to which end the understanding school principal (Mandy Patinkin) has arranged for three kids to show him around before school starts, self-absorbed Charlotte (soon forgotten),  the spoiled Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes the bully of the piece, and Jack (Nate Jupe), a scholarship kid who becomes Auggie’s best friend and science partner, albeit not without a hiccup in the relationship along the way.

By the end of the day, he’s been nicknamed after one of his Star Wars favourites, Barf Hideous (in a conceit that doesn’t always work there’s fantasised appearances by both Darth Sideous and Chewbacca) while the bullying and ostracisation he endures from many of his classmates also lead him to be befriended by Summer (Millie Davis).

As such, this would be more than enough to make for a heart-tugging tearjerker as Auggie predictably struggles with rejection along the journey to acceptance, spelling out the moral lesson about difference and tolerance as it goes, but the narrative also features chapters, focusing (partly through flashbacks) on three other characters as we see things through their eyes. One is Jack who see being persuaded  to do the right things and be the new kid’s friend, and the pressures under which he feels, while another turns the spotlight in Auggie’s  older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who dearly loves her brother but, nevertheless feels that all the attention lavished on him at home, especially by her mother, has  been to her expense, leaving her feeling like a minor planet orbiting her brother’s sun, climaxing in a powerful scene between her and Isabel. Following her own journey to self-discovery and confidence, it sees her trying out for the school production of Our Town and striking up a romance with classmate Justin (Nadji Jeter).

 Also in the group is Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), one her best friend but, since they returned to school after the summer, seemingly wanting nothing to do with her. Miranda too gets her own chapter, offering up events that lead us to reassess any judgements we have passed. The same cannot be said of Julian, who remains the  cruel bully, although in a scene involving his parents, it’s easy to see where he gets it from.

It is all rather pat and, inevitably, somewhat manipulative, but, that said, thanks to a combination of the writing and the performances, Tremblay especially, and with a touching cameo from Sonia Braga as Via’s late grandmother, the emotions are honestly earned and genuinely heartfelt.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham –Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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