MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 15-Thu Mar 22

 

NEW RELEASES

Tomb Raider (12A)

Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as  video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara  vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.

Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to  Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed  on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off  for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren  (Daniel Wu in a  largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the  lost island.

Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.

Punctuated by some  schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but  not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a  cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill.  Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast  any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate  need to rush for one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mary Magdalene (12A)

This year’s revisionist religious biopic bid for the Easter audience sees Lion director Garth Davis put the focus on the other Mary and her relationship with Jesus, played respectively by Rooney Mara and Joaquin  Phoenix, the latter still sporting his You Were Never Really Here beard.

Though aimed more at the art house than the mainstream Christian market, naturally, it’s suitably respectful and lyrical in the way it deal with the story (no The Last Temptation of Christ sex scenes here), and, as such is all rather tastefully dull, opening with an underwater sequence and Magdalene voiceover about how Christ’s kingdom took root and grew and proceedings to offer a highly interiorised perspective on its central characters, the unwed Mary seeking a higher calling than tending the sheep and playing midwife in  a heavily  patriarchal community and Jesus musing why no one ever wonders how he feels about it all.

At heart, coming on the back of International Women’s Day,  it chimes with the zeitgeist about the empowerment of women, Jesus asking if she has the courage to follow what the voices are telling her (in effect, she becomes his flagbearer, explaining things to the less enlightened actual disciples) as it mirrors  religious awakening with  a feminist one. But, while the lead performances are suitably finessed, with Tahar Rahim especially impressive as Judas,  the screenplay is obvious and at times lifeless as it dutifully ticks off the required Biblical scenes en route to the Crucifixion.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Peter Rabbit (U)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complain, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Walk Like A Panther (12A)

Already one of the year’s biggest turkeys and down to just one local screen in its second week, this is a jaw-droppingly awful  variation on the done to death let’s put on a show to save the youth club plot, here the performers a bunch of former local  wrestlers, known as the Panthers,  back from the days of ITV’s World of Sport and names like Big Daddy, Jackie Pallo and Giant Haystacks (clips of which  provide the prologue nostalgia) and the  venue being the local Yorkshire pub, named, naturally, The Half-Nelson.

Originally run by Ginger Frost (Jason Flemyng), one of the Panthers,  the landlord’s now Mark Bolton (Stephen Graham), who took over when Ginger, who was more a father to him than  his own dad,  became ill.  The Scouser son of Trevor ‘Bulldog’ Bolton (Dave Johns), Mark was an aspirant wrestler who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but missed his chance when his planned match was cancelled and World of Sport was canned.

When Ginger dies,  a video of the mourners showing their old wrestling moves when the local knobhead (Michael Socha) disrupts the wake goes viral, prompting weaselly promoter Poppy Wilson (Steve Furst) to suggest a one-off Panthers reunion of, among others Jamaican transsexual Zulu Dawn (Robbie Gee), deluded security guard Cliff ‘Edge’ Morris (Neil Fitzmaurice) who runs a  personal protection agency , and Lara ‘Liplock’ Anderson (Jill Halfpenny) . Mark ‘s keen, seeing this as a chance to finally get in the ring, his dad less so.  Which is when brewery manager Paul Paterson (a scenery chewing smarmy Stephen Tompkinson) announces he intends to close the pub and knock it down for redevelopment. At which point, the film take a plot swerve and the reunion  now becomes about saving the Half-Nelson.

That ‘shift in narrative is pretty symptomatic of  the entire ungainly mess, in which subplots are introduced but either forgotten about or never developed, the cast looking as if they haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on, most especially Julian Sands who, in gold lycra as, Sweet Cheeks, Smith, seems to spend the entire film trying to make sense of his love triangle storyline.

The cast, which also includes Sue Johnstone and,  in the Kendo Nagasaki masked wrestler boo hiss  role,  Christopher Fairbank,  mug gamely and energetically. But faced with caricatures rather than characters, incompetent direction and a clichéd and wildly inconsistent script, not to mention a dearth of actual jokes, audiences will be banging the canvas to submit long before the before Lena Headey  appears as the deus ex machine brewery owner to save the day. (Empire Great Park)

 

 

 

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Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Coco (PG)                                              

Following 2014’s The Book of Life, it’s now Pixar’s turn to take animation audiences on an Oscar- winning  journey into the afterlife, as celebrated in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a lively, colourful festival to remember friends and family members who have passed on and who, at least here, cross over to (unseen) spend time with their relatives. As with all the best Pixar films, there’s a definite darkness as it delivers  familiar messages about family, friendship, passion and being true to yourself. Boldly, the title character, while pivotal to the story, isn’t actually the focus of the narrative. She’s an old Mexican woman drifting in and out of dementia and hovering around death’s door. As a child, her heart was broken when her father left to pursue his dream of being a musician, to which end her mother banned music from the home and family and went into the shoemaking business. Two generations later, the business is thriving, but ban still stands, much to the frustration of 12-year-old  Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who, having secretly taught himself to play guitar, wants to emulate his hero, the late legendary film and singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

When his gran smashes his guitar,  looking to take part in a talent show, Miguel ‘borrows’ the one that belonged to de la Cruz from his shrine and suddenly finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead where his assorted dead relatives, all friendly-looking skeletons,  offer to give him the blessing he needs (involving bright orange marigold petals) to return home before  he becomes a skeleton like them, but, his great-grandmother  insists it’s on the condition he renounces music. Miguel, however, decides to track down his idol, as huge a star in death as he was in life, and seek his blessing instead,  and who, to his surprise and delight, he’s discovered he was his great-great grandfather . To do so, however, he needs the help of Hector (Gael García Bernal), a skeleton and a bit of a con artists who says he knows Ernesto and wants to get back to the Land of the Living and see his daughter one last time before, with no one putting up his photo on the Day of the Dead, he’s forgotten and lost forever.

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar winner ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Den Of Thieves  (15) 

Featuring a  decidedly take and bake performance from Gerard Butler as a stereotypical gruff, hard-bitten rules-bending rogue cop, at nearly two and a half hours, this Heat cum To Live And Die In L.A. wannabe is ridiculously overlong and peppered with genre clichés.  Set in LA, apparently the bank robbery capital of the world according to the opening statistics, it opens with a donut store assault on an armoured truck carried out with military precision until a minor mishap escalates into a full blown shoot out leaving assorted cops and one of the robbers dead. Enter “Big” Nick Davis (Butler) from the Major Crimes division and his team of self-styled ‘Regulators’ who immediately butts heads with the guy from the FBI (a running antagonism that surfaces a couple of times for no particularly necessary reason), who can’t figure out, given the clearly well-planned operation, the gang ended up hijacking an empty truck. At this point anyone with even a vague familiarity with crime thrillers will be well ahead of  Davis, but it still takes forever to get to the core of the film, an attempt to steal a fortune in bills due for shredding  – and hence no longer having the serial numbers registered – from the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve, the city’s most impenetrable and never robbed bank.

It’s all being masterminded by former elite soldier Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) in the surrogate DeNiro role who, although the bad guy, does at least have reservations about killing people – especially cops – during their jobs, unlike Davis and his crew who have no reservations about beating up suspects to get the information they need.  Case in point being bartender Donnie (O’ Shea Jackson, Jr, the best thing here), who he quickly fingers as the driver and forces to be his inside man. However, the cool and clear-thinking Merriman’s not an idiot and equally uses Donnie in turn.

When it gets to the big heist and the subsequent shoot-out in heavy traffic, the film ignites as a cracking high octane thriller, Merriman’s sleight of hand strategy in its execution cleverly written, even if it does borrow somewhat from the Ocean’s 11 remake. However, you have to wade through a lot to get there, including a perfunctory subplot involving Davis’s collapsing marriage and being served with divorce papers and some mirror daddy and daughter scenes with Davis talking to his youngest at the school fence and Merriman’s second in command, Levi Enson (Curtis ’50 Cents’ Jackson), scaring the life out of his daughter’s prom date which I’d assume writer and first-time director Christian Gudegast introduced for some ‘comic relief’. There’s also a sequence in which cop and criminal both wind up at the latter’s apartment after Davis has bedded Merriman’s club dancer girlfriend, the payoff to which comes much later.

There’s an attempt to introduce some moral ambiguity to the characters, forcing audiences, as in Michael Mann’s classic, to question who they should be rooting for, but, failing to much humanise either of the opposing protagonists (Butler crying over being an estranged daddy is about as convincing as his generic tough cop bluster) the script never really pulls it off, just as a clumsily written Japanese restaurant, where Davis pretends to bump into Donnie as he’s eating with the gang and, as Merriman susses, is patently obviously a cop, makes no logical sense.  There’s a final unexpected twist, but that too is stolen from another crime classic, suggesting that while Gudegast may make a decent thief, he’s a pretty poor fence.  (Vue Star City)

 

Early Man  (PG)

Opening in the Neo-Pleistocene era, at the site of future Manchester, with a meteor that both wipes out dinosaurs and leads cavemen to invent football, this endearingly crudely-fashioned if somewhat bland stop-motion animation from director Nick Park and Aardman fast forwards to the time when the Stone Age was about to give way to the Bronze Age. The former’s represented by Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his somewhat dim-witted tribe who live in a secluded valley and hunt rabbits, mainly because they’re scared of anything bigger. The latter’s represented by Lord Nooth (voiced with a Pythonesque French accent by Tom Hiddleston) who, armed with his bronze war machines, invades and kicks out Dug’s tribe in his search for metal.

Managing to sneak his way into the fortified city, Dug accidentally winds up at one of the soccer games the avaricious Nooth stages to fleece the locals with the mandatory voluntary entrance and, when his true identity’s revealed, challenges the Real Bronzio champion team, captained by the preening Dino (Kayvan Novak), to a match with his tribe; if they win they get the valley back, if they lose they have to go and work in the mines. All he has to do now is teach the likes of knuckle-dragger Asbo (Johhny Vegas), mommy’s boy Treebor (Richard Ayoade), scouser Barry (Mark Williams), whose best mate is a rock, and the ageing (he’s 32) Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) how to play. Fortunately, he has the help of Goona (Maisie Williams), a Bronze Aze shopkeeper who is a brilliant footballer but forbidden to play with Real Bronzia because she’s a girl. Plus, of course, his pet wild boar, Hognob (grunted by Park).

It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway  football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocene/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either.  (Empire Great Park)

Fifty Shades Freed (18)

The adaptation of E.L.James’ trashy erotic trilogy finally reaches its climax, or maybe anti-climax would be a better term.  Opening with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) getting hitched, you’re then treated to a Cote d’Azur honeymoon example of glossy brochure cinema that sets the town for the opulence that follows, so that, at times, it seems you’re watching high end car, real estate or fashion commercials rather than an actual film about the psychological and personal problems of two obscenely rich and impossibly beautiful people, though, she naturally, wants to keep working so she has her own identity. As the ending to the previous film will have made you aware, this is supposedly the thriller chapter, as Anastasia’s embittered former boss, Hyde (Eric Johnson) sets about the home invasion and abduction route, neither, it must be said, with much apparent planning or foresight as to how things might screw up, blinded, perhaps, by the vendetta he has against Christian for reasons that are obvious long before they’re actually revealed.

It’s an utterly perfunctory narrative devoid of any sense of threat or tension, punctuated every now and again with some gratuitous soft porn sex –  bondage, vibrators, in the car, whatever – to rouse (as opposed to arouse) audiences from their slumber. The vague sexual politics of the first film were largely abandoned in the sequel and here they’re virtually non-existent, Grey’s an insecure control freak (but, since he sits at the piano crooning Maybe I’m Amazed, he’s obviously sensitive too) while masochistic Mrs. Grey, is willingly compliant, although there is one scene where he takes her to the Red Room of Pain session as punishment (he teases but withholds her from orgasm) for disobeying him rather than pleasure. The supposed dramatic moment in the relationship arrives with the prospect of parenthood, but even this barely scratches the highly polished emotional surface.

There’s a decent high speed car chase through Seattle, an amusing hands off my hubbie snap between Anastasia and a large-breasted architect, another chance to gasp at Rita Ora’s inability to act as Christian’s sister  and Marcia Gay Harden gets wheeled back on towards the end in a redundant cameo as Christian’s adoptive mom that feels like an agent’s insistence. Jennifer Ehle’s in it too, but you probably won’t realise that until the end credits.

Bland, lazy and devoid of any noticeable chemistry between the two leads, it ends with a montage of moments from the previous films, surely to be greeted by many reluctant partners with a  sigh of relief at being Freed from having to sit through any more of this  tosh. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Finding Your Feet  (12A)

This year’s bid for the grey pound audience comes with both an impressive ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of more senior British actors and a plot that hews comfortably closely to the genre’s familiar clichés. Reliably directed by Richard Loncraine, it has Imelda Staunton as  Sandra – Lady –  Abbott who, at the celebrations for his elevation of his enoblement  – discovers her husband Mike (John Sessions) has been having a five-year affair with her best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence). Understandably miffed, she storms out of their idyllic suburban mansion and fetches up at the council estate tenement London flat of  her erstwhile left-wing activist sister, Bif (Celia Imrie), whom she’s not seen for the past ten years after their lives went separate ways. The one a prim and proper  – and somewhat snobby – traditionalist, the other a free spirit who still enjoys sex and is part of  a local dance club with her friends, antique furniture restorer and odd job man Charlie (Timothy Spall), retired lawyer Jackie (Joanna Lumley who has the funniest – if hardly original – line) and Ted (David Heyman) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. Charlie and Ted live on barges, the latter’s wife having passed away, the former’s (Sian Thomas) in a nursing home suffering from dementia.

The relationship between the sisters is initially frosty, as it that between Sandra and Charlie, but, inevitably the chill thaws, bonds are renewed, new attractions formed. Equally inevitably, there’s a terminal illness waiting in someone’s wings as sure as the film carries a live life, be who you really are message.

In an unlikely development in order to provide some location colour, the dance club members are talent-spotted while performing a Christmas flash mob multi-style dance routine in aid of Age UK (cue some product placement proselytizing by Lumley) and invited to take part in a dance show in Rome. So, will Sandra loosen up, change her constipated hairstyle, dance while she vacuums  and bring music back into her life, will she and Charlie fall in love at the Trevi fountain, will Mike come asking for her to take him back, will there be life decisions to be made? Do you really need to ask.

Resolutely inoffensive (there’s jokes about laxatives and penises and one f word), the script predictably balances sobs and smiles, laughter and tears while, since the feelgood is the keyword,  only ever skirting the OAP issues of  ageing, loneliness, love and mortality.  With performances are as solid as you expect and the dance routines never unconvincingly slick, it’s warm, snuffly, bittersweet stuff that will appeal to those who found The Exotic Marigold Hotel a bit too demanding, but it totters rather than glides across the cinematic dance floor. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Game Night (15)

The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.

With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.

However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.

Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.

So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’  place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.

Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.

And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.

Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston)  and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.

Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gringo (15)

The second film this year to feature a character known as the Black Panther, except this one isn’t an African superhero but a Mexican drug cartel boss. One who wants to get its hands on a formula for producing Cannabax, a legal cannabis-based drug  that’s been developed by the Chicago pharmaceutical company run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and his executive – and sexually  insatiable- partner  Elaine (Charlize Theron) and which is manufactured in Mexico.  It  transpires that, when cash flow was short,  they struck  deal to supply aforementioned Beatles-loving cartel boss with certain off-the-books products, but with a merger looming they need to call an end  to this before  the company audit. And he’s not at all happy with that.

Caught in the middle of this is their unwitting middle management pawn, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), who’s heard rumours of the merger and likely redundancies, but blissfully thinks Richard’s his buddy.  The film opens with the Rusk and Elaine relieving a call from Harold in Mexico saying he’s been kidnapped and his abductors want five million dollars. At which point, things flashback to a  couple of days earlier when the three went to Mexico to tie up loose ends, but Harold could not be found when it came to time leave. As the plot unfolds, it’s revealed that not only is Harold , who’s on the verge of bankruptcy, facing losing his job, but, in a Skype call to his wife (Thandie Newton), she says she’s been having an affair (no prizes for guessing with who)  and is leaving him.  Having rumbled that he’s going to be stitched up by Richard and Elaine,  he decides to fake the kidnapping call we heard earlier. However, things take a turn when the drug lord assumes he’s the boss with access to the formula, and so the body count rises and the twists, double crosses and misdirections pile up. The spiralling plot also involves Rusk enlisting his ex-mercenary turned aid worker brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to find Harold and, in a redundant subplot, Amanda Seyfried who’s blissfully unaware that her boyfriend, Harry Treadway, has only taken her to Mexico because he’s been hired by some rock chick (a single scene appearance by Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris) to smuggle some Cannabax tablets  back across the border.

Directed by Edgerton’s brother, Nash, it somersaults from dark comedy to brutal violence and back again in the blink of an eye without losing its traction , wading chest high through a cynical view of  the world and those who inhabit it, with Seyfried the only decent character  not  looking out for themselves here.  Despite a tendency to clown it up, Oyelowo does well enough with a character who’s written as something of an idiot not to mention a racial stereotype, but, disreputable as their characters are, it’s Edgerton’s alpha male prick and Theron’s self-made take no prisoners bitch  with her foul mouth,  scathing insults and willingness to turn on a dime that give the film its vibrancy.  When you get down to it, it’s B-movie pulp, but it relishes the fact. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Vue Star City)

 

 

I, Tonya (15)

In  1991, figure-skater Tonya Harding was America’s darling, the US Champion, a World Silver Medallist and the first American woman to successfully land the incredibly difficult  triple axel in competition. Three years later, she was the most hated woman in America, at the centre of  sensational global trial by television when she was accused of being complicit with her ex-husband Jeff Gilhooly, a dimwit with a bad moustache,  and sleazy self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt in an attempt by hired thug Shane Stant  to break rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg.

Playing as a dark sardonic comedy about unbridled, ruthless ambition, screenwriter  Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie don’t offer themselves up as apologists for Harding, but  the film is more sympathetic and compassionate than you might expect.  As superbly played  by Margot Robbie, Harding is brash and unconventional working class background woman with little patience for the authority figures  who clearly regard her as upstart trash and mark her down because she doesn’t fit the American image they want to project.  But she’s also a woman who, from childhood, has constantly suffered under the physical, emotional and verbal abuse of her  foul-mouthed harridan waitress mother LaVona  (BAFTA and  Oscar Supporting Actress winner and Allison Janney), jumping at the chance to escape her home life offered by  the dim-witted mean-streak Gilhooley (Sebastian Stan), only to find she’s gone from one abusive set-up to another.

However, she becomes increasingly determined to be judged on her talent and not to allow others to define who she is by what she wears or where she comes from. Under the coaching of Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she proves her ability again and again, but remains unaccepted by the snobbish, conservative figure skating elite. Eventually ditching Rawlinson, she comes to rely on Gilhooley, even patching up their marriage to gain a veneer of respect, but, with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics approaching and Kerrigan the favourite, Jeff’s slobby, stoner conspiracy theory friend Eckhardt (a brilliantly surreal turn from Paul Walter Hauser), who still lives with his mom and has elected himself to the role of Harding’s bodyguard, suggests they send anonymous threatening letters to Kerrigan to put her off her game. By the time his two hired goons, get involved the plan has escalated to crippling her.

Part filmed as faux documentary to-camera interviews with Harding, Gilhooley, LaVona and Eckhardt (who actually did claim, as seen here, that he was an international terrorism expert) as well as recreating events on and off the ice, while never shying away from showing the abrasive, unlikeable side of  its subject, the film is at pains to stress that she (or indeed  Jeff) was never part of the plan to do Kerrigan any physical harm and is clearly on the side of those shocked by the court’s almost vengeful  punishment in banning her from figure skating forever,  Robbie’s courtroom scene begging not to not be deprived of the only thing she lived for  especially powerful.

Doing some of her own skating (her head digitally grafted to another’s body in other scenes), Robbie delivers a career-defining turn, but, even so, it’s Janney’s compelling, vitriolically funny performance as Harding’s scowling, misanthropic and toxic stage-mother who takes the gold. How  true it is  to what happened is irrelevant, it’s a great story and, as Tonya says in one the interviews, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Everyman)

 

Lady Bird (15)

Screenwriter and actress Greta Gerwig’s second directorial outing and her first flying solo, again taking screenwriting credits,  set across 2002/2003, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy about the search for self by suburban Sacramento senior high schooler Christine  (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by her given name (“I gave it to myself”, she tells her drama teacher),  Lady Bird.  She shares her small home (quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks) with her slacker brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) who works down the local supermarket, his girlfriend Shelley (Marielle Scott) and financially strapped parents, supportive but depressed Larry  (Tracy Letts) and psychiatric counsellor Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

She resentfully attends  Immaculate Heart, an expensive Catholic private school (because Miguel once witnessed violence at the local public school),  has only one friend,  equally poor Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and regularly quarrels with her ever critical mother, who she thinks doesn’t actually like her and whose concerns about her daughter getting a grip on the realities of life frequently clash with Lady Bird’s daydreaming about possible futures (including getting into a prestigious New York  college despite her thin academic record), her busy social life and an assortment of boys.  All of which have a habit of letting her down.

Her first boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), a fellow amdram  geek in the school production of Merrily We Roll Along, turns out to be gay and her next, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), to whom she loses her virginity, is a moody, self-absorbed musician.   The  friendship with Julie is strained too when, seeking to impress and live the life she fantasises,  Lady Bird falls in with the school’s queen bee, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), one of Kyle’s clique, lying to her about where she lives.

Over the course of her final school year, there are fall outs, hopes dashed, hopes raised, and a painful growth of self-discovery and a constant prickly interaction with Marion that, for reasons you need to find out for yourself,  climaxes in the latter refusing to talk to her. It’s beautifully written to balance the bitter barbs with the tenderness,  feeling true and honest even when it’s circling familiar genre clichés,  wildly funny and also piercingly poignant (at one point, in trying on prom dresses, Marion says she only wants Christine to be the best she can be, to which she replies, “what if this is the best?”).  Giving a  performance that ranks up there with her work in Atonement and Brooklyn, Ronan is outstanding while, in her  biggest feature role to date,  Metcalf fully deserves her nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Ultimately, though, also nominated for Best Film (which makes nonsense of its inexplicably  limited UK release) this is Gerwig’s defining moment , a film that joins the contemporary classic likes of  The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Thirteen   and Juno  in capturing the  sometimes messy business of  growing up  and discovering who you are. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

Mom and Dad  (15)

Watching Nicolas Cage do the full-tilt, scenery-chewing demented gonzo routine is nothing new,  but rarely do the films match his craziness. Not so here with Crank writer-director Brian Taylor’s black comedy psycho-thriller  that, homaging the suburban angst films of the 70s,  takes the frustration that  stressed out parents often feel about their kids and gives it a murderous twist.  Set in a generic  middle class anywheresville USA, things  begin as usual, bickering around the breakfast table, cellphone millennial junkie Carly (Anne Winters)  telling mom Kendall (Selma Blair), who gave up her career as a journalist to raise the kids,  that she’s just so not with it, sneaking off to see her  black boyfriend Damon (Robert Cunningham) while her younger brother Joshua (Zackary Arthur) works on being as brattish as he can be. Understandably, even though he remembers his own wild, rebellious youth, bored office worker dad Brent (Cage) sometimes still feels he’d like to  throttle the pair of them.  And that’s the premise made flesh.

For some never explained reason, though it’s hinted it’s some neurological virus transmitted by TV and computer screen static, starting with a  mother abandoning her toddler in the car on the train tracks to be bulldozered by a  hurtling express,  suddenly moms and dads across the town and. indeed, the country, suddenly go berserk and start slaughtering their offspring, the scenes of them gathering at the school gates reminiscent of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead.

Hurrying home with  Damon in tow to ensure Joshua’s safe, when dad turns up early from work, Damon winds up unconscious on the kitchen floor with Carly and her brother barricaded in the basement while dad, later joined by mom, first try to talk them out and then resort to more drastic means. And that’s pretty much it as parents and kids try and outwit each other, things get bloody and then Brent’s parents (Lance Hendricksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank) turn up for dinner.

In the manner of such cult suburban  horrors like Heathers, Serial Mom and Brian Yuzna’s Society, the film weaves a stream of social commentary on materialism, racism,  self-absorption, generational divides,  social media and much more into its cocktail of wild comedy, deranged slapstick  and rampant violence, striking a  particularly hard to watch note as Kendall’s sister gives birth and immediately displays less than maternal instincts, all to the ironic backdrop of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love. See it with the kids. (Vue Star City)

Red Sparrow (15)

Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic,  has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.

When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible,  Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a  state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested  and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.

Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets,  the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments  and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.

Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.

As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Shape of Water (15)

Set in what could just as easily be some retro dystopian future as Cold War era Baltimore, 1962, Guillermo del Toro’s latest, his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth, won Oscars for Best Film and  Director . Sally Hawkins  plays Elisa, a  physically and mentally scarred mute cleaner who works the night shift alongside her friend Zelda (Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates through signing, at a secret government aerospace research facility to which is brought a new important asset. This turns out to be an amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones, who performed a similar role in del Toro’s Hellboy films), regarded as a god by the Amazonian natives where he was captured, kept chained in a tank to be experimented on and with whom, both being misunderstood and unable speak out, she soon forms first a bond (by feeding him hard-boiled eggs and playing jazz music) and, subsequently, a romantic interspecies attachment that eventually supplants her daily masturbation sessions in the bath.

The creature is in the charge of Strickland (Michael Shannon), the facility’s paranoid, sadistic – but psychologically complex and apparently wholesome, religious family man – head of security, who regularly tortures the creature (“an affront’) with an electric cattle prod and has been ordered by the military to discover its breathing secrets so they can be used in their space race and, at all costs, to keep the Russians from finding out. Naturally, that’s already too late, the base’s marine biologist, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), being a Russian agent who is told by his masters that, if he cannot acquire the merman, then he must destroy it to foil the Americans. However, Hoffstetler is a scientist first and a spy second, and refuses to comply. Instead, when Elisa seeks to free her scaly lover, he joins Zelda in the attempt.

Her accomplice in the rescue is Giles (Richard Jenkins who also provides the bookending narration), her ageing, balding neighbour, a recovering alcoholic advertising illustrator ‘let go’ from his full-time job after rumours regarding his sexuality (he has a crush on the assistant at  the local diner, regularly stocking up on sickly pies so he can see him) and with whom she shares evenings watching black and white musicals on TV, their feet dancing along as they sit on the sofa. They bring the unnamed amphibian back to her apartment, keeping him salinated in the bath and regularly having  passionate sex. Meanwhile, the increasingly enraged Strickland is relentlessly piecing together the clues to track down the fugitive and either dissect or dispose of him.

An unabashed romantic fantasy and allegory about segregation, understanding between different peoples, desires repressed by social pressures and just who are the real monsters (del Toro’s co-writer is Vanessa Taylor who scripted Divergent), it draws inspiration from the creature features of the 50s, specifically The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but also vintage noir, biblical epics (Elisa’s apartment is above a barely attended cinema) and 30s musicals, indeed, there’s a wholly unexpected and inspired fantasy sequence in which the film shades to black and white and Hawkins and Jones launch into a classic Hollywood song and dance routine set to  the standard You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You).

Perfectly marrying its fairytale nature with the darker, harsher shades of B-movie thrillers, finding room for swooning romance and humour (Elisa’s subtitled sign language response to Strickland after an interrogation of her and Zelda and his subsequent patronising dismissal of their unimportance  is a gem), the film enfolds you in its intoxicating embrace as it builds to a tense climax, Dan Laustsen’s  almost literal green screen cinematography, especially in the underwater scene in the flooded apartment, giving it all a  dreamlike quality. At the heart of it all are the outstanding silent, physical performances by its romantic leads, Hawkins, both fragile and strong, carrying her emotions in her eyes and hands, Jones (who surely also deserved a nomination) in his almost balletic gestures and movements, and bring to the film an enchantment that makes it the year’s oddest but best date movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall)

 

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

It won the BAFTA  Best Film but lucked out at the Oscar, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes (Oscar winner Frances McDormand) rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls,  decides to poke things back into life.

The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar winner Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye.  Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet also sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.

With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.

When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works,  as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.

McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Electric; Vue Star City)

Wonder Wheel (12A)

Given the recent resurfacing of accusations that Woody Allen abused his daughter, Dylan Farrow,  with Kate Winslet’s  allusion to ‘bitter regret’ over working with him, it’ll be interesting to see in what numbers audiences turns out for  the writer-director latest annual outing.

Set in 1950s Coney Island, his first film in nine years to be based exclusively in New York, it stars Winslet as bored housewife Ginny, whose college dreams of becoming a professional  actress have led her to waitressing in a clam bar, living in a converted cramped storehouse just across from the fairground titular Ferris  wheel (of fate)  that she shares with her second husband, on the wagon alcoholic Humpty (Jim Belushi) who works the merry-go-round,  and her burgeoning pyromaniac 10-year-old son from  her first marriage.  Into their  loveless lives comes Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter by his previous wife , long estranged  since she chucked in her education to marry a gangster. She’s now left him  and, having told the cops rather more than she should, is on the lam. She’s come to dad since, given their relationship, she assumes it’s the last place they’d look for her. Humpty’s initially apoplectic at her turning up, but soon softens, insisting she pick up on her education so she can get a teaching job. In the meantime, she joins Ginny down the clam shack.

The film’s narrated from his beach tower by Navy veteran Mickey (Justin Timberlake), the local lifeguard from Greenwich Village who’s studying to become a playwright, who also plays an integral part in the action, striking up a summer affair with Ginny, who sees him as her way out of the drudgery into which she’s sunk, but then  taking a shine to Carolina, which naturally first arouses Ginny’s suspicions and then her jealousy, leading to the dramatic denouement when a couple of  thugs coming looking.

Highly theatrical in its staging (Mickey keeps talking about  Eugene O’Neill, but the feel here is more kitchen sink Tennessee Williams or Clifford Odets) , dialogue and especially in cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s lighting, changing hues as scenes dissolve, it’s not up there with the best of his recent creative revival, such as Blue Jasmine,  but , largely thanks to a fearless, unglamorous and at times unsympathetic performance from Winslet  as the drowning lost romantic and, although Belushi tends to shout his emotional turmoil and Timberlake is  puppyishly overeager  (“ I relish larger-than-life characters,” his character declares), a well-judged turn from Temple.  Winslet may have regrets, audiences should not. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

You Were Never Really Here (15)

Scottish director Lynne Ramsey’s first feature since 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin makes that seem like a bundle of sweetness and light, mining the sort of darkness that Steven Knight  explored in  Dirty Pretty Things, but with less hope.  It opens in a Cincinnati motel room with a series of disconnected images, a bloody hammer, a man gasping for air with his head covered by a plastic bag, a young Asian girl’s photo being burned in a waste bin and a hooded male figure sneaking out of the building. This is Joe (a heavily bearded Joaquim Phoenix) who,  it’s gradually revealed in flashbacks, is a former FBI agent and Iraq War veteran traumatised by both an incident involving  death of a young boy and the childhood abuse he suffered from his father and the revenge he took. These days, he lives with his aged, dementia-afflicted mother  (Judith Roberts) and works  as  a private hired gun (though he favours a hammer) rescuing young girls from sex rings,  the jobs set up by his go-between  fixer (John Doman). The latest client is  New York Senator Votto (Alex Manette), whose 14-year-old daughter, Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov), has disappeared. “I want you to hurt them”, says Votto, in reference to those responsible. That’s very much a  given when he breaks into the Manhattan brothel  the paedophile  ring’s using. Hurt is duly meted out and the drugged girl rescued. But then things take a sudden and very bloody turn as Joe discovers he’s got mixed up in a conspiracy involving highly placed figures and corrupt cops. The girl abducted again, everyone he knows or cares about meets a bloody end, leaving Joe on the retribution trail.

Adapted and extended by Ramsey from Jonathan Ames’ hard-boiled novella and occupying similar territory to Taxi Driver and Death Wish, it’s uncompromisingly brutal and oppressively dark, Phoenix given a subtly restrained, unsettlingly interiorised but magnetic performance as the suicidally depressed Joe consumed with guilt and demons he cannot exorcise. It’s a complex and ambiguous performance perfectly complemented by the look, sound and feel of the film itself, Ramsey making devastatingly ironic background use of classic doo wop numbers like Angel Baby, most strikingly in a scene of unexpectedly tender compassion featuring Charlene’s I’ve Never Been To Me. It’s never easy viewing, but you’ll find yourself transfixed. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric)

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

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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