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, West Brom; 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 dfog 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; Odeon Birmingham, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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)
Following 2014’s The Book of Life, it’s now Pixar’s turn to take animation audiences on an BAFT- 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 nominated 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Vue Star City)
The Commuter (15)
Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work), insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant. Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.
Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions, threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and hook up with the FBI, Is it the black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or the student with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?
As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.
Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket. (Vue Star City)
Darkest Hour (PG)
Oscar nominated for Best Picture, this is the third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken Neville Chamberlain after losing Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.
Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, BAFTA winner and Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty, who, despite being generally disliked by his own party, was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister and head a coalition government as the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.
The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.
Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background, it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC) it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.
Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing the film’s most powerful emotional moment.
The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)
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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Showcase Walsall; 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 Pleistocen/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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Empire Great Park; Odeon West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Finding Your Feet (12A)
Upbeat comedy dramas about bored senior citizens finding life again are as common now as Carry On films were in the sixties and seventies. These too feature a regular ensemble cast playing interchangeable roles; these too have a patchy record. Finding Your Feet, however, sees Wimbledon Director Richard Loncraine join the club with a pleasingly meaningful slice of warmth and humour.
When middle-class housewife Sandra (Imelda Staunton) discovers that her newly-retired and ennobled husband (John Sessions) is having an affair with best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence), she flees their rural-suburban idyll to London and the council estate home of her estranged sister Bif (Celia Imrie). Whereas prim and proper Sandra’s been a one-man-woman for thirty-five years, free-spirited, bohemian Bif’s a serial dater who knows how to have a good time – the trick is outdoor swimming and dance classes at the local community centre, with friends: Charlie (Timothy Spall), Jackie (Joanna Lumley) and Ted (David Heyman).
We all know what Sandra needs – Bif to snap: ‘Get off your high horse and start treating other people with common decency and some good manners’ – and, by gum, we know that she’ll get it before the end of the first half. We also know that puppy-eyed Charlie (a former ‘antique furniture restorer’) is waiting in the wings to help her find life’s music again, while his own wife Lily (Sian Thomas) rapidly forgets him due to care-home-bound illness. We even know that, at some point, one of these senior citizens is going to cough innocuously and croak several scenes later.
Surprises are not the order of the day in this genre and, actually, that’s fine; whilst none here challenge themselves to a role they’re not endlessly familiar with, in this case it’s something of an asset. Indeed, so excellent are the central cast that when the film loses its way in a messier second half – all plot twists and contrivances – it doesn’t matter because these are characters worth caring about. With Spall, Staunton and a career-best Imrie, time flies, laughter and tears flood.
It is thanks to their efforts, along with an empathetically humane script from Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard, that Finding Your Feetcan boast a more complex affair than its flimsy title foretells. Sharp wit sits aside slapstick, whilst farce is neatly balanced by genuinely devastating moments of heartbreak: the sort that is the baggage of ageing. Such emotional truth, and terrific acting, allows Loncraine to segue from sobs to smiles within the blink of an eye and convey the reality of resilience. In one scene, Bif has her bag stolen; in the next is a hearty gag about laxatives. This isn’t crude, this is honesty.
Despite having long put boogieing behind her, Sandra is cajoled into joining Bif and co. at dance class but her uptake of the activity is more than merely the natural path of genre plotting, it’s a statement and manifesto. For while Lily fades in front of game show television, late life activity is remaking of Sandra, Bif and the rest. When Lumley slips out of character midway through to promote AgeUK, the subtle hint becomes a cry: as the world grows ever older, age remains a number and life must still be lived. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; 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 (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage is surely a given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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 Oscar nominee 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 Supporting Actress winner and Oscar favourite 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, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.
Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the game sucks in teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).
No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.
Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of the clutches of the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.
Wisely, Kasdan and the four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.
Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as better, more confident people at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.
While played for thrills and laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two. Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun. Get that jungle fever. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Lady Bird (15)
The sole woman among the Oscar nominees for Best Director, this is impressively only 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 (Oscar nominee 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, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s drama offers a chilling critique of contemporary Russia dressed up as a crime thriller. Boris (Alexei Rozin) is a middle-aged telesales rep for a company whose fundamental Christian boss demands all the employees are in a stable domestic relationship. And Boris is fearful they’ll discover he’s in the middle of a poisonous divorce from his beauty-salon boss wife Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), with whom he still shares an apartment. They argue incessantly. He’s got a younger girlfriend (Marina Vasilyeva), who’s already pregnant, and she’s got an older, wealthy new lover (Andris Keishs), both want to move on with their lives and be rid of each other. The only thing holding them back is their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). The unlooked for reason why they got married in the first place, neither parent shows any sign of affection for the boy, neither wants to be landed with them in their new lives.
One night, in a heartwrenching scene, it’s revealed that, hiding in the bathroom, the sobbing Alyosha has heard them arguing about him. The next day he disappears. The parents each initially blaming the other for not knowing he’d been missing for two days, Has he been kidnapped, is he with friends, is he hiding in some secret den, is he dead? The police turn up, but bureaucracy means there’s little they can do or are willing to try, simply saying that, statistically, he’s likely to turn up, but the detective in charge does recommend they get in touch with a local missing persons volunteer force, which, led by its dedicated coordinator Fateev), doggedly put up fliers and search all the places he might be. They even drive to see Zhenya’s monstrous estranged mother on the off-chance her grandson may have been desperate enough to turn to her.
There’s some opaque but never solidified teases as to what may have happened, and hopes are variously dashed and, following a harrowing visit to a morgue, raised when boys matching his description are reported but turn out to be someone else. But, as the days pass, there’s still no sign of him and, for all of Zhenya’s anger and tears, you get the sense that perhaps she and Boris would be happier for him not to be found.
The ending offers no answers, not solutions, and, in a film that has already been backdropped with grim landcapes and news stories about the supposed Mayan end of days and fighting in the Ukraine, the gloom and darkness in the soul of both the parents and the country is all pervasive. It never succumbs to melodrama, but the spiritual horror of a world where material self-interest has suffocated the natural bonds of love is implacable
At one point, she confesses to her new man that she’d wanted to abort Alyosha and was repulsed when he was born, asking “I’m a monster, aren’t I?” The final shot, some months later, Boris now a new – but clearly no more paternal – father, is of Zhenya in her new upscale apartment, working out on an exercise machine in a tracksuit with the word Russia across her chest. The allegory is inescapable. (Tue-Thu:Electric)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)
Delayed on account of the on-set accident suffered by Dylan O’Brien, this is the third and final chapter in the adaptation of James Dashner’s young adults novels, original director Wes Ball returning to provide the send-off. Despite Enders Game and The 5th Wave both having failed to launch the anticipated franchise and the planned conclusion to the Divergent series demoted to a TV series without its star, Shailene Woodley, the fact that this dislodged Jumanji from the box office throne shows there’s still a hefty audience for the dystopian genre if it’s done right.
Certainly, this makes no attempt to involve anyone not already familiar with the narrative, opening with Thomas (O’Brien) and resistance fighters Vince (Barry Pepper), Rosa (Brenda Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) staging a thrilling assault on a train to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Unfortunately, while freeing some of the other immunes (remember, a deadly virus, the Flare, is wiping out humans by turning them into zombie-like ‘cranks’), Minho’s not among them, prompting Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to try and infiltrate the walled WKD city stronghold where he’s been taken for experimentation in search of a cure by scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s now assisted by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a former Glader and Thomas’s erstwhile love interest who betrayed them in the last film in her belief that science was the only answer.
Here, they’re surprised to be reunited with someone from the first film they all thought dead and, of course, are destined to be ruthlessly hunted down by the series chief villain, WKD’s head of security, Janson (Aiden Gillen, with his permanent smile cum sneer, the film gathering to top gear after a somewhat saggy mid-section for combination of jailbreak and full-on storming of Last City by those outside its walls.
While it’s possible to see allusions to the Trump administration, this is less about scoring any political points and more about delivering explosions, shoot-outs and not one but two dramatic airlifts by attaching a hook to a vehicle filled with WKD captives. Plus, with one of the team showing signs of infection and Thomas’s reunion with Teresa, themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice and assorted moral quandaries all percolate the screenplay.
Featuring some pretty spectacular action sequences and aerial shots, hugely impressive CGI effects and a welcome boost in screen time and involvement by Salazar, at 140 minutes it may drag out the climax longer than needed, but, with a sense of genuine chemistry among the central cast to go with the firefights, this brings the curtain down in impressive style. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Phantom Thread (15)
Having already had one five-year period of semi-retirement, it seems that triple Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis has decided to finally quit acting for good. This, then, is his swansong, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, making his first British film affording him the opportunity to bow in style (and with another Oscar nomination) as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, dressmaker to the vulgar but rich high society women of British post-war society he despises but relies on, not to mention the occasional Belgian princess. He’s a cold fish, fastidious to the point of anal, crabby, humourless and preeningly self-important, still in thrall to his late mother who launched him on a career as a couturier and unable to make emotional connections. Indeed, he’s first seen breakfasting with his latest live-in lover, making it abundantly clear he’s tired of her, her removal duly facilitated by his domineering, caustic and equally frosty business partner sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).
Taking a brief seaside break, he encounters shy, clumsy German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately as smitten as his personality allows, seeing in her potential for beauty and poise, duly whisking her back to London where, much to Cyril’s initial displeasure, she becomes both his assistant, muse, star model and occasional sexual gratification. Naturally, given Raymond’s controlling nature and lack of tolerance (there’s brilliant scene in which the sounds of Alma having breakfast are magnified to indicate his irritation at such ‘distraction’ from his work), the relationship seems set to collapse. However, Alma’s not about to lie down and be walked over, proving, with the help of a little poison mushroom omelette (another daringly nuanced scene) that she can be just as manipulative in making him emotionally rely upon her while he tries to keep her at a remove. It is, as she puts it at one point, something of a staring contest to see who blinks first.
Affecting a mannered speaking voice and sinuous body language, Day-Lewis is superb in his portrayal of toxic masculinity shot through with ineffable vulnerability and need, creating but never finding beauty, his composure also rattled by the threat from a new fashion trends that are seducing way his clients, giving rise to a riveting explosion of anger when Cyril dares to mention the term ‘chic’. He’s brilliant complemented though by both Kriebs and Manville, the former giving a complex and intricately textured performance while the latter feels as though she’s stepped out of the pages of a Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Working on themes of desire, ambition and control and enrobed in Jonny Greenwood score, Hitchcock, Bergman and Losey are all evident influences in Anderson’s claustrophobic design and fabric while the relationship between Woodcock and his sister. An unusual and at times oblique love story, it has a definite refined art house quality that might prove testing for less patient audiences, but its narrative needlework is true craftsmanship. (Cineworld NEC; Mockingbird)
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 the BAFTA Best Director award leads the Oscar nominations for Best Film and Director with Sally Hawkins the main Best Actress threat to Frances McDormand.
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 (Supporting Actor nominee 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, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall)
Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri (15)
Heavily represented in both the BAFTA awards and Oscar nominations, Best Picture included, 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 (BAFTA winner Oscar best bet 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 (Oscar nominee 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 (BAFTA winner and Oscar favourite 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Vue Star City)
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