Snowden (15) On Jun 5, 2013, in an article written by reporters Glenn Greenwald and Edward McAskill, The Guardian newspaper published a headline claiming that the Obama administration had forced telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans. It was the first of a series of revelations unmasking the covert surveillance of communications being carried out by the US government on its allies, other countries and its own citizens. On June 10, it revealed the identity of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, a computer expert, former CIA intelligence officer and employee of defence contractor Booz Allen. In an interview, he said he was revealing the classified information about surveillance programmes (mostly from the NSA), some 10,000 documents in all, because “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded … My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
The political fallout was, if anything, even greater than WikiLeaks and Snowden was, inevitably, declared a traitor by the US government. Others, of course, saw him a hero fighting to expose a Big Brother system. Oliver Stone is one such. In his most politically overt film since Nixon, he tells what led Snowden (played superbly and meticulously by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to make his life changing decision as, initially an enthusiastic, straitlaced (no drinks, no drugs) and basically politically conservative computer geek looking to serve his country, to what he and his colleagues (not all of them with the same reservations) were being asked to do.
The characters are a mix of fact and fiction. Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson are Greenwald and McAskill, who were contacted to meet Snowden in Hong Kong, while Melissa Leo plays Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who recorded Snowden’s revelations and convinced him to appear on camera, eventually releasing her Oscar winning documentary, Citizenfour, in 2014. Likewise, Shailene Woodley plays Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s real life liberal-minded pole-dancing performance artist girlfriend (they meet through computer dating) and a hefty chunk of the film focuses on how being unable to talk about his top secret work impacted on their relationship.
On the other hand, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans), the high ranking CIA official who becomes his mentor, training him up as his top cyberspace warrior, Nicholas Cage’s disillusioned Agency veteran put to grass, the CIA hacker dude (Ben Schnetzer) who shows him the program that can hack into anyone and everyone’s lives, the Geneva agent (Timothy Olyphant) whose turning of a contact first pricks Snowden’s conscience and his various NSA colleagues (Scott Eastwood among them) are fictionalised amalgams
Adopting a procedural approach, often nodding to espionage thriller tropes, the film cuts back and forth between the hotel room interview and events leading up, while, following the publication and outing, and Snowden’s flight to, ultimately, Russia, sees Stone incorporate both newsreel footage and, for a recreation of the televised interview with Alan Rusbridger, the real Edward Snowden playing himself. It is dense with technical jargon, but never to extent of being unfathomable and, rather like the news articles, it reveals the extent of the US government’s surveillance bit by bit, letting you gradually take in the enormity of what you are seeing and the way in which those behind it not only accept it, but treat it as a bit of a laugh.
The pros and cons of surveillance in a terror-ridden world are open to debate, and, while the film is clearly on Snowden’s side, it does offer enough of the counter arguments to fuel the debate. In a Trump-climate America, it perhaps rather inevitably floundered at the box office, but, arguably the most important film of the year, it will hopefully prove a far greater draw here. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City
The Birth of a Nation (15)
Another politically-charged affair, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, the Baptist preacher slave who, in 1831, led a bloody uprising of slaves and free Blacks against white plantation owners in Southampton County, Virginia, has been somewhat overshadowed by the controversy over actor-writer-director Parker’s trial and acquittal of rape in his college years. However, disregarding that and focusing on the actual film, still leaves it wanting, despite its Sundance awards. Reclaiming the title from the 1915 racist silent epic is a bold move, but, while the production is impressive, first time director Parker falls short of DW Griffiths in technical mastery, much feeling heavy handed (an ear of corn leaking blood), portentously strained (flashbacks of prophecy and supernatural-hued dream sequences), mechanical (young Nate playing happily with the plantation owner’s white son), incongruous (a candlelit topless scene between Turner and his new bride, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King) or simply cheesy as in his visions of her as a black angel complete with white robes and wings.
Parker is undeniably impressive as Nat who, as the film shows, learns to read with the help of his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), albeit only from The Bible, and grows up to become the plantation’s preacher, a gift which, taking him out of the cotton-picking fields, sees him hiked around the country by Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer), the kid whose now the plantation’s new financially but (until he’s challenged) ostensibly benevolent strapped owner, to deliver sermons exhorting restless slaves to obey their masters.
Ultimately, of course, seeing one too many instances of graphically shown brutality, he turns his preaching to exhort rage eventually smashing an axe into Samuel and leading the brief but bloody rebellion (which, some argue, led the spark that led to the Civil War) that took the lives of 60 white men, women, and children, before being cut down in an attack on the armoury, the savage reprisals and his eventual hanging.
However, while Parker is a charismatic – if slightly dramatically limited presence, the other characters (save for the Jackie Early Harley’s leering loathsome slave catcher who rapes and batters Cherry) feel flat and underwritten. Turner says he took Braveheart as one of his templates, but his film never rises to the level of either that or recent American slavery outings, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave. There is a stunning blood-chilling moment as the camera pans back to shows the hanged bodies of slaves, men and women, while Nina Simone’s version of Strange Fruit plays. If only the rest of the film could have had that same power. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City
The Incident (15)
Making her feature debut, writer-director Jane Linfoot delivers a British psychological drama about a successful young couple whose comfortable lives are disrupted and their relationship unravels when troubled teenage girl Lily sets off a chain of events that challenges them to examine who they really are. (Sun-Tue: MAC)
Office Christmas Party (15)
Although the development of ‘the internet of things” means the revelatory breakthrough that restores order to chaos and facilitates everyone’s happy ending is about three years out of date, there’s much fun to be had in this festive-themed ensemble comedy about an office party that gets seriously out of hand when the uptight HR director (Kate McKinnon) inadvertently drops a bag of cocaine into the snow machine.
So, how does it get to that point? The Chicago branch of internet technology company Zenotek is struggling to turn a profit, Or at least the sort of profit demanded by acting CEO, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), a brittle numbers cruncher who turns up to tell her happy go lucky, fun-loving brother Clay (T.J. Miller) that, not only is he not holding his planned Christmas bash and all bonuses are cancelled, but that she’s going to fire most of the employees and, if that’s not enough, shut the branch down. It seems she all resentful of the fact that Clay was daddy’s favourite and left him he Chicago branch, which he managed, as an inheritance. Now she’s makes the Grinch look like the life and soul of the party.
However, family friend and chief technical officer, Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) has a solution. If they can land a major contract with a potential big leagues client, then she’ll keep the branch open and everyone’s jobs will be safe. However, when Clay, Josh and his co-worker (and simmering romantic interest) Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn) pitch to Walter (Courtney B Vance), the company’s rep with her not yet quite resolved new interconnectivity idea, he passes. The only thing to do is to defy Carol, stage the most lavish office party, invite Walter and, with Clay playing Santa, impress him with Zenotek’s family culture. Naturally, chaos ensues.
Adopting a similar approach to The Hangover (though not quite as crude), it threads together a variety of characters with their own sub-plots, among them the love-hate relationship between Mary (a woman with some dark secrets) and permanently angry Custom Relations manager Jeremy (Rob Corddry), Nate (Deadpool’s Karan Soni), the ineffectual manager who desperately hires a sexy escort (Abbey Lee) to pose as the imaginary hot girlfriend his sceptical underlings rightly don’t believe he has, and single mom Allison (Vanessa Bayer) who doesn’t make the wisest choice of colleague for a little r&r in the daycare centre. Then, as an added comic attraction, there’s a very funny turns by Jillian Bell as Trina, Nate’s escort’s deranged pimp and Joy Randolph as the taser-wielding security guard,
However, it’s Miller, McKinnon, Munn, Bateman and Aniston who lead the comedic charge, with Bateman providing the bemused centre of calm (and some fine deadpan lines) and Aniston relishing her opportunity to play the bitch, most notably in an airport lounge scene as she ruins one little girl’s Christmas. It’s a bit slow to get going and the script, with six credited writers, keeps leaving the party mayhem for a different film where Josh, Carol, Tracey and Mary have to rescue Clay (and the $300,000 strapped to his body) from Trina and save Chicago from an internet meltdown. However, there’s also a slyness to it that sets up teasers for scenarios that never actually happen, such as the Rottweiler wife from whom Josh is finally divorced in the opening scenes or the urn Clay has containing dad’s ashes. Or maybe they just got forgotten in the frenzy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; 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 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; 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. (Odeon Broadway Plaza)
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; 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)
Bleed For This (15)
Even if you’re not a boxing fan, you’ll probably be familiar with Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. But Vinny Pazienza? Probably not. Dubbed the Pazmanian Devil, he was an Italian American boxer from Rhode Island who held three world titles at different weights in the 80s and early 90s, but 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 it does feature 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 arguably the greatest comeback in boxing history when, shortly after winning after the junior middleweight world title in 1991, he suffered a broken neck in a car crash and was told he might not even walk again, let alone box. However, 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, Kevin Rooney, unbeknownst to his family and against doctors’ orders, he began a workout regime, 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 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 his gym-owning high pressure father, and Aaron Eckhart as the balding, hard drinking Rooney finding is own redemption through training Vinny.
It’s an inspirational story of one man’s spirit against the odds, but it never quite lands the knockout blow. 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.
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, 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 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; Empire Great Park; Odeon 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. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Edge of Seventeen (15)
Just turned twenty, Hailee Steinfield drops a few years to play troubled, self-pitying Pacific Northwest high schooler Nadine Byrd, first seen bursting in on her laid back history teacher, Mr. Bruner (a droll Woody Harrelson), to tell him she’s going to commit suicide. What follows 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 school misfit and outsider 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 whenshe 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 father 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 cuts them both out of her life.
To fill the gap, she becomes friends with shy Korean-American 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 the film also has echoes of such similar offerings as Heathers, Clueless and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Although writer-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 apathetic sad sack 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)
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. (Sat/Sun: 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)
The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (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 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 eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who 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, about how shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who knocked him from the 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 cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off 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 is also 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 a lively spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. 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 new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.
The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny another highlight. Whether it has the 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
A Moving Image (n/a)
Another writer-director feature debut, featuring both dramatisation and real life interviews, Shola Amoo’s winning multimedia film follows Nina, a young artist who returns to Brixton determined to unite her divided community through the creation of a piece of art only to find herself tarred as a symbol of gentrification. (Wed: MAC)
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)
It’s fair to say that you have to have a hefty degree of patience to watch a Jim Jarmusch film, but the end results are well worth it. His latest is a slow burn meditation on life character piece set over the course of a week in which almost nothing happens, but which is peppered with insightful observations, small epiphanies and a sizeable helping of eccentricity.
Adam Driver is Paterson, a bus driver named for the New Jersey town in which he lives, the birthplace of, among others, Lou Costello, Dave Prater (from Sam & Dave) , Allen Ginsberg and the celebrated poet William Carlos Williams, author of the five volume poem Paterson. Paterson too is an aspiring poet, regularly jotting down lines in his notebook (handwritten on screen as he composes them), the first about a brand of matches. They are, pretty much exclusively, minimalist love poems to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who is forever urging him to get them published or, at least, to make copies. She has a thing about white on black, whether in redecorating the house, her clothes, the cupcakes she makes or the harlequin guitar she buys to follow her latest dream of becoming a country singer. She’s a tad flaky, but Paterson adores her. They also share their home with Marvin, a bulldog who will play a crucial role in the last act, while, when not at home, Paterson is either observing his passengers (an unlikely percentage of whom are twins) or the folk who hang out at the local bar run by the world weary Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Early in the week he meets a young girl who reads him a poem she’s written, while, on Saturday, feeling dejected and sitting in his favourite spot, he’s joined by a mysterious Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase) who’s reading William Carlos Williams. They talk about poetry and the man gives him an empty notebook. That’s pretty much it.
Playful but, anchored by a subtly, soulfully melancholic turn from Driver, also quietly sad, essentially it’s about finding poetry in the everyday and often random minutiae of life, but also about the need to escape from the stasis into which we can so easily fall mistaking it for contentment (it’s not hard to imagine another film about the marriage falling apart) and a reminder that life is a blank page waiting for us to write upon it.(Electric)
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. (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 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)
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