The Edge of Seventeen (15)
Turning twenty next week, Hailee Steinfield drops a few years to play troubled, self-deprecating and self-pitying Pacific Northwest high schooler Nadine Byrd, first seen bursting in on her laid back history teacher, Mr. Bruner (a wonderfully droll Woody Harrelson), to tell him she’s going to commit suicide. What follows, assisted by such Steinfield voiceover observations as “everyone in the world is as miserable and empty as I am; they’re just better at pretending”, covers the events leading up to this drama queen outburst and how things are eventually resolved.
Flashback to her childhood in which a petulantly sulky young Nadine (Lina Renna) is pissed off that her over-achieving nice guy older brother Darian gets all the attention, especially from mom Moma (Kyra Sedgwick). Things look up when, the school misfit and outsider, she finally makes a friend in kindred spirit Krista (Ava Grace Cooper) and the two become inseperable. Then, when Nadine’s thirteen, tragedy hits as her supportive father (Eric Keenleyside) suddenly dies. Things get worse when, one drunken night, Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), sleeps with Darian (Blake Jenner) and then becomes his girlfriend. Feeling betrayed, Nadine declares she has to choose between her or him, and when she won’t, she does it for her, cutting them both out of her life. Much to the continuing exasperation of her distracted mother.
To fill the gap, she becomes friends with awkwardly Korean-American shy nice guy film student classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), but, while it’s patently obvious he has a crush on her, she’s still fantasising over bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), to whom she sends a rather rash and explicit text about what she like to do to him and he to her that precipitates the opening scene.
Very much in the tradition of John Hughes; high school movies, Nadine’s the prototypical teenager who has to come to realise her self-worth and true beauty, much like Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink, while also echoing Winona Ryder in Heathers while the film also has echoes of such similar set offerings as Clueless and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Although writer and first time director Kelly Fremon Craig handles the world of teenage relationships and fragile emotions with a knowing but light hand, it’s the scenes and sarcastic banter between Nadine and Mr. Bruner (who’s not the sad sack of apathetic shit she takes him for) that are arguably the strongest and sharpest. A sharply observed witty comedy with a real sense of depth and a protagonist who can be as infuriating as she is engaging, this is Steinfield’s best work yet and a high school movie well worthy of joining the ranks of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Bleed For This (15)
Frank Bruno, Henry Cooper, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, even if you’re not a boxing fan you’ll probably have heard of all of these. Vinny Pazienza? Probably not. Dubbed the Pazmanian Devil, he was an Italian American boxer from Rhode Island who held lightweight, light middleweight and super middleweight world titles in the 80s and early 90s, but he doesn’t even figure on the Google list of top names in boxing history. All of which suggests there may not be a huge audience for this biopic by Boiler Room director Ben Younger, even if, exec produced by Martin Scorsese, it I does represent a relative return to form after the misfire of Prime and features another terrific performance from Whiplash star Miles Teller.
Like the best boxing movies, the story here is more about what happens outside of the ring and details how Paz, as he later renamed himself, made what is regarded as the greatest comeback in boxing history when, shortly after winning after the junior middleweight world title against Gilbert Dele in 1991, he suffered a broken neck in a car crash and was told he might not even walk again, let alone box. Refusing to have his spine fused, he elected to have halo surgery, whereby a circular metal neck brace was quite literally bolted to his skull for three months, During this time, with the help of his trainer, Mike Tyson’s former coach Kevin Rooney, unbeknownst to his family and against doctors’ orders, he began a workout regime to get back to fighting fitness, going on to take the world Super Middleweight Title by beating Robert Duran in 1994.
All this is dutifully addressed in the film with a charismatic Teller solidly delivering both Vinny’s early flash swagger and subsequent refusal to accept what everyone told him and putting himself through a punishing regime (not to mention the agony of insisting the halo be removed without anaesthetic) – which, with one misstep could have left him paralysed, in order to return to the ring. He’s bolstered by two other effective turns by Ciaran Hinds as Angelo, Paz’s gym-owning high pressure father, and Aaron Eckhart as the balding, hard drinking Rooney finding is own redemption through training Vinny, first taking him up a weight to beat Dele and then through the gruelling fight back.
It’s an inspirational story of one man’s spirit against the odds, but it never quite lands the knockout blow it needs. The other figures in Paz’s life, his devout Catholic mother (Katey Sagal) who can’t bring herself to watch her son’s matches, brash sister Doreen (Amanda Clayton), promoter Lou Duva (Ted Levine) who, then his manager, announced Vinny’s retirement following defeat to Roger Mayweather, without consulting him, and the anonymous girlfriends are all just loosely sketched. There’s even assorted friends or family who gather in front of the TV to watch the fights who are never identified.
The film also compresses and skips events. Although it presents the Duran match as Paz’s comeback, in reality he’d already made that in 1992, beating Louis Santana and had won a further three fights before meeting Duran. There’s also the problem in that the ringside action is all rather underwhelming and the actual final fight feels somewhat of an anticlimax.
The film has some fancy footwork and lands several solid blows, but it’s always a contender never a champ. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Arriving on the heels of Ewan McGregor’s misfiring directorial debut, American Pastoral, James Schamus’ film is not just the most but arguably the only successful cinematic adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. Set in the early 50s, it follows Jewish atheist Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son on a New Jersey butcher. as, partly to avoid the draft (the film opens in the dark with the sound of gunshots and a knifing in the Korean War before cutting to a funeral service) and partly to escape his overprotective father (Danny Burstein), he takes up a scholarship and moves to Winesburg College in Ohio. Here he determines to bury himself in his studies, declining to join the Jewish fraternity or socialise. He does, however, take WASP fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) on what proves to be a somewhat awkward date, but which doe send up with her giving him head in a borrowed car. It is Marcus’ first sexual experience and it is to have major ramifications on both his and her subsequent life at the college. Like McGregor, this too is Schamus’ feature debut as a director, though he is well known as the writer of the likes of The Ice Storm (another film about a chain of events and the tragic fallout from a sexual awakening), Eat Drink Man Woman and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he is far more assured with the material as he channels it towards the dark melancholy of its denouement which returns to the brief opening shot of an elderly woman in a retirement home.
Early on he abruptly cut to a scene of Olivia visiting Marcus in hospital where he talks about vomiting over the Dean’s trophies, audaciously withholding the events leading up to that until much later. Likewise, a scene of the doomed lovers at a restaurant is broken into two lengthily separated sequences. But it works, reinforcing the film’s exploration of causality and how we end up at specific moments.
Lerman, who is in pretty much every scene, is even better than in The Perks of Being A Wallflower and he’s matched by an equally award worthy performance by Tracy Letts as the moralising, contemptuous Dean Cauldwell, a 15 or so minute exchange between them, during which an indignant Marcus defends his position by citing Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize winning essay Why I Am Not A Christian, a masterclass in directing, acting and writing. Likewise, as Marcus’ controlling mother, Linda Emond has a terrific scene as she warns her son he should avoid damaged goods like Olivia. It’s hard a very low key release, but it’s up there with the year’s very best. (MAC)
The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (an underused Nicole Scherzinger) and Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not all everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House), who most tend to regard as the local crazy woman, but who knows – and eventually reveals to Moana – the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.
She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, the story of how the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the glowing jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, that knocked him from skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until one day by the water’s edge, a wave comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.
Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.
And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway stupid cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off in a boat, to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple have the courage to be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It also is self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against bursting into song.
Cravhalo brings both naivete and a lively spark of feistiness to Moana, while, his character (think Aladdin’s Genie reconceived as a tattoo sporting muscle bound hulk), sporting his own set of animated tattoos, including Mini-Maui which serve as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs (though the chicken scores several too), but also serving to explore nature of being a hero and the power of friendship in the face of trouble. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And to balance the touch of new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.
The songs may not have the mass singalong appeal of Let It Go or Do You Want to Build A Snowman , but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny is another highlight. Johnson’s You’re Welcome isn’t bad either, though he shouldn’t consider a solo album. Whether it has the strength and innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. It’s preceded by Inner Workings, an Inside Out-like animated short about a meek clerk’s assorted internal organs, his overcautious brain and taking chances in life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)
On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.
In the following enquiry, the offhand and often smirking National Transportation Safety Board investigators (represented by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) were less enthusiastic and more sceptical, feeling that he should have followed protocol and, by undertaking a forced water landing, had put everyone’s lives in danger. According to their simulations, the plane could have safely made it back to either LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro Airport.
It’s a matter of record that Sully’s actions were ultimately vindicated, rather undercutting any sense of dramatic tension to Clint Eastwood’s film which ultimately turns into a sort of NTSB hearing version of a courtroom drama complete with the equivalent of the last minute surprise witness as Sully asks them to take the human factor into account in their simulations.
And, indeed, focusing on the aftermath rather than the event, it is the human factor that the film’s about, exploring the idea of a ‘hero’, Sully (played impeccably by a white-haired Tom Hanks) protesting that he was simply a man doing the job he was trained to do and that, anyhow, it was a crew effort.
For an Eastwood film, despite a brisk 96 minutes running time, it has a somewhat bitty structure, cutting between the post crash events and what happened during the flight (keeping shots of the actual forced landing –well worth seeing in IMAX – and plane evacuation until towards the end) with neither the pointless flashbacks to Sully’s early years as a pilot nor the phone conversations with his worried wife (Laura Linney) really adding much to proceedings.
Hanks is, as you would assume, excellent as a man asking himself whether he might have done things differently (he’s tormented by visions of the plane crashing into a New York skyscraper) and patiently enduring the bureaucratic red tape of the investigation. And although Aaron Eckhart provided solid support (as well as the jokes and the ripostes to the enquiry suits ) as loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles, his is a far more backseat performance, while, despite a couple of attempts at character sketches (an elderly golf dad and his son) the passengers and the rest of the crew are rarely more than extras. As a celebration of a professionalism and a salute to “ just a man doing a job”, trusting his instincts, but nevertheless having the humility to question the decisions he makes, along with a subtext that questions the reliance on computer technology over human experience, it’s a rather old-fashioned affair that cruises at engaging low altitude, but never really soars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Accountant (15)
Following box office misfire Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool thriller about a high functioning autistic numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a tooled-up emotionally blank vigilante for hire with a female voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.
Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale.
We first meet the man in question, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman and he’s subsequently hired to looking into possible financial irregularities at Living Robotics, a high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused), the perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.
Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail leads to them both being marked for elimination as he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.
Punctuating this is a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, and to prison scenes between adult Wolff bonds and a former mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.
Gradually unfolding as an action movie, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck delivers a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually come together. The note of redemption in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller which promises to see a solid return on investment. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Director Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to old fashioned wartime melodrama for Steven Knight’s love story cum espionage thriller to solid effect, so it’s unfortunate that it’s more likely to be remembered as the film that put an end to Brangelina on account of Brad Pitt’s alleged (and denied) affair with co-star Marion Cotillard star. Pitt is Max Vatan, a Canadian pilot and intelligence officer who’s dispatched to Casablanca to link up with French spy Marianne Beauséjour (Cottilard), who’s got herself cosy with high up collaborationists in the Vichy government, posing as her Parisian husband as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador.
The mission turns out to a sort of foreplay and, once the job’s done, he arranges for her to come to London where they get married and have a daughter, born, rather dramatically, in the middle of the Blitz. All’s bliss until Max is summoned to see his commanding officer (Jared Harris) and finds himself face to face with an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) from the Special Operations Executive who informs him that his wife is suspected of being a Nazi spy and, if that turns out to be true, he has to execute her himself or face being hung as a traitor himself.
Although Marianne’s words, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works”, come back to haunt him, he refuses to believe she’s not who she says she is and, disobeying orders, armed with her wedding photo, duly sets out to disprove the accusation, a quest that takes him to a French lock up and a run in with bunch of German soldiers.
It would, of course, be wrong to reveal more and the film cleverly keeps you guessing; however, suffice to say, as per the Casablanca set up, the film has much to do with what is and what is not true, both as regards faked relationships and the people involved. Like their characters, Pitt and Cottilard have persuasive chemistry, enhanced no little by the glowing
cinematography, as the film slips between domestic bliss (including a picnic in their leafy suburb next to a downed German bomber), domestic tension (she susses something’s up when sex gets angry) and tense action before a dramatic climax that, while it doesn’t somehow quite have the punch it should, won’t leave audiences feeling cheated and will probably give Jolie a sense of vicarious satisfaction too. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Almost Christmas (12A)
The dysfunctional family Christmas get together comedy has become a staple of the festive season, and this African-American one won’t deliver anything you don’t expect, but is amusing and warming in all the right places, nonetheless. A year on since his wife’s death, retired auto-shop owner Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is having family and friends over to his house for five days. But without Grace and her famous pies to broker disagreements, can having everyone together under one roof possibly go smoothly?
Among those due to gather round the dinner table are daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union), now a recently divorced mum trying to pay her way through law school; her overachieving big sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and her former pro basketball player slacker husband Lonnie (JB Smoove); Aunt May (Mo’Nique), a brash and blousy former backup singer with a fondness for a drink and habit of saying what she thinks; Walter’s assorted grandkids; and, destined to spice things up, Malachi (Omar Epps), the now grown-up kid from next door who had a thing for Rachel, and Jasmine, the supermarket assistant she’s wickedly invited who’s been having an affair with Lonnie. Sparks inevitably fly, pies are inevitably burned, long-delayed romance inevitably blossoms and flashbacks to happier times inevitably punctuate proceedings. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a family Christmas movie without a seasonal decoration going haywire, here an electric Santa sculpture, and the obligatory huggy ending. But the fact that you know what’s inside the wrapping, doesn’t make the gift less enjoyable. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
It’s been almost twenty years since the last thoughtful and intellectually serious film about first contact (that being Jodie Foster is Robert Zemeckis’ Contact), but, following up Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve has delivered a masterful contribution to the genre that is up there with both that and Close Encounters, and which, like them, is more focused on its human characters than its aliens.
When a dozen elliptical black obelisks suddenly appear over different sites around the world, England, Russia, India, China and the US among them, and just hover there doing nothing (media hysteria and public panic inevitably grow. Meanwhile, US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists top linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join a multinational team, along with maverick theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and help decipher the language, essentially noises, they have recorded from the occupants, dubbed heptapods on account of their squid-like appearance with seven tentacle limbs at the base of their towering bodies.
Before all this, however, a prologue reveals that Banks has suffered tragedy, her marriage having fallen apart and having seen her baby daughter Hannah grow up only to die young of cancer, flashbacks of which regularly enter her mind when she’s trying to communicate with the two aliens, whom she and Ian dub Abbott and Costello, as they seek to decipher the inky swirl hieroglyphs that are their written language. As you might assume, those flashbacks have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, as she and Donnelly seek to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ visit, some countries, headed up by China and Russia, are getting edgy and, on the basis of their own linguists’ interpretations of the aliens use of the term ‘weapon’, are moving towards military confrontation, their CIA liaison wants to shut operations down and the clock is ticking.
As with the best sci fi, the film isn’t about aliens but humanity and the big questions of life as the screenplay addresses themes of love, loss, time, communication and perception in serious-minded, but never heavy-handed fashion. Relying on audiences’ familiarity with screen narrative conventions, the film cleverly harbours an M Night Shyamalan-like twist that, although the hints do gather in the final stretch, is virtually impossible to see coming and which delivers a breathtakingly audacious and heartfelt emotion-laded resolution.
Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Bad Santa 2 (15)
Thirteen years after Terry Zwigoff brought a welcome breath of foul air to the annual festive sentimentality, director Mark Waters reintroduces the dissolute, depraved and generally drunk Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) who, after the shot of redemption at the end of the first film, is back at rock bottom, living in a dump and so depressed he decides to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Unfortunately, it’s electric. Then, midway through trying to hang himself, enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the now grown up pudgy kid from the first film who has clung to him as surrogate family over the years. More importantly, he’s also reunited former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who, despite trying to stitch him up last time, has another surefire job lined up, in Chicago, with a far higher payday.
However, much to Willie’s horror, the mastermind turns out to be his long estranged criminal mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates). She’s brought him in to crack the safe at the homeless charity she’s working at, where, on Christmas Eve, while everyone’s watching the children’s concert, she plans to make off with the $2million or so from its Santa collections which crooked charity boss Regent (Ryan Hansen) is intending to skim for himself.
After much crude name calling, Willie agrees to go along with the robbery , though this will mean them having to relieve the sex-mad receptionist of the key to the office, a task for which Marcus happily volunteers, and, as things turn out, Willie, back in the red suit and beard again, screwing Regent’s neglected recovering alcoholic wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks). On top of which, the blissfully innocent Thurman has come to Chicago to spend Christmas with Willie.
There’s rather less of the first film’s satire on Christmas commercialism and rather more references to anal sex, not to mention jokes about child abuse, disability, race, autism, the list goes on, But, behind the vulgarity and political incorrectness, the film is also about loneliness, the fear of connection that drives nihilistic self-destruction and, just when you least expect it, a poignant emotional epiphany. Of course, mostly though it’s about booze and sex. Bates is particularly game and scabrously funny as the monstrous, heavily-tattooed mother from hell, while Kelly is a treat as the film’s blissfully unaware angel of light and unconditional love. It is, though a grizzled Thornton who, even in Willie’s most debased moments, is the film’s backbone, finding the soft heart beating behind the bile. If you feel you’ll scream if you have to sit through It’s A Wonderful Life again, get yourself on the naughty list and go sit on this Santa’s lap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Doctor Strange (12A)
One of the Marvel Universe’s biggest box office hits, this sees Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant and egotistical New York neurosurgeon who, his hands crippled in a car accident, sets off to Tibet in search of a mysterious order than he believes can heal him, eventually being taken in and mentored by the so called Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton) and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mystic arts. Initial skepticism quickly giving way to a driven desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, Strange’s first challenge comes when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disciple turned rogue who stole a forbidden spell, returns to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world, thereby allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.
The occult arts are, of course, a licence to let the special effects run riot and the film doesn’t stint, characters creating warp holes with their special rings, both the Ancient One and Kaecilius using spells to make reality – as in the streets and buildings of New York – fold in on itself like some living kaleidoscopic Escher nightmare, everyone wielding mystical weapons and Strange, equipped with the Eye of Agamotto and his iconic sentient red cloak, able to move time back and forth.
However, as with all the Marvel Universe films, it’s about more than visual spectacle with the cast and screenplay bringing philosophical, psychological and emotional depth to proceedings, one scene in particular managing to be simultaneously funny, thrilling and dramatic, as Strange has to fight not only against those bent on destroying the world, but also his own insecurities and damaged sense of self-worth. Indeed, with his line in flippant humour, Cumberbatch’s Strange is cut from similar cloth to Tony Stark.
Unlike the comics, here Wong (Benedict Wong) is the keeper of the Ancient One’s library and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum as opposed to Strange’s valet, while the romantic interest is provided not by fellow mystic Clea, but by fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a name Marvel fans will recall from the short-lived Night Nurse and Nightcrawler comics. And while Ejiofor may feel somewhat underused this time round, his role as Strange’s nemesis in the comic, ensures he’ll have much more to do in the inevitable sequel while the obligatory end credit scenes reveal that, before then, Strange will be casting a spell over the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)
J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).
Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.
With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile, the puritanical Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.
Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.
Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.
The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino, develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).
Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.
The closing reveal sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Gimme Danger (15)
Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about The Stooges, the pioneering American punk outfit led by James Osterberg aka Iggy Pop that revolutionised rock music in the counterculture 60s, featuring new interviews with Pop, the only surviving original member, and James Williamson as well as archive interviews with the late Ron and Scott Asheton alongside vintage clips and live footage. (Sun/Wed: Electric)
The Girl on the Train (15)
One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.
A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.
So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.
Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.
Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.
Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.
Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although the film works to make Rachel sympathetic, they’re all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl. (Vue Star City)
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)
Despite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.
It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.
So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.
So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.
Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be and act differently depending on where she is in the plot and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent, lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment. (Vue Star City)
Nocturnal Animals (15)
Fashion designer Tom Ford follows his 2009 writer-director debut, A Single Man, with a slow burning adaptation of Austin Wright’s revenge thriller, Tony and Susan, its shots of obese naked women dancing in slow motion in front of a camera like no credits opening before them. They are, it transpires, part of the latest exhibition staged by high powered but emotionally distant Los Angeles gallery director Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) businessman husband’s (Arnie Hammer) financial problems are threatening to bring them both down. The marriage is also on shaky ground, confirmed when he says he has take off on a weekend business trip and we subsequently see him in a hotel with another woman.
Meanwhile, Susan’s received the draft of a novel by Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her college sweetheart and first husband whom she’s had no contact with in 19 years. Dedicated to her, it’s titled Nocturnal Animals after her insomnia. The film now divides into three strands: the present as she reads the manuscript, flashbacks to their time together and the events in the novel wherein, driving through West Texas at night, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are orced off the deserted highway by a bunch of redneck thugs (led by an effectively repellant Aaron Taylor Johnson,) who kidnap the women. Eventually found naked, dead after being raped, the investigation is taken on by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a grizzled lawman who, as the months pass, makes it a personal quest to bring the murderers to justice and, if that fails, to help Tony gain revenge.
As the film interweaves between the real timelines and the fictional events which Susan’s disturbed by but compelled to read, seems that Edward (never seen in the present) is using the memories the story evokes to punish his ex-wife, who never offered the support he needed and (echoing her ultra-conservative mother – Laura Linney) saw him as weak. There’s also another very specific reason that only becomes clear in one devastating flashback. Tellingly, Susan visualises Tony as looking like Edward, while casting Fisher as the wife clearly has its own visual resonances. Significantly, the flashbacks are only ever seen from Susan’s perspective, which further compounds the suggestion that this may be about a consuming sense of guilt.
Slowly and assuredly building the suspense, the ending won’t please those who like everything tied up neatly, but there’s no denying it lingers in the mind. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
Ouija – Origin of Evil (15)
Despite being a thoroughly forgettable horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to which Before I Wake director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.
Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.
Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.
Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.
Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.
There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
A Street Cat Named Bob (12A)
Directed by Roger Spottiswood and based on the bestselling autobiography and subsequent series of books, this is a heartwarming tale about someone turning their life around with the help of a loyal friend. In this case, a cat.
It’s 2007 and James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) is a recovering heroin addict on a methadone programme, earning spare change as a London busker (courtesy of songs by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink). Thanks to his supportive case worker (Joanne Froggatt), James gets one last chance when he’s allocated a social housing flat into which, one night, comes a stray ginger tom. When attempts to find its owner prove fruitless, James decides to keep him (or vice versa), which, in turn, introduces him to Betty (Ruta Gedmintas), his vegan neighbour with her own past drugs-related tragedy, who informs him that the animal wants to be called Bob and has come to James for a reason.
And so it would appear as, taking him out busking, Bob’s soon attracting hitherto unknown crowds and turning the pair into a YouTube phenomenon and, when an incident has James banned from busking, joins him selling the Big Issue, perched on his shoulder outside Angel tube station in Islington with people asking to have a selfie taken with him. His life gradually turning around, James seeks to reunite with his estranged father (Anthony Head), but, while there’s a general lightness of tone and often playful humour, there will still be darker passages to navigate before the happy ending.
The tone’s uneven, but, steering clear of mawkishness, while minor, it’s an appealingly and very British feelgood film about choosing life and the redemptive power of friendship that’s well served by its central two legged cast, although it will come as no surprise to learn that, mostly playing himself, the real star here is Bob who makes Pudsy look like a rank amateur. (Vue Star City)
Created in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, known as Gonks in the UK, were a huge fad in both the 60s and at different times from the 70s to the 90s. Now they’re back, making their feature film starring debut in this animated Day-Glo musical adventure from the various creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda that’s aimed very firmly at the under-7s.
A felt scrapbook prologue introduces the Trolls as “the happiest creatures the world had ever known”, always ready to burst into a song or dance and hugging every hour. They once lived in a tree in the middle of the town, but their neighbours, the ogre-like Bergens, led by King Gristle (John Cleese), had no idea what happiness was. They were the most miserable creatures in the world. Seeing how happy the Trolls were, they thought that they could feel that happiness too – if they ate a Troll. And so began the annual ritual of Trollstice, during which the Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski) would pluck Trolls from the tree and serve them up. Until the day came for Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to have his first taste of Troll and it was found that the Trolls had all escaped, leaving the Prince in tears and Chef in exile.
Twenty years later, after being led to freedom by King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), the Trolls live safely hidden in the forest, enjoying a life that is all rainbows, under the uber-enthusiasm of the brightly pink Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). To commemorate their escape from the cooking pot, she’s planning to hold the biggest, brightest and loudest party ever. Something that Branch (Justin Timberlake), who, coloured a drab grey, is, for reasons we discover later, the world’s only unhappy troll, warns will give their location away.
And, so it is that, in the midst of their celebrations, along comes Chef who scoops up a bagful of Trolls, including blue Biggie (James Cordon), the giraffe-like Cooper, hippie-philosopher Creek (Russell Brand), fashion twins Satin & Chenille (Icona Pop) and Sparky who, to the delight of the youngsters, farts glitter dust.
And so, Poppy resolves to rescue them, a quest in which she’s reluctantly joined by Branch and which will involve them joining forces with scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who’s secretly in love with Prince Gristle, giving her a Cinderella-styled rainbow hairdo makeover, complete with discarded skating boot in place of a glass slipper. And, inevitably, any number of mostly disco-driven songs, the soundtrack featuring both new Timberlake numbers and old hits like True Colors and I’m Coming Out.
Although there’s some sly references, there’s very little here for the grown-ups. However, as well as a subtle anti-drugs caution about pill-popping to feel good, the message about how true happiness lies within you has no age limits and, while the film’s relentless energy may be exhausting, it’s also infectious with such various inspired and funny moments as the talking Cloud Guy. Anyone older than their shoe size may find it annoying, but it’s still hard not to leave without a smile on your face. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
A United Kingdom (12A)
In 1947, insurance clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) met Oxford graduate and law student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) at a London Missionary Society dance. Despite the objections of her ultra-conservative shopkeeper father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and sneering British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a year later the pair married and looked to face life ahead. This, however, had rather more problems than racism in the streets of London. Seretse was, in fact, heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), a British protectorate, and his intention for them to return home and take up his position, with Ruth as his queen, did not sit well with either his tradition-minded uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who’d been acting as regent, or the powers that be in Whitehall, caricatured by both Canning and even more obnoxious civil servant Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), as it would threaten Great Britain’s relationship with South Africa in the light of its new apartheid policies. Indeed, things went so far as for the post-war Labour Government to have Khama exiled back to the UK, leaving his wife behind in Africa for several years before she was allowed to join him, his cause championed by the likes of young Leftist politician Tony Benn (Jack Lowden).
Arriving in Africa, Ruth also has her own battle for acceptance from the locals, as embodied in her sister-in-law Naledi (Terry Pheto), but knuckling down and a couple of stirring she’s my wife speeches from Seretse soon seem to smooth all that over.
As written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Amma Asante, it’s more a romantic against the odds fairy-tale than political commentary, oversimplifying events (particularly the importance of finding diamonds in the country) to some extent and unsubtly balancing the noble-hearted couple against the weaselly politicians manipulating the marriage for their own ends. The need to deliver exposition often gives a clunky feel to the dialogue, but, delivering well modulated performances, there’s a genuine chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo and, while his is the more charismatic figure, Ruth has determined British get on with it resolve in her blood too. Nonetheless, considerably less impressive than Asante’s previous Belle, which also dealt with themes of colour, society and outsider status, and feeling longer than its two hours, it never really rises above its soft and politely styled melodrama. (Cineworld 5 NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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