MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 27-Thu Feb 2

 

NEW RELEASES

Hacksaw Ridge (15)   Although the trailer carefully avoided any mention of his name, simply billing it from the director Braveheart, it would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding, riveting performance as Desmond Doss, a vegetarian, Sabbath-observing Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, rejected deferment as a shipyard worker and signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised and bullied by the other men in his brigade.

Although faced with court-martial for disobeyed an order, he was (after the intervention of his father) finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated he remained and single-handedly saved the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers and became the first and only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood (with Darcy Bryce as the younger version) and background, the son of a housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends kills, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his sweet  and goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (oddly never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and get him to quit (he’s refused permission to go to his own wedding), before the scene shifts to the Pacific and the 1945 battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film, powered by a massive orchestral score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed up in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action and ratcheting up the tension to nail-biting levels as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Denial (12A)

Given a very limited release in America last year, this marks the return of director Mick Jackson with his first feature since 1997’s Volcano as, with a screenplay by David Hare, it recounts the true story of the libel case brought by self-proclaimed historian, anti-Semitic Nazi sympathiser David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic teaching Jewish history in Atlanta, who, in her book, Denying the Holocaust, had accused him of being a Holocaust denier, a charge he refuted and claimed had damaged his reputation and career. Had he won, citing the mantra ‘no holes, no Holocaust’, then it would have legitimised denial of six million deaths.

The film opens at a lecture by Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) where Irving (a chillingly creepy Timothy Spall) interrupts, offering money if anyone can produce any document confirming that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz or that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. Save for a haunting research visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland itself (the defence had to provide forensic evidence that the Holocaust happened), the remainder of the film centres around the two year trial in the Royal Courts of Justice in England, where the burden of proof in libel is on the accused, during which her council, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce, and renowned Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) refused to let her speak or for Holocaust survivors to testify so as not to allow Irving a platform.

Irving describes it as a David and Goliath battle and that’s largely how the film plays out, except it’s actually the defence team in the David role, having to engineer ways to ensnare Irving, defending himself, in a net of his own vanity and inaccuracies. Never sensational, it respectfully sticks to the facts (the courtroom dialogue is taken verbatim from the records) but, in great part due to Weisz’s nuanced performance, it is, while not without moments of levity, riveting and emotionally wrenching.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham)

 

 

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, the latest from the Despicable Me studio charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) whose  inherited his love of theatre, and the very theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash and personal possessions to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly (voiced by Brit director Garth Jennings, last heard of with 2007’s  terrific Son of Rambow) sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions, which include a snail singing Ride like The Wind,  a troupe of persistent Japanese kittens and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll in the Wagner role) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and if she can ever overcome her shyness, Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana – co-voiced by Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Saunders as the younger and older versions – into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits (as well as the original Set It All Free), plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo, and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. As the young Nana, Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brim; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid here) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but, after roughing him up, decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raising the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, their pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get revenge, preferably by killing him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades (a sense   of impotence of  manifested literally in one case), basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes of the scan and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise m as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack (Lust For Life finally appearing at the end). Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events. At times it feels more of an updated reimagining than a sequel.

Kicking off with Renton being greeted at the airport by a girl from Slovenia promoting Edinburgh, there’s a strong and often very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue, here delivered to Veronika, where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As, indeed, is nostalgia.

The leads reinhabit their characters as if they’d never been away (and, while still terrifying, Begbie’s afforded a moment of humanity), reinforcing (it opens with Renton on a gym treadmill) how trying to relive the past means we end up running to stand still. Indeed, Veronika underlines the message in saying “In my country, people try to forget the past. In your country, all you do is talk about it.” In case the point is lost there’s also a scene involving Mark and Sick Boy having to sing about the Battle of the Boyne in front of a pub crowd of fierce Loyalists still clinging to ancient hated between the Catholics and Protestants.

Effectively using nostalgia itself to illustrate its dangers, the film doesn’t have quite the same impact as the original, but it does deliver what its audience wants. However, T3 would not be a good idea. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Mockingbird, Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW PLAYING

Assassin’s Creed (12A)

The transition of video game to big screen embraces a history that ranges from shortcomings (Tomb Raider,) to outright disasters (Bloodrayne) with just the occasional success (Warcraft) to encourage studios to keep trying. Launched in 2007and now on its 17th version, Assassin’s Creed has proven one of the most durable  console games. But, unless you’re a dedicated player, this live action adaptation from director Justin Kurzel (who directed his leading stars here in a brilliant version of Macbeth), based largely around the original game, but reinterpreted as dystopian sci fi, is going to prove confusing bordering on incoherent.

Although it changes the name of the protagonist from bartender Desmond Miles to convicted murderer Callum Lynch (an intense Michael Fassbender), whose Assassin mother was killed by his own father (Brendan Gleeson as the older version) when he was just a  child, the premise remains pretty much intact. Lynch is a descendent of the Assassin bloodline, an ancient secret society formed during  the Spanish Inquisition to prevent the Knight Templars getting their hands on an artefact from Eden (here some sort of techno-apple containing the secret to free will) they want to use to bring mankind under their control.

To locate it, Cal is ferreted away from death row to a secret high-tech Madrid facility run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), CEO of Abstergo Industries and member of the current Knights Templar (headed bv Charlotte Rampling), whose scientist daughter,  Sophia (Marion Cotillard, is engaged on a  programme called the Animus, that, strapped to a harness with an implant in his neck, can send him back in time (at least virtually) to inhabit the memories of his Assassin ancestor Aguilar. So, back in Spain, he finds himself a sort of 15th century parkour expert, vicariously fighting alongside Maria (Ariane Labed), a fellow Assassin, to rescue a prince who’s been kidnapped by Templars leader, Torquemada, to force his Sultan father into  handing over the Apple of Eden, only to themselves wind up captured by Torquemada’s enforcer, Ojeda.

That’s about as lucid as it gets. For reasons that are never made apparent, the shambolic plot sees the facility also housing various other inmates who are apparently the descendents of other assassins (which seemingly contradicts the assertion that Callum is the last) and  some  guff about having to enter the Animus willingly in order not to get burned out.

Irons wisely plays things with a twinkle in his eye, giving the film what few sparks of humour it has; however,  Fassbender buys into the film’s po-faced seriousness and portentous dialogue, while  Cottilard, on the other hand, simply looks totally bewildered by the whole thing.  Throw in assorted hallucinations, Christopher Columbus, quite literal Leaps of Faith and the words of an 11th-century Persian missionary (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) as the foundation of the Creed, which operates in the dark to do the work of the light, and what you get a puree of the Da Vinci Code and The Matrix served up with a side order of smoke-shrouded frantically kinetic action sequences shot through a moodily lit murky gauze. Admittedly, some of it looks impressive and images of darkly hooded figures with bladed gauntlets diving from tall buildings have a sort of frisson, but that’s undercut by the ineptitude of the screenplay and constant enigmatic (i.e. meaningless) symbolic shots of an eagle swooping across landscapes past and present. It’s not completely jaw-droppingly awful,  but it does make you positively yearn for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall)

 

Ballerina (U)

An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this follow your heart animation. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams.

Set in France towards the end of the 19th century, Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning) is a resident at a Brittany  orphanage where the Mother Superior does her best to discourage dreams, because they never come true and only cause you misery. Possessed of a ballerina musical box, the only legacy of her mother, Félicie dreams of being a dancer, even more so when her wannabe inventor best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan) shows her a postcard of the Grand Opera House in Paris. He promises to take her there, if they escape together. Which they duly due with the aid of a pair of his chicken-inspired wings, narrowly escaping the clutches of the Orphanage supervisor. However, arriving in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is just starting to be built, the pair get separated and, wandering into the Opera House, Félicie is befriended by cleaner Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), herself a former dancer whose career was ended when she hurt her leg.

Odette works for a Cruella deVil-like woman who is determined her brattish daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) will not only learn ballet at the Opera House under famed choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell), but dance a pas de deux opposite the prima ballerina in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker.

However, after Camille breaks her treasured musical box, Félicie intercepts the invitation to join the school and passes herself off as her. Despite Merante declaring she’ll be the first to be expelled, needless to say, she impresses him enough with her energy and determination to succeed that she remains to the final selection, which is when, of course, her deception is uncovered, leaving her to compete against the real  and better trained Camille for the star prize. Naturally, Odette, who’s become a surrogate mother, plays her part in training her to match technique to the passion in her heart. Meanwhile, Victor has got himself a job working for Gustav Eiffel and is not best pleased when  the company’s star male dancer, a blonde handsome Russian prince, starts making moves on Félicie.

Needless to say, incorporating a climactic chase up a work in progress  Statue of Liberty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected touch following a spectacular dance battle between Camille her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.

It doesn’t have the visual panache of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it does have plenty of heart (and  rather far too many head banging/falling over moments) and Fanning gives an engaging vocal performance, so it’s shame the filmmakers felt it necessary to lather it with  anonymous modern pop songs rather than something more suited to the period. It takes a while to find its feet, but, like Félicie, its charm will win you over.  (Vue Star City)

 

The Bye Bye Man (15)

The latest addition to the bogey man genre of horror films, this particularly echoes Candyman in that the malevolent entity is summoned by speaking their name. Sharing  rooms in an old rundown house off campus, University of Wisconsin students  jealous  Elliot (Doug Smith), flighty girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and best friend  John (Lucien Laviscount) find themselves haunted and threatened by a gray-skinned, spectral, skeletal demon-monster called the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones), apparently the force behind all of mankind’s most heinous acts. Say his name out loud and (nodding to The Shining) he enters your soul and turns you into a killer. Adopting the usual scares of hallucinatory visions, including the obligatory maggots and animated bloody corpses, as spurs to murder, it features cameos by Faye Dunaway as the  wife of a possessed man who blasted his neighbours and family and  Carrie-Anne Moss as the local police detective. Like most of its kind, it starts off promisingly and has some suitably pleasing moments for the gore fans, but runs out of steam as it lapses into the same old same old, suggests that, in terms of its cinema stay and franchise prospects, the title may well prove prophetic. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

Three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce, Howard (Will Smith) is no longer the dynamic, inspirational force of the New York ad agency of which he holds the majority shares. Cue a hamfisted visual metaphor about him building massive domino structures and then toppling them. His friends, Whit (Edward Norton), a divorced dad whose young daughter resents him, Claire (Kate Winslet), a single workaholic who looks longingly at sperm donor pamphlets, and Simon (Michael Pena), a family man with a tell-tale cough, are all concerned about his disconnection from life. As executive partners in the firm, they’re also concerned that his behaviour is putting the company in jeopardy. They want to sell it to save it, but Howard has the majority shares. So he needs to be ruled incompetent to vote.

A casting call encounter with actress Amy (Keira Knightley) inspires Whit to hire her and her colleagues, streetwise Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and  imperious but worldly-wise Brigitte (Helen Mirren, hamming up the luvvie) to play the roles of, respectively, Love, Time and Death (Howard’s former mantra for life)  to whom Howard has  apparently been writing letters, admonishing them over his child’s death. The idea is to ‘gaslight’ him into believing he’s really talking to these metaphysical abstractions and film him acting in a way to show the board he’s mentally unsound, and, if it helps him find his way back and move on, all the better too.

Meanwhile, Howard brings himself to visit the therapy group for bereaved parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), except he can’t bring himself to say his daughter’s name, let alone talk about her death. Also divorced and having lost a child, she tells Howard how, while waiting at the hospital an old woman told her not to be blind to the collateral beauty around her. Howard doesn’t get what she’s talking about and, frankly, probably neither will the audience.

What with A Monster Calls and the forthcoming Manchester By The Sea, this seems to be the month for films about death, grief, loss, letting go and moving on with life. This, a blatantly sentimental  spin on A Christmas Carol, directed by David Frankel and written by Alan Loeb (who gave the world sperm donor comedy Switch), is the least of the three.

Smith does unsmiling inner anguish well enough, but, for all the screenplay’s manipulation (which includes a ludicrous final twist), never really emotionally engages, while, given their mixed well-meaning/self-serving motivations, it’s hard to know whether to sympathise with or condemn Norton, Winslet and Pena’s characters, although, the screenplay works hard to make you realise they too are going through the emotional mill. Needless to say, the three actors (ooh, or are they!) all have insights and observations to offer them as well as the platitudes they serve up to Howard. There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments among the saccharine and half-formed subplots, but otherwise this is manipulative  and mawkishly trite floss.  (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.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Jackie (15)

Chilean director Pablo Larraín makes his English-language debut with Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay about Jackie Kennedy (Oscar nominee Natalie Portman) in the hours and days following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Based on an interview she gave to  Life magazine reporter  Theodore H White  (Billy Crudup), unnamed here,  the week after the shooting, with speculative conjecture thrown in, it covers the aftermath of the shooting, the return of Kennedy’s body to the White House, vexed arrangements for the funeral, Jackie’s accompanying of the coffin to Arlington cemetery, the breaking of the news to her two children, Caroline and Jack, and the understandably emotionally difficult preparations to move out of the White House to make way for incoming president Lyndon Johnson. Stitched into this is a recreation of the 1962 TV documentary tour she gave inside the White House to give the public an insight and explain why she was restoring artefacts from past presidencies.

Cutting back and forth to the interview, which Kennedy controls, instructing the reporter what he can and cannot publish, it paints a picture of a traumatised woman trying to hold it together, looking to make her husband’s death meaningful, preserving his legacy and her own dignity, but very clearly on the edge of a breakdown. There’s a telling scene with a candid priest (John Hurt) where she talks about her husband flaws and her own wanting to die and, in response to the inevitable question as to what the bullet sounded like when it hit her husband’s skull, a very graphic description, although Larrain wisely keeps the equally vivid visual recreation until the final moments.

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

She’s ably supported by strong performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as PA and close friend Nancy Tuckerman and Max Casella as Jack Valenti, Kennedy’s media liaison who became Johnson’s special assistant and, understandably, had no wish for his new boss to be exposed to another potential shooter during a funeral procession. There’s also a fine cameo by Richard E Grant as Bill Walton, the Kennedys’ gay friend who served as Jackie’s interior decorator adviser. Though not called on to do much in terms of the narrative, Caspar Phillipson does a reasonable job of looking like JFK.

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme effectively underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Having  swept the Golden Globes and likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Live By Night (15)

Gone Baby Gone, The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo revealed Ben Affleck to be a fine director and, in the case of the first two,  solid screenwriter. This, his third as a double-hyphenate, adapted, like GBG,  from a Dennis Lehane novel, rarely feels like the work of the same man. Set during Prohibition America, it stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the son of  a Boston police superintendent  (Brendan Gleeson) who returns from WWI to become an outlaw, sticking up card games and the like, who’s reluctantly forced  into turning gangster through the rivalry for the rum trade between the Italians, headed by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and the Irish mob, run by Albert White (Robert Glenister) with whose moll, Emma (Sienna Miller), he’s having an affair.

After she betrays him and is, he believes, murdered by White, Joe is forced to quit Boston and is set up in Tampa by Pescatore, to run the liquor operation there and squeeze White out of the picture, something that sits well with his thirst for revenge.  Bringing in former sidekick Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe proves a big success, striking up a relationship with the Cubans and especially heiress Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), and coming to an arrangement with the pragmatic corrupt  local police chief, Figgis (Chris Cooper).

Unfortunately, the latter has a Klan-connected racist  brother-in-law (Matthew Maher) who sets about stirring up trouble  and a heroin junkie turned born again preacher daughter (Elle Fanning) who puts a spoke in Joe’s plans to open a  casino to move into gambling once Prohibition is repealed.

As you can see, it’s all something of a sprawling saga and the feeling that it might have been better served as an Empire Boardwalk-like series is compounded by the voice-overed prologue that comes on like one of those ‘previously on’ round-ups’.

The film never recovers from this messy start, Affleck never seeming to have a grip on the material, as either writer, director or, unusually flat in the charisma stakes, star as the narrative stumbles its way to several endings. There’s no doubting the period detail, Fanning, Glenister, Cooper, Maher and Miller all give impressive performances,  and the climactic shoot-out is thrillingly staged, but Affleck never brings Joe to life in a way that engages the audience in his fate and struggles, a problem that, unfortunately, also afflicts the film itself.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza;  Showcase Walsall)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

Another Best Actor nominee,  Casey Affleck gives a low key career best performance as Lee Chandler, a taciturn, socially withdrawn and short-fused Boston janitor, who, called back to his Massachusetts hometown on the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), learns that, the boy’s alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mole) long having abandoned the family,  he’s been named as guardian for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), something for  which he feels singularly ill-equipped. Not least on account of the heartrending tragedy that led to his divorce from  wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and forced him to leave several years earlier  and which has tormented him ever since.

Returning to the scene, where people still give him looks, brings the pain to the surface once more as he tries to deal with both his and Patrick’s emotions and find a way to offload the responsibility to someone else, possibly Joe’s friend George (CJ Wilson). Yet, when his now dry  and remarried former sister-in-law makes unexpected contact, he’s wary of her re-entering Patrick’s life.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

Not that it’s unrelentingly downcast. With the lippy Patrick juggling two girlfriends, as well as an awkward dinner table moment involving Mol and Matthew Broderick, there’s an element of humour. But this too is coloured by the way Patrick deals with his father’s death by trying to hang on to the life he has as well as wanting to renovate the creaky and near clapped-out trawler in which the two of them (and, in earlier days, Lee) went fishing.

Working from Lonergan’s insightful screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Cineworld 5 Ways; MAC;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

 

Moana (PG)

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. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Monster Calls (12A)

With a definite nod towards Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish director J.A. Bayona follows up The Impossible with a magic realism masterpiece about grief, fear, guilt and death with  Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age bestseller.

With dad (a brief but effective Toby Kebbell) relocating to America and remarried, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small rural English town with his mom (Felicity Jones). “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, not only is he regularly bullied at school, but his artist mum has cancer and is getting weaker and his somewhat chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to come and stay with her.  He also has vivid nightmares in which the church and local graveyard sink into the earth, he clinging to the ground while hanging on to his mother’s hand as she dangles over the abyss.

Following  one nightmare, he’s terrified when the ancient yew tree in the churchyard uproots itself and, a sort of arboreal BFG,  takes on monstrous humanoid form resembling a drawing Conor and his mother made, stomping to his bedroom window and, craggily voiced by Liam Neeson, saying that Conor has called out to him and now he has three stories to tell, after which, in return,  Conor must tell him the story that holds to truth to his dreams.

Presented in water colour animation, the first story tells of an old king who remarries a woman some call a witch. When the king dies, the queen determines to marry the prince, but he runs off with his commoner love, except there’s dark twist, that sees his lover murdered and his stepmother burned for the crime. The tree returning at the appointed hour of 12.07, its second story involves an ill-tempered apothecary who is persecuted by the parson whose yew tree he wishes to cut down to make medicines. The parson refuses, but when his daughters fall ill he comes begging the old man for help. Again, there is a dark twist.  The third tale is about a man who, tired of being invisible to those who refused to see him, summoned a monster to get himself noticed. Things do not end well. As the monster says, there’s not always a good guy, nor are things always what they appear.

As you might imagine, all three tales relate to Conor’s own emotional turmoil, For example, when the monster destroys the parson’s house, Conor joins in only to suddenly find that he’s trashed his grandmother’s room while, in the third, he snaps and takes revenge for the bullying. Clearly, these stories are intended as moral lessons, offering the boy an insight into his anger and emotions. They are scary, yes, but their purpose is to enable Conor to face the truth that terrifies him and, in the process to heal. This is made clear in the fourth story, Conor’s, but to reveal anything would spoil the heartbreaking reveal.

Filmed almost entirely from Conor’s viewpoint, the film poignantly but unsentimentally addresses the painful reality of loss, tragedy balanced with welcome humour and suffused throughout with a sense of wonder.

While her appearances are fleeting, Jones  is superb as the mother distraught at leaving her son behind, while, despite a somewhat stiff British accent, Weaver deftly juggles brittle facade and aching heart, but, in virtually every scene and called on to run through a gamut of conflicting emotions, it’s MacDougall who carries the film on his shoulders.

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that had its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was written off  as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.

Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster.  Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan), works in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate  his clapped out old pick up.

Meanwhile, smarmy villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard.  To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.

It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.

Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as they climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments of stupid fun, but, for a film that purports to have an anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Passengers (12A)

A castaways love story set on a mammoth space ship this  has a promising set up. Somewhere in the future, corporate spacecraft the Avalon and its 255 crew  are taking 5000 passengers to start new lives across the universe on the idyllic colony of Homestead II. Since it’s going to take 120 years to get there, they’re all in suspended animation while the ship charts its preset route. It has a shield to deflect meteors, but a collision with a large chunk of space rock sends things awry, waking up mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.

Finding himself alone save for a perky corporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of  considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to do the right thing  and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned  like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance, two lonely people marooned in space.

Naturally, at some point, she learns what actually happened, causing a rift between them. But, when the ship’s systems all start malfunctioning, they have to work together to try and survive. Fortuitously, they have a helping hand from one of the senior crew (Laurence Fishburne) who also wakes prematurely and is around long enough to open the flight deck, reveal the systems are all shutting down and pass on his authorisation bracelet before the pair find themselves on their own again. Now, it’s a race against the clock to stop the ship going into meltdown and killing everyone on board.

With some Robinson Crusoe, a splash of Gravity and a dash of Titanic, it’s an interesting premise, but, for all its musing on life and loneliness, ultimately the story has nowhere to go. The tone too is uneven. Much of the first half  plays comedic notes, but then everything goes serious and dramatic once Aurora finds Jim screwed her life  and the systems go haywire. Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but director Morten Tyldum has no feel for the spectacular, rendering both the couple’s tethered romantic venture into deep space and the climactic attempt to shut down the reactor all rather ho hum. Ultimately the film ends up rather like its two characters, passengers stranded on an empty vehicle on autopilot. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

The signature  John Williams theme may be absent, but the first of the standalone Star Wars spin-offs  sets a high standard , serving as a prequel to 1997’s A New Hope  (hope being a word that occurs repeatedly) to detail how Princess Leia came to be in possession of the knowledge about the fatal flaw that enabled the rebellion to destroy the Death Star.

As with last year’s The Force Awakens, George Lucas’ contribution is limited to inspiration and acknowledgement, and, like its predecessor, the film is all the better for it. Directed by Nuneaton-born Gareth Edwards, taking an even greater leap into the blockbuster leagues after 2014’s Godzilla, and with a screenplay by Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), it opens on the volcanic planet of Lah’mu with Imperial-scientist-turned-farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) being tracked down by the hissably terse white-caped Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star project, and, his wife murdered, forced to return to finish the work he began on the weapon of mass destruction. His young daughter, however, escapes capture and is rescued  and raised by Rebel fighter  Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).

Fast forward 20 years and, going under an alias, the now grown Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a thief doing time on a labour camp prison, until, that is, she’s broken out by Rebellion spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his scene-stealing hulking reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (drolly voiced by Alan Tudyk providing the bulk of the spare sarcastic comedic lines).

It seems that her father persuaded an Imperial fighter pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), to defect, giving him a message about the Death Star  to pass to Gerrera, now a maverick zealot, with several mechanical body parts. The Rebellion need Jyn to get to Gerrera, to find out what the message contains.

In many ways, this is an old fashioned war movie (particularly in the aerial combat sequences as the film cuts from one Group Leader to the next, each delivering their couple of lines of gung ho dialogue) and, in many ways, the plot to infiltrate the Imperial base to find Jyn’s father and  retrieve the vital information recalls the likes of ultimate sacrifice WWII dramas such as The Heroes of Telemark, Where Eagles Dare or even The Dirty Dozen.

While there’s references to the Jedi, there aren’t actually any in the film, although you do get blind Jedha monk Zatoichi martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) striving to connect to the Force and who, along with sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), eventually forms part of the Rogue One team  leading the assault on the Imperial stronghold.

Likewise, not until the final moments is there even a glimpse of a lightsabre, although it has to be said, the moment it appears, flashing red in the hands of one of the two brief appearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones), the thrill is palpable.

Although you do get a cameos by C-3PO and R2-D2, there’s none of the playing young tone evident in the original Episodes, indeed, from Cassian shooting an informant in the back (Daniel May’s performance well deserving his fate) to the slaughter-crammed climax, this is predominantly  very dark and grown up. Edwards handles the set pieces well and the special effects rise to the occasion, not least in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Jedah and the spectacular attack by the Rebel X-wing fighters on the Imperial fleet. However, by far the most impressive is the digital  resurrection of Peter Cushing, who died 20 years ago, playing Death Star commander Moff Tarkin, the role he took back in 1977. Indeed, his is one the film’s best performances.  Given the fact it’s been splashed all over the media, it’s no spoiler to say there’s also another digital cameo, with  a brief final shot of the young Carrie Fisher as Leia.

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;   Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Split (15)

 Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain. Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Underworld: Blood Wars (15)

It’s five years since we last saw Kate Beckinsale in the so-so Underworld saga of the war between vampires and werewolves, since which time she found critical acclaim and credibility in Love & Friendship. However, presumably contractual obligations see her back in the shiny black vinyl-shiny leather  catsuit for a fifth time  as Selene, the pure-blood vampire Death Dealer who, last time around, murdered her Vampire Elder mentor Marcus, rendering her a hunted outcast.  A quick voice over brings thing up to speed, learning that she’s cut all ties with Eve, her hybrid  daughter by Lycan/Vampire cross Michael,  to save her from being found. Something the Lycan’s enhanced  leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) is keen to do, believing her blood holds the secret to finally defeating the Vampires.

Given that, Selene is taken back into the Eastern Coven fold, now run by the duplicitous Semira (Lara Pulver), with Charles Dance back in black as Thomas, the Vampire Elder  whose son  David (Theo James), she brought back to life in the last film and is now Selene’s ally, so she can train the new recruits. Rather inevitably, Semira’s agenda isn’t all it seems.

Having made a cursory pass at some sort of dramatic narrative, the film basically devolves into a lengthy series of chases, fights and  Lycan shape-shifting, though the appearance of  a coven of white frocked blonde vampires does add something new to the mix. Beckinsale seems totally uninvolved throughout  and the look has all the hallmarks of a reined in budget. After all this time, it’s likely to only attract the dwindling curious faithful along with those wanting to see Beckinsale in figure-hugging leather, admittedly, probably a fair number.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

Last seen in 2005, extreme sports action hero and agent for the xXx-program,  Xander Cage is resurrected for a franchise reviving bout of all action popcorn nonsense that remembers to never take itself too seriously.

When a satellite plummets from orbit and crashes into New York, killing xXx-program founder Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) just as he’s recruiting a new agent and then a multi-cultural team invade a top secret briefing entailing assorted top government suits, take out all the security and steal the gizmo responsible, the so called Pandora’s Box, then new NSA head honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette) seeks out the long presumed dead Cage (Vin Diesel), who’s actually  living it up in the Dominican Republic, putting his skills to effective use to ensure the locals can watch the big match on cable TV.

Persuaded to return to action and having identified where the crew responsible for the attack are hanging out, as well as reclaiming his trademark fur coat, Cage insists on recruiting his own team of thrill-seekers, comprising punky green-haired crackshot Adele (Ruby Rose), crazy adrenaline junkie stuntman Tennyson (Rory McCann) and Nick, a DJ known as the Hood. To which end, they duly set off to the Philippines  where the other team of mercenaries, leader Xiang (Donnie Yen), fellow martial arts expert Talon (Tony Jaa), strongman Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the sexy but lethal Serena (Deepika Padukone) are hanging out, to recover the device. To complicate matters, Serena thinks it should be destroyed while Xiang wants to hang on to it, all of which is just an excuse for the three of them to play a  game of pass the grenade and for Xiang and Diesel to have a surfing motorbikes on water skies scene across the ocean.

At which point, it all starts to get a bit confusing to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, as well as even noisier and more action packed, a bit like Mission Impossible’s snotty OCD little brother.

Suffice to say, everyone ends up working together to track down the real bad guy and the other bigger and better Pandora’s Box, a nuts and bolts plot that serves to allow any number of fast cut fire, fist and feet fights, more eye-popping stunts, deliberately cheesy dialogue, and copious amounts of scenery chewing, much courtesy of the straight-faced Collette, as well as a delightful comic turn from Nina Dobrev as Marke’s bumbling geeky tech-op assistant.

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Why Him? (15)

Screenwriter John Hamburg pretty much mined to death the chalk and cheese  father and prospective son-in-law bromantic comedy  in Meet The Parents/Fokkers, but, this time also adding director to his credits, he’s giving it another whirl with what, given the language, might  well be termed Meet The Motherfokkers.

Not best known for his broad comedy skills, Bryan Cranston is Ned Fleming, a traditional, middle-class CEO of a struggling print company who, at his 55th birthday party, discovers that his Harvard student daughter Stephanie (amiably bland Zoey Deutsch) is dating someone called Laird Mayhew (James Franco), although the only sight everyone gets of him is his bare buttocks on the video link.

Invited to spend Christmas with the couple in California, buttoned-up Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and their pubescent  aspiring businessman son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive to discover that Laird is in fact the  obscenely wealthy owner of a video game company who lives in a high tech palatial mansion with bison and llamas roaming the grounds, an artificial intelligence system with the voice of The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco  and  Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key, mining most of the laughs), an Austrian  personal assistant who serves as both his  therapist and Cato to his Clouseau (a gag Hamburg feels obliged to explain for those unfamiliar with The Pink Panther).  But, a red rag to analog era Ned, absolutely no paper.

He’s also a shirtless, heavily tattooed, grinning, puppy dog, free spirit man-child idiot whose artworks include a dead moose in a tank of its own urine (no prizes for guessing what happens to that) and assorted paintings of animals copulating, and who has no filter between brain and mouth, forever dropping the F word and inappropriate comments.  Scotty’s impressed, his old fashioned father rather less so.

He’s even less enthused when, in one his intended bonding chats, Laird asks Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. Naturally, the horrified dad says no, leading to a challenge whereby Laid, desperate for approval (and a father figure) says that he if hasn’t won him over by Christmas Day, then he won’t propose.

With Cranston playing it dryly deadpan to Franco’s gonzo cartoon, what follows is a sort of macho pissing content, some of it funny, much of it laboured, almost all of it shop worn and over extended (though teabagging by moose is a new one) that proceeds in jerky fits and starts to a wholly predictable (well, perhaps, save for embarrassing cameos by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as part of an extended Kiss homage) ending. Given the dearth of decent comedies doing the rounds, this is worth a look, but don’t blame me if you come out just thinking Why Did I Bother?  (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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