MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 31-Thu Apr 6

NEW RELEASES

Ghost in the Shell (12A)

Subject to some controversy in having cast a white actress in an iconic Manga role, director Rupert Sanders brings Mamoru Oshii’s cult cyberthriller creation to the big screen for its first live action adaptation. Those familiar with the Manga comic and animations will be more conversant with things, but for newbies this serves as an origin story, detailing how the unnamed Major (Scarlett Johansson) became a hybrid human-android cyberterrorism fighter, her brain – her ghost or soul – transplanted to an artificial body by Hanka Robotics. However, working for Section 9, the government’s cyberterrorist division, under Aramaki (Takeshi Takano) alongside fellow agent Batou (Pilou Asbaek), she’s experiencing glitches in her programming, flashbacks to memories that don’t gel with what she knows of her past.

To put this into context, events are set in Japan in  a  future where technological advancement has allowed humans to enhance their bodies giving them, for example, cybernetic eyes and limbs, existing alongside robots in a high-tech city where giant holograms such as geishas, joggers and swimming  fish  are projected across the cityspace. It’s all the work of the leading robotics company, Hanka, whose chief scientist  Cutter (Peter Ferndinando), headed up the project through which Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche) that transformed the unnamed girl, badly injured in the terrorist attack that killed her parents, into The Major.

However, as seen in the brisk set-up, where Hanka’s boss is attacked and killed by robots and enhanced  thugs while hosting a business lunch with a top African leader. Going ‘deep’ into the deactivated geisha robot, the Major gets a look at Kuze (Michael Pitt), the person behind the attack, but the experience also causes further glitches, Meanwhile, other Hanka scientists are being targeted, all of whom turn out to have worked on a  secret project, with Dr. Oulet now the only survivor.

With the Major accused of having her programming corrupted by the terrorist network, she and her fellow squad members find themselves in a race to find and take down the cloaked Kuze, except, as the Major discovers, not everything she’s been told or remembers is the truth.

Wasting little time on exposition, disposed of with the brief opening voice-over, the film hurtles along, Sanders dropping in visual references that fans of the 1995 animation will recognise, cramming on considerably more action and ideas into the 107 minutes than you might have assumed possible. The visual design is breathtaking  in its CGI, whether in the sprawling techno city, the darker, more dystopian  zone or Johansson’s costume, a sort of fleshtone body suit that enables her cyborg self to disappear into the pixels and which , as her workings are exposed, both disturbing and beautiful, conjures thoughts of Japanese body-horror movies.

“We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us,” intones Johannson, inevitably thoughts of Blade Runner, Scott’s film clearly offering template for the film’s look as well as its themes about identity and humanity. Undeniably glossily and sleekly thrilling and with a pulsing core part composed by Black Country boy  Clint Mansell, on the downside, it’s singularly lacking in humour and, with rather damning irony, despite the title, it’s a entirely soulless affair. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Fits (12A)

Having been doing the festival rounds since the start of 2016, writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature finally surfaces in the UK for a few limited appearances on the art house circuit. It’s certainly worth making the effort to seek out, not least for the compelling performance by first time young lead Royalty Hightower, only 11 at the time of filming. She’s Toni, an African-American tomboy who  does boxing training with her brother, Donte (Da’Sean Minor), down at the local Cincinnati community centre, helping clean up at the end of the day. Her attention and interest is caught by the  The Lionesses, a trophy-winning dance troupe who practise and rehearse their aggressive, confrontational moves (a mirror of what goes on in the boxing ring) in the same building and she’s encouraged to give it a go. Her dancing initially awkward (Hightower’s actually an accomplished dancer) and promoting sniggering, she works hard to improve, including on a neighbourhood overpass, but, just as she’s the only girl among the boxers, her poor skills here make her feel like an outsider in both communities. She’s befriended by one of the younger girls, Beezy (Alexis Neblett) with whom she hangs out, but then, first the team captain, (Makyla Burnam),  then other others of crew, beginning with Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), start having convulsive fits and fainting spells.

Although audience are invited to assume these may be linked to Toni, the film never spells out the cause, further intensifying the sense of mystery and otherworldliness that pervades, the film climaxing in a bravura hallucinatory dance montage that deepens things even more.

With very few adults and even these filmed out of focus, Holmer’s essentially exploring a theme of adolescent psychological isolation, and a desire to belong, all of which (complemented by the droning sound design) hinges on Hightower’s performance, mostly silent and fixing the audience with the close ups of her blank, intense gaze straight into to the camera lens. Indeed, the film is full of images of looking, notably peering through windows or into mirrors. It offers no answers, the fits themselves quite possibly a meaningless distraction, but the questions it raises are compelling. (Sat, Mon/Tue:MAC)

Free Fire (15)

Evoking both Peckinpah’s The Wild  Bunch and, though he’d disagree, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, director Ben Wheatley’s follow up to  High-Rise is essentially one long shoot-out, one that takes place,  claustrophobically, in a single setting. It’s Boston, 1978, and an arms deal is going down in an abandoned warehouse. There to buy the guns are a pair of IRA members, the sharp-witted Chris (Cillian Murphy) and his grizzled superior, Frank (Michael Smiley), with the rather less intelligent obnoxious Stevo (Sam Riley) and his mate Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) along as hired hands. Also accompanying them is Justine (Brie Larson), the chilly businesswoman who’s arranged a meeting with cool and casual stoner middle-man Ord (a bearded Armie Hammer) and the gun-runners, weaselly and somewhat crazy South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his crew, Martin (Babou Ceesay), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and  the volatile Harry (Jack Reynor).

Things don’t go well from the start, Vernon’s consignment not being the weapons Chris is expecting.  Negotiations on a compromise are tense, but eventually settled. But then, as the weapons are being transferred and the money handed over, things kick off when Harry recognises Stevo as the guy he beat up the night before for coming on to his younger sister, whips out his gun and shoots. The two sides take cover and the film becomes a lengthy exchange of both gunfire and insults as the assorted characters pop up out of their hiding places to let off a round or two. Minor wounds are inflicted, but nothing fatal (Vernon’s more annoyed at a bullet ripping his polyester jacket), a rather more realistic scenario than the average Hollywood fire-fight. And then two new sharpshooters enter the fray, both sides assuming they’ve been engaged by the other. Naturally, double-dealing is involved, though between and by whom is teasingly withheld until an unexpected turn of events just as everything seems to have settled down.

Co-written by Wheatley and his wife and editor, Amy Jump, there’s huge swathes of black humour and wisecracking dialogue, giving  the now clichéd set up a very different, more playful almost Looney Tunes spin, however bloody it may get – and get bloody (and burned) it definitely does.

Characterisation is pretty basic, Hammer the unflappable voice of reason, Copley the unpredictable lunatic, Larson the icy professional, Riley and Raynor the out of control stooges, and so on, but that simply adds to the shambolic but expertly choreographed fun with its bad fashions and an inspired soundtrack in which John Denver plays a crucial part. With even the characters admitting they’re confused about what’s going on, it’s best to not look for any deep allegorical meanings but just go along with the ride, enjoying the tension and comedy until the final reveal and payoff. Bang on target. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City

 

Smurfs: The Lost Village (U)

 

After being rescued from the clutches of her creator, the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson), in the last film, Smurfette (Demi Lovato) is now living back with the other Smurfs in the Smurf village, but is sad that, unlike the others, such as Clumsy (Jack MacBrayer), Brainy (Danny Pudi) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), her name doesn’t define her character. She’s just ‘nice’. Plagued by existential angst, if that’s not too deep a concept for such a trivial film, she’s led to explore the Forbidden Forest where, accompanied by Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty, who have followed her, she discovers a whole new Smurfs community, Smurfy Grove, and they’re all girls and, like Smurfstorm (Michelle Rodriguez) often warriors, with Smurfwillow (Julia Roberts) their answer to Papa Smurf (Mandy Patikin).

Unfortunately, Gargamel, accompanied by his cat Azrael and dim, deranged vulture Cornelius, is also on Smurfette’s trail looking to finally get his hands on the Smurfs so he can drain their essence and become a sorcerer supreme. The new Smurfs are an unexpected bonus.

Ditching the last film’s ill-advised choice of setting things in the city (New York/Paris) and expanding the human cast, this is on surer ground, with Wilson as the only non-animated character, also taking on a cartoonish performance. Despite the occasional grown up joke, adults will still probably find the experience of sitting through it rather like having their finger-nails extracted, but it has to be admitted that the animation is well handled, there’s some clever touches (luminous giant rabbits, flying bugs dubbed Dragonflies), the songs aren’t bad and the plot is easy to follow, with  messages about female empowerment, not being defined by a singular trait and finding who you are for those willing or old enough to look. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Another Mother’s Son (12A)

During WWII, Jersey, in the Channel Islands, was the only part of Britain to be occupied by the Germans. As in other territories under Nazi rule, there were both collaborators and resistance, ordinary people trying to help fugitives elude the enemy and neighbours all too willing to inform anonymously, often out of petty spite rather than as Nazi sympathizers. Directed by Christopher Menaul, this worthy but rather middling offering tells the story of Louisa Gould (Jenny Seagrove), the great aunt of the film’s screenwriter, Jenny Lecoat, who, proprietor of the local grocery store from where she sold the food rations, sheltered Fyodr Burriy (Julian Kostov),  a young Russian airman, who, brought to the island along with other PoWs, had escaped from the hard labour gang.

In so doing, she risked arrest and deportation to a camp in Germany, along with her family and anyone else who was involved. This would include her teacher brother Harold (Ronan Keating in his first dramatic role), sister Ivy (Amanda Abbington) and close friends  Arthur (John Hannah), who worked at the local post office, intercepting ‘snitch’ letters to the Germans, and the more elderly Elena (Susan Hampshire).

Louisa, who learns one of her two sons has been killed in action, develops a sort of maternal bond with her guest, whom she nicknames Bill, teaching him to speak English and setting him up with a room in her house. Although concerned about the danger this presents, friends and family rally round to help keep his presence a secret. Which makes it seem odd that, as Gould did in real life, she should take him out for bicycle rides or walks round the town, even, at one point, visiting an out of town bookshop, precipitating one of several nail-biting close calls where their discovery by the Germans seems likely.

However, eventually, one of the letters gets past Arthur (thanks to Nicholas Farrell’s postmaster who insists its their job to deliver the mail not stop it) and the Germans come calling and, as history, relates, Gould’s activities were exposed. By whom remains unknown.

Very much an old-fashioned sort of British movie, it’s all rather stiff,  predictable and somewhat calculated in its seesawing with the emotions. The  Germans, who are never subtitled, are naturally cruel and despicable almost to a man, although there is a fleeting scene with one token young lad who, dating one of the locals, protests he’s not a Nazi, while the locals are mostly salt of the earth types pulling together under adversity. Seagrove is terrific, delivering  a performance that captures both Gould’s stoicism and warmth and a brooding Kostov does a good job of capturing both Bill’s happiness at his new family and his palpable fear of being discovered, but the rest of the cast aren’t really called on for anything of a stretch. As a celebration of an unsung hero, it warrants plaudits, but as a cinema experience it belongs on a  Sunday afternoon on BBC.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

Beauty and the Beast (PG)

Following on from Cinderella and The Jungle Book, this is the latest of Disney’s toons to get a live action update. Directed by Bill Condon, this very much plays to the original’s Oscar winning score and songs to make it a  full out musical, complete with three new numbers; however, while parts are very good, it never quite takes off  as a whole. Likewise, while the design generally looks terrific, especially the Beast’s gloom-frozen castle, Belle’s village feels very much like a 30s stage set. It’s a qualification that tends to apply throughout. The CGI animated household objects into which the servants have been transformed are brilliantly rendered, but, as voiced by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth, the clock), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere, the candelabra) and Emma Thompson (an inexplicably Cockney accened Mrs. Potts, the teapot), they’re also often very irritating.  And then, on the one hand, you have a serious turn by Kevin Kline as Belle’s guilt-haunted inventor father and a solid theatrical villain from Luke Evans as the arrogant, narcissistic Gaston, while, on the other, an over the top Josh Gad is almost unbearably hammy as his adoring camp sidekick LeFou.

The problem extends to the central characters too. Dan Stevens is magnificent under the CGI as the tortured Beast (rather less so when restored to his true prince form), but, unfortunately, Emma Watson is all too prettily bland as Belle, though she can handle a tune passably enough. Only in the final, and genuinely moving, moments, does she ever fully come to life, meaning that, if you’re over the age of eight, much of what goes before is ever so slightly boring.

You’ll know  the fairy tale and the film’s opening voice over makes short work of delivering the exposition as to why the prince was cursed by an enchantress, transformed into a  beast for having no love in his heart, and cursed to remain that way when the last petal falls from the red rose in the glass case if he’s not found someone to love him for who he is.

Lost during a storm,  Belle’s  father takes shelter in the hidden castle and is locked up by the Beast after stealing a rose from the garden on his way out, Belle duly taking his place and, assisted by the matchmaking Lumiere,  her tender and wise nature soothing the Beast’s rage, lifting his depression and causing him to care as, bonding over a love of literature, she comes to see his inner soul. In addition, the film also takes a trip to Belle’s birthplace in Paris to add some backstory about what happened to her mother and why dad’s so protective.

At its best, as with a showstopping Be Our Guest dinner sequence that tips the hat to Busby Berkeley, the LeFou and Gaston tavern table hopping  musical routine, the castle invasion action finale and, of course, the iconic ballroom waltz with that yellow dress and blue tunic. it’s fabulous, equal  and occasionally superior to the 1991 animation. Unfortunately,   when it isn’t, it falls rather short,  and, while watchable, also disappointingly forgettable.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

CHIPS: Law and Disorder  (15)

Starring Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as mixmatched partners with  the California Highway Patrol, CHiPs ran for a mammoth 139 episodes between 1977 and 1983. Now, like so many other bad but cult shows from the era, it’s been revived for the big screen, still with the same central characters but remodeled as a crass mix of crude humour and violence.

Michael Pena is Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello, except he isn’t because that’s an alias given him by the FBI to go undercover in the CHP and ferret out a bunch of crooked cops who’ve stolen $14million. Writer-director Dax Shepard is his rookie partner, Jon Baker, a former motocross rider who’s now a walking catalogue of injuries and, unable to shoot straight, only got the job because the personnel officer (Maya Rudolph) identified with his last ditch attempt to save his marriage to swim instructor Karen (Kristen Bell). It goes without saying that Frank’s the macho, rule-breaker with an eye for booty, regularlytaking  toilet breaks for some self-stroking while Jon’s the over-enthusiastic, straitlaced type who babbles on about therapy and closure.

It quickly becomes clear that the leader of the dirty cops is Lt Vic Brown (Vincent D’Onofrio, who seems to think he’s in a  serious drama) who wants  money to get his son, also a former bike rider, off heroin, and that there’s been some sort of fall out with two other members of the gang (one of whom chooses to take a nose dive from a  helicopter). There’s also a couple of female cops (Jessica McNamee and Rosa Salazar) who have a thing for the pair, though, naturally, one of them’s not what she seems.

The plot is about as generic as it gets, so while that’s going through the motions, Shepard’s screenplay trowels on the inevitable dick and homoerotic panic jokes, including a nuts in face moment and several conversations about how oral anal is now all the rage, plus, of course, the gratuitous bare boobs  shots.

Pretty much none of this is remotely funny, certainly not the running joke about how the CHP uniform makes them look like UPS delivery men, but at least the offers some marginal relief from the tedium, the violence including a decapitation and someone having their fingers blasted off.

Nowhere near the same league as the revival of that other 80s cop buddy series, 21 Jump Street, Estrada puts in a cameo in the final moments. Has the man no dignity?  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Showcase Walsall)

 

Elle (18)

Earning star Isabelle Huppert a Best Actress Golden Globe and several other gongs, the latest controversial offering by director Paul Verhoeven underlines her status as one of the best actresses of her generation.

Decidedly French, as such contains an inevitable  couple of awkward dinner table scenes, one involving a Christmas part that sees Michele Leblanc (Huppert) running her foot up the crotch of Patrick (Laurent Latiffe), the hunky neighbour married to devoted Catholic Rebecca (Virginie Efira),  who we’ve already seen her masturbating over while watching him through binoculars.

The other is a small get together with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anne (Anne Consigny), with whom she runs a company specialising in sexually charged violent video games, and her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), who she just happens to be screwing. It’s here that she drops the bombshell about a masked intruder breaking into her apartment and violently raping her. They’re understandably shocked, all the more so that she hasn’t reported it. However, given she’s the daughter of a mass murderer who butchered 27 people on their street and, as a child, was seen as guilty by association, she’s keen not to attract either police or media interest. Especially as dad’s mounting his latest appeal.

There’s also the fact that Michele’s a decidedly psychologically complex, emotionally damaged  character who’s drawn to risky relationships and  may or may not actually have gotten off on the assault, which both opens the film and is revisited in increasingly savage – and ultimately fictionalised – flashbacks. After the attack, she simply sweeps up the mess and has a bath. The next day she has the locks changed, buys some self defence gear and carries on as normal. Is that trauma or something else entirely?

When she realises the rapist is stalking her, the waters are further muddied by  a list of possible suspects, among them a  game designer she suspects might have created the simulation of her being violated by a monster. Indeed, Michele’s life seems to involve many different kinds of monsters, she as much of one as any.

She’s also having to deal  with her feckless son Valentine  (Jonas Bloquet) and his bullying pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), the baby, when born, clearly having nothing to do with him, as well as the prickly relationship with her mother who’s shacked up with a much younger man.

The actual identity of the rapist is revealed relatively early one, but subsequent events and relationships only further serve to compound the film’s problematic amoral and ambiguous nature. At times, it is also darkly funny.

Addressing themes of the connections between sex, violence and  power, it unfolds as a revenge thriller unlike most, never looking to underplay the effect of the rape, but also not defining the controlling Michele as powerless victim. It’s no easy watch and, arguably, it does falter in the schematic last act as Michele seeks, if not redemption, then at least to cleanse herself of the demons and guilt that have shaped her. Nevertheless, fuelled by Huppert’s mesmerising performance, this is raw and potent stuff.  (MAC)

 

Get Out (15)

Bringing a  welcome injection of fresh blood to horror movies, writer-director Jordan Peele deftly revives the genre’s element of social commentary, constructing his film as a racial satire which chimes powerfully in America’s current climate. Indeed, Peele’s darkly funny film riffs on the idea of whites finding a new way of subjugating blacks to slavery.

A rising star in the photography world,  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is persuaded to visit the new girlfriend Rose’s  (Allison Williams) family in their upstate home. He’s just a little wary of their  reaction, specifically since she hasn’t told them he’s black. Indeed, his best friend, Rod (LilRel Howery providing the broad comedy) , a Homeland Security agent with the TSA  who reckons white folk want black sex slaves, thinks it’s a really bad idea. However, Rose reassures him that they’re progressive thinkers and will be totally accepting. Indeed,  neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and hypnotherapist wife Missy (Catherine Keener) prove to be just that. Even so, Chris isn’t totally at ease and, even though Dean says that he’s almost embarrassed at having live-in black servants, handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel), kept on after caring for his elderly parents, but they’re  like part of the family.  Chris finds their almost zombie-like behaviour a little unsettling, likewise, Rose’s spoiled brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) who goes on about his “genetic makeup” and Missy’s insistence on hypnotising him to cure his smoking habit.

Clearly all is not what it might appear. The visit coinciding with an annual bash when all the rich folks come over, Chris feels there’s something familiar about the quietly polite black husband (Lakeith Stanfield)  of one of the middle-aged women. Audiences will too, since he was seen abducted on a deserted street at the start of the film. When Rod suggests he take a photo on his phone and send it to him to check out, the flash causes something in the man to snap, his meek demeanour falls away and he lurches at Chris telling him to ‘get out!’

It is, of course, rather too late for that  and  it’s not long before Chris wakes up to find himself strapped to a chair and  discovering just what is going on, why the servants act like they do and why so many black men have been vanishing in the area. To say more would spoil things, but suffice to say The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are not idle comparisons.

Peele cleverly marries the growing tension and horror with comedy and  barbed casual racism before cranking things up to a bloody and gory climax as well as a final gotcha. Scary, funny, thought-provoking and resonantly timely, this has the makings of a future classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Kong: Skull Island (12A)

Following Peter Jackson’s bloated 2005 remake, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts takes another swing at reviving cinema’s most famous ape. And  knocks it out of the park.

Clocking in at a tightly packed two hours, it balances explosive action, breathtaking effects, throwaway humour and some respectful nods to the original (effectively recreating that iconic Fay Wray/Kong moment) to wildly entertaining effect. However, the most striking thing  is that, set in 1973, it’s essentially Apocalypse Now with a  100 foot gorilla, Coppola’s movie very clearly referenced in any number of  shots  recreating that iconic image of the red streaked sun, both with and without helicopters blaring out rock music. In Samuel  L Jackson as Lt Col. Preston Packard, the army officer who doesn’t want to the war to end, especially not in ‘abandonment’, as he terms it, it also has its own crazed Kurtz.

Opening with a brief WWII  prologue as two young pilots, one American, one Japanese, are fighting to the death after crashing on some island when two giant hairy hands appear on the cliff top, it fast forwards to Bill Randa (John Goodman), who heads up  Monarch, a secret agency seeking  “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” as he convinces  a senator (Richard Jenkins) to back an expedition to a hitherto uncharted island “where myth and science meet.”

 

Requisitioning a military escort headed up by Packard and his  chopper squad (among them Shea Whigham, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell and Toby Kebbell) most of whom serve as cannon fodder along with the assorted scientists, Randa  and his team (Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing) also recruit ex SAS officer Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker  while, sensing a story, war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also inveigles a place on the mission.

However, no sooner have they battled their  way through the electrical storm shrouding the island  and started dropping seismic bombs, than they’re  being swatted out of the sky by an angry Kong.

Initially separated, the film charts their attempt to survive as they head for the pick up point, Conrad, Weaver and the rest of his group encountering Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the American pilot from the opening, who has been living with the natives ever since andwarns of even more dangerous beasts, against which Kong, the last of his kind, has become the island’s protector. Which means they now have to stop Packard from blasting the monkey to pieces.   With familiar  don’t screw with nature messages and observations on how war can make a man see enemies everywhere, it wastes little time on exposition and  gets on with mounting its spectacular action, introducing docile giant water buffalos, towering killer spiders and a humongous  octopus before finally bringing on lizard-like monsters  to raise the bloody body count tally further.

Essentially a prequel to Godzilla, given the thrills assembled here, those who hang around for the post credits scene will be pleased to note  references to such  other celebrated Japanese movie monsters as Mothra and Rodan, suggesting this monkey business is far from over yet.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Life  (15)

The plot can be pretty much summed up as ‘omigod, we found life on Mars. Omigod, it’s trying to kill us’, directed by Daniel Espinosa it does serviceable duty here. It’s set on a manned NASA space station where, in the opening sequences, the six-strong international crew of the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission have to snag a specimen-collecting capsule as it shoots past.

Duly accomplished by astronaut Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), English scientist Hugh Derry (Arlyon Bakare), who joined because he doesn’t need a wheelchair in space, sets to work examining the micro-organisms found in the soil and, in the process, awakens a single cell from dormancy.

In a celebratory Q&A educational broadcast between the station and Earth, the organism is officially named Calvin and everyone’s very happy. But then Calvin, a sort of jelly-like squid starts growing, and,  next thing you know, it’s mangled Derry’s hands, escaped from the containment chamber and is trapped in the lab with Adams, whose attempts to destroy result in, well let’s just say viewers there for Reynolds might well leave early.

Then, when it  escapes the lab, the survivors have to find a way to get it off the ship, a task taken up by mission commander, Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya). And so, were soon down to the long-serving David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a medic who prefers the isolation of space, Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) from  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in charge of security protocol, and senior crewmember, and new father, Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada). With the now even larger creature on the loose that, presumably having wiped out any original life on Mars,  they have to stop it getting to Earth. Given it can survive in sub-space, withstand fire and go for long stretches without oxygen, that might be easier said than done.

A sort of meeting between Alien and Gravity, it’s superbly designed, the station layout detailed in a lengthy single take, so you can see those hatches the crew really should keep shut but are always opening for to try and save someone or the other, something that ties in to the film’s musing on the biological imperative for the survival of the species.

Well-served by solid and effective performances, Espinosa ratchets up some nail-biting suspense, compounded by the confined spaces and the creatures ability to squeeze through small gaps, leaving audiences with a twist ending which, while it may be a touch obvious, lays the ground for a possible sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

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

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

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

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

 

Logan (15)

The third and final chapter in Wolverine’s standalone  story wears its template on its sleeve in both referring to and showing clips from classic Alan Ladd Western Shane, the story of a loner drawn into a fight not of his making but which becomes inescapably personal. Not to mention Terminator 2.

Set in 2029, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are the last of the X-Men (it’s never stated what happened to the others, but an enigmatic reference suggests a cataclysmic tragedy) and something has blocked the birth of any new mutants. The conflicted Logan is now old, grizzled, limping,  his eyesight failing, his healing powers on the blink and the adamantium in his body poisoning him. Deadening his physical and emotional pain with drink, he’s working as a limo driver in Texas, shacking up at an abandoned industrial site near the Mexican border where, along with albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant-tracker, he’s looking after the  nonagenarian Professor X, who, hidden in a  rusting toppled water tower and suffering from Alzheimer’s, needs constant medication to prevent his powerful mental powers running out of control and causing seizures for anyone in the vicinity.

In one of his lucid periods, Xavier insists that he’s senses a new mutant, something Logan dismisses. Until, that it is, he encounters  Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a Mexican nurse offering a considerable wad of cash to drive her and her Hispanic daughter Laura ((Dafne Keen) to Canada. However, arriving at the motel to collect them, he finds the woman dead and, on returning to his hideout, discovers the girl had stowed away in the car. Although, she says nothing, it seems she is the mutant Xavier sensed. As to her powers, they’re bloodily revealed with the arrival of  Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg head of the paramilitary  Reavers. Much to Logan’s shock, she too sprouts deadly adamantium claws and has the same fast healing abilities. It transpires that she was genetically bred, along with other young mutants, by Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who runs shady bioengineering program Transigen, using Logan’s DNA. As Xavier points out, basically, she’s his daughter.

From here, the film becomes a chase road movie as the three set out to find Eden, the supposed mutant safe haven in the Dakota hills, despite Logan insisting it’s merely something dreamed up in one of the X-Men comics for which he has no time, with Pierce, Rice and the latter’s genetically created secret weapon, in pursuit.

Given Jackman’s stated this is his last outing as the character, the way things end won’t come as any real surprise. The fact that it is profoundly moving may well. Directed by James Mangold, from the opening scene as Logan slices his way through a bunch of would be carjackers, the film is spectacularly violent, both Logan and the feral Laura’s claws ripping off limbs and slashing through skulls in graphic detail. Yet this is balanced with moments of humour and  the tender ruminations on family (if Laura’s Logan’s genetic daughter, Xavier is his surrogate father), loneliness and redemption.

Giving a superbly nuanced performance, ranging from extreme rage to heavy weariness the mesmerising Jackman is terrific, as indeed is Stewart who lends the film his own imposing gravitas, while, in her debut role, an impressive eleven-year-old Keen, although wordless until the final stretch, has striking presence and a penetrating stare, something that bodes well should the Wolverine saga spin off to a second generation. In recent years, superheroes have become darker and more grown up, ending with an inspired final image this is among the best of them.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Lost City of Z (15)

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a fascinating character, an army officer and, like his father, a member of the Royal Geographical Society and a surveyor, While serving in the war office in Cork, in 1906, he was dispatched to South America, as an uninterested party, to map the border between Brazil and Bolivia in an attempt to prevent war and its impact on the price of rubber.

On one of his several expeditions,  he came upon what he took to be remnants of a lost city, which he termed Z and, after serving in the army again during WWI, in 1920 he returned to Brazil on a solo expedition to find it. This failed, but, in 1925, now funded by a group of London financiers, he went back, this time with eldest son Jack (Tom Holland), neither of whom were ever heard of again.

Condensing this to just three trips, writer-director James Gray delivers an engaging slow burn, if somewhat emotionally detached account of Fawcett’s obsession, as well as its impact on those caught up in its wake. These include wife Nina (Sienna Miller), a spirited intellectual, who, while supportive, rather resents  being left at home to bring up the kids for years at a time,  Henry Costin (a nigh unrecognisable heavily bearded Robert Pattinson) who accompanies Fawcett on his first forays, but cannot be persuaded to return in the search for Z, and explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who becomes patron and fellow traveller for  the narrative’s second voyage in 1911, much to his regret.

Gray’s script affords some backstory to explain why Fawcett’s so driven, such as smarting at never getting a medal because “he’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”, a reference to his father’s drink and gambling. Keen to restore the family name, earn  respect and do his bit for mankind, he duly sets off into the South American jungle where he comes across some pottery, prompting his belief in Z, as he terms it.  Back home, now acclaimed as “England’s bravest explorer”, this sets up his presentation to the RGS where, in what may or may not be factual, but undeniably plays well, he rebukes those scoffing at the idea of half-naked primitive savages having an advanced civilisation.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji brings the Amazon to vivid life and, in a sort of narrative interlude, also does sterling work creating a brief sequence at the Battle of the Somme, while Gray’s screenplay balances the intellectual and psychological heft with striking unexpected moments such as a hail of arrows from natives hidden in the foliage showering the men as they journey up the river on their raft.

Miller is excellent in a limited role and Hunnam does a solid job as a not always likeable character and, while the film may, ultimately, fall somewhat short of its potential,  it does serve as a fine example of what Fawcett tells Jack, that “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Everyman; Reel)

 

Power Rangers (12A)

 And here’s yet another revival, this time of the  mid-90s (and still ongoing) live-action TV series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers about five ‘teenagers with attitude’ recruited by the wizard Zordon to battle the evil (and risibly named) Rita Repulsa as she attempts to conquer Earth, each of them having their own super-powers and  wearing individually colour-coded spandex suits and helmets.

Directed by Dean Israelite, this latest entry takes things back to the start for an origin story that kicks off 67 million years ago as Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and his team are defeated by rogue Ranger Rita (a gleefully hamming Elizabeth Banks), taking her out with him in one last act, but not before burying the Rangers’ power crystals to be found by those next worthy of using them. Cut to the present as sports star Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) pulls off a high school prank involving a bull, crashes his car, is busted, thrown off the team and sentenced to Saturday detentions, where he meets autistic Billy (RJ Cyler) and cool chick Kimberly (Naomi Scott) who apparently punched some boy’s tooth out.  Jason steps into protect Billy from the class bully and  agrees to drive him out to some quarry in the neighbouring hills where it seems Kimberely goes to chill out. It also happens to be frequented by fellow screw-ups/misfits Zack (Ludi Lin), who escapes there when caring for his sick mom on the trailer park gets too much, and Trini (Becky G.), who’s dealing with her own identity issues.

Anyways, Billy sets off a charge and all five find themselves plummeting into some cavern, discovering what seems to be an alien spaceship, falling into water and inexplicably waking up back home the next day and discovering they’ve acquired superstrength. So, it’s back to the site where they get to meet a wisecracking talking robot (Bill Hader) and Zordon, or rather his essence which is now trapped in some sort of giant 3D pin-art sculpture, who informs them they’ve been chosen to be the new Power Rangers, but they have to prove themselves worthy before they can summon up the armour within them.

Which means, what with everyone having to confront their dark secrets, it’s almost 80 minutes into the two hours before the familiar red, blue, purple, blue, black and yellow suits appear and the film can get on with the action as, behind the controls of their  Dinozords, they face off against the now resurrected Rita who, with her equally naffly named creation, Goldar (yes, it’s a monster made from gold) and rock-creatures army, is destroying  the town looking for the energy source which will ensure her conquest and which just happens to be located beneath the film’s glaring product placement, a Krispy Kreme store.

With its joke about ‘milking’ a bull along with inference that Trini’s a lesbian (thus Hollywood’s first gay superhero) and the focus on her fellow Rangers’ personal issues,  this skews older than the TV series, and, while, closer to The Fantastic Four than Captain America: Civil War, despite the CGI confusion of the finale,.is, as such rather more fun than might have been expected. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Vicerory’s House (12A)

Anxious to divest itself a troublesome part of the Empire it could no longer effectively or economically rule, in 1947  the British government stitched up the Indian people by partitioning the country into India and Pakistan. The film, a strong comeback by director Gurinda Chadha and her writer-husband Paul Mayeda Berges after the misfiring It’s A Wonderful Afterlife  and Mistress of Spices, indicates that  it also stitched up Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), who was charged with finding a solution and overseeing the handover, unaware that a deal had already been done with Nehru by Churchill  for the creation of Pakistan.

Arriving with his wife, Lady Edwina (a perfectly accented Gillian Anderson), Lord Louis Mountbatten is to be the last Viceroy of India, his job to smooth the path to independence and self-governance, not an easy task given the  country’s in turmoil with increasing conflict between Hindus. Sikhs and Muslims, the latter wanting their own nation. As such the film follows two parallel stories. The first focuses on the Mountbattens, she the voice of reason  keen to see the people’s lot improved, he looking to maintain diplomacy while dealing with his own officials, notably Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay (Michael Gambon), who aren’t necessarily telling him everything, and the prime movers for independence, Nehru (Tanveer Ghani),  Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Ghandi (a brief but striking turn by Neeraj Kabi), as well as Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the man brought in for the nigh impossible task of drawing up the actual Partition boundaries that would divide not only the country, but families and communities.

In much the same manner as the recent United Kingdom, set in the same year, all of this affords an insight into the duplicitous nature of English politics and the motives behind the way the Partition was eventually set, while, set against this, is the fictional account of  two civilians,  Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Querishi), he part of the Viceroy’s retinue, she part of his wife’s. They are in love, but he’s Hindu and she’s Muslim and has already been promised in marriage by her father (the late Om Puri), a former political prisoner who went blind, but was looked after in jail by Jeet.

Their story is a rather schematic and clichéd contrivance designed to serve the narratyive microcosm  and, for all its romantic tribulations and some anguished moments, is less compelling than the account of the problems facing Mountbatten in trying to prevent the whole place descending into ever more ferocious bloodshed than it’s experiencing already.

Nonetheless, impressively mounted with some striking images and good use of original Movietone news footage, it holds the attention and casts light on a now rather overlooked period of British history, the end credits revelation of Chadha’s personal family investment in the telling bringing powerful resonance.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

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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