The Greatest Showman (12A)
Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of 19th century showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.
Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.
It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.
Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval, and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and, brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.
Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.
It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.
Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory..
But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines, the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage is surely a given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Molly’s Game (15)
Having penned the screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, not to mention TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is already one of the great screenwriters and he now makes his Scorsese-influenced debut as a hyphenate, both writing and directing the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful who, her career shattered by a frozen stick on a ski course, went on to set up and run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game before until arrested by heavily armed FBI agents.
Based on Bloom’s titular memoir in which she declined to identify the celebrities and other high fliers who took part in the games, the film cuts back and forth between the run up to the court case and the events leading up to the bust. In the former, with the Feds pressuring her to name names, specifically the members of the Russian Mafia she’d unwittingly welcomed into her circle.she’s represented by initially reluctant and alpha male defence attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba as a fictionalisation of Bloom’s actual -white – lawyer, Jim Walden) increasingly frustrated by his client’s seemingly self-destructive streak. The backstory begins in California with Bloom becoming personal assistant to a guy (Jeremy Strong) running a sideline underground poker game, gradually becoming the brains and making connections with the regulars, most notably malicious movie star Player X (Michael Cera allegedly based on Tobey Maguire). When her boss gives her the elbow, Bloom relocates to New York and sets up on her own game with an even bigger buy-in, recruiting sexy hostesses, poaching his players and quickly pulling in a well-heeled array of others and somewhat inevitably developing drug habit that ultimately affects her judgement.
In many ways its entwined themes of power, money and pride are a gender spin mirror The Wolf of Wall Street, without the excess, being Sorkin, it’s inevitably packed with rapidly delivered dialogue and a heady barbed and witty exchanges, but he still keeps up a cracking sense of pace and tension while exploring moral codes, the importance of reputation (at one point Bloom refuses to disclose names because her reputation and dignity are all she has left) and women trying to succeed in a world dominated by high-powered men.
Eventually devolving into a court room drama (presided over by Grahame Green’s judge), the ending is, as in real life, something of an anti-climax, but the back and forth tables turning scene between Bloom, Jaffey and the FBI prosecutors is up there with the best of John Grisham. As the complex, determined yet also vulnerable Bloom who seemingly has no private life, Chastain gives another Oscar-worthy performance to rival last year’s Miss Sloane and, although often confined to reaction or exposition advancing sequences Elba makes for an imposing, magnetic figure and does get arguably the best speech . As Bloom’s tough-love psychologist father, Kevin Costner delivers another outstanding support turn, highlighted by a scene with Chastain at the ice skating rink in Central Park where he delivers several years of psychoanalysis in a few minutes while Chris O’Dowd provides dry humour as the poetic-tongued, drinking problem player who sets up the Russian introductions. It may be Sorkin’’s first time at the director’s table, but this holds a Royal Flush. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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 behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.
Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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; Vue Star City)
Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm, never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale). On learning that his father – and all the other bulls – never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.
However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres, that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.
Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.
It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and, even if all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things, the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Pitch Perfect 3 (12A)
The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy narrative about individual scenes designed to facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.
Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.
Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.
Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and the competitive Evermoist, an all-girl punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.
However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.
It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name, there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.
As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin with the lengthy end credits black and white outtakes suggesting some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments, sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights, to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)
Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the Millennium Falcon, Rey (Daisy Ridley), has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.
As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.
Things are further divided into myriad subplots (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.
Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.
As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.
Initially slightly stiff (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo return of two iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off. Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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. (Odeon Broadway Plaza, Vue Star City)
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. (MAC; Vue Star City)
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