Paddington 2 (PG)
This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft. He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton) birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scenee that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.
All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.
The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.
Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby, Jon Croker and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit, and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.
Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator, gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry. What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Call Me By Your Name (15)
Arriving in the wake of God’s Own Country, this is another critically acclaimed story of homosexual awakening and first love, adapted from André Aciman’s novel and directed by Luca Guadagnino. Previews were’nt available, but, set in the north of Italy in the summer of 1983, it stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian who whilea away his time in the family’s lavish villa transcribing and playing classical music. He flirts with his friend Marzia (Esther Garre) and has a close bond with his father and mother, (Michael Stuhlbarg. Amira Casar), respectively a classics and a translator. Then, one day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American academic working on his PhD, arrives to intern with Elio’s father, stirring the awakening of desire over the course of a summer romance. (Electric)
The Florida Project (15)
Working with a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment than his previous offering, Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, director and co-writer Sean Baker offers a bleak and bittersweet portrait of dysfunctional life below the poverty line on Orlando’s fringes, events set around The Magic Castle, a cheap motel in a run-down suburb within almost spitting distance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Florida resort, the helicopters ferrying guests landing and taking off within view of the motel, some, as in the amusing opening sequence with a couple of honeymooners, accidentally booking in here by mistake.
A last resort doss house for any number of life’s losers, it’s managed by Bobby (a superbly understated Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast), a gruff but good-hearted reluctant father figure to its motley residents, among them heavily tattooed, combative young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who, a former stripper and now currently unemployed, is struggling to raise the weekly rent, reselling knock off perfumes to the tourists and relying on waffle hand outs from a friend down the local diner to feed her feisty six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We first encounter her with her friend from upstairs, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting from the balcony on to one of the cars below. The confrontation with its naturally irate owner leads to Moonee striking up a friendship with new resident Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and the film then follows the mischievous but essentially innocent escapades of these street urchins, interspersed with Halley’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise the cash she needs, eventually resorting to advertising sexual favours. Inevitably, at some point social services arrive on the scene.
There’s no plot as such, rather a series of anecdotal incidents variously involving Halley scamming a tourist with stolen Disneyland wristbands, the burning down of a building on an abandoned housing development.
In many ways echoing Mark Twain and the Our Gang movies of the 30s, with its improvisational, documentary-like feel and abrupt unresolved ending, it’s not going to be for anyone, but for those prepared to let it wash through them, it presents a sobering and depressing vision of the scrap heap of the American Dream as well as an emotionally challenging observation on parenting in a world where hope has long packed its bags and left. Halley is at once incredibly selfishly irresponsible and yet passionately committed in her relationship with Moonee who, for all her rudeness and impertinence carries no malice, merely mirrored behaviour and the scenes of childhood friendship between her and Jancey (the two young stars giving terrific, scene-stealing but natural performances) are bursting with both joy and heartbreak. As is the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
I Am Not A Witch (12A)
Directed by Rungano Nyoni using nonprofessionals, this is an engaging if somwhat enigmatic and often surreal film about witchcraft in rural Zambian society that also serves to take a satirical swipe at government corruption, superstition and misogyny.
Returning from collecting water, a woman is surprised to see a small young girl in her path. She drops the bucket and runs off. The girl, later to be named Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) is then accused of being a witch and, after her case is heard by a clearly bemused local female police officer, in which the girl says nothing, she’s interviewed by self-important government official Mr Banda (Henry Phiri). He takes her off to off to the local witch settlement where the women, their faces caked in white paint and under the management of the opportunistic, exploitative Tembo (John Tembo) are used to gurn for photos as a tourist attraction and pretty much as slave labour.
Like the others, a long white ribbon, mounted on a giant reel, is attached to her back to prevent her running off and she’s confined to a hut to decide whether to cut the ribbon and turn into a goat or leave it and accept herself as a witch and become part of the community.
As such, while welcomed by the other women, who essentially become her surrogate mothers, since witches are presumed to have magical powers, she’s hauled out by Banda to judge a group of suspects accused to theft and identify the guilty party (more by luck than judgment) and , later, to try and end the drought by summoning up rain. Tembo even uses her to promote a range of supposedly magical eggs.
Although often played for laughs (especially the story of one ‘eye-witness’ declaring how Shula chopped off his arm, both of which he clearly still possesses) , there’s nevertheless a potent vein of social criticism and feminist allegory and Nyoni makes highly effective use of visual imagery, most especially those ribbons and the spindles mounted on long poles on the trucks that ship the women to the fields for work.
It’s not always sure-footed and Noyoni isn’t always clear about what she’s seeing to say, and it’s difficult to know whether we should regard the ending as sad or celebratory or what to make of the final shot, but even so, this is engrossing cinema (Sun, Wed/Thu:Electric)
Only The Brave (12A)
Given we in the UK have no experience of the sort of devastating forest fires that sweep other continents, this true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of Arizona forest firefighters who perished during a valiant effort to save their town during the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 , the largest loss of firefighters’ lives since 9/11, is unlikely to resonate quite as strongly. That said, it’s still a solid tale of heroism with a side order of redemption.
Headed up by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin),the chief of the Prescott Wildland Fire team, the crew work on mitigation, basically cleaning up after the frontline elite ’hotshots’ have done their job, but he’s ambitious to gain certification to take on the task of containing the inferno by establishing a control line that the flames cannot cross. As such, he calls in a favour from his Arizona emergency services supervisor friend Dough Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to persuade the mayor to give them the chance to prove themselves and they duly become the first municipal crew to become hotshots. They quickly earn fame by saving the destruction of an ancient tree near their hometown, but when the Yarnell blaze breaks out they find themselves surrounded by the raging flames.
Given this is a historic record, it’s no spoiler to reveal all bar one lose their lives, the survivor, who had been away from the crew on spotter duty, is Brendan McDonough (Teller), who, nicknamed Donut, provides the film’s redemptive narrative as, given a chance by Marsh (who sees a lot of himself in him) transforms from screw-up junkie to hero.
The film’s problem is that, with so many characters, the storyline can only focus on a few, specifically Marsh, McDonough and Steinbrink along with Marsh’s horse rearing/rescuing wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), so that, even with scenes involving in crew banter with the likes of Taylor Kitsch’s hot-headed MacKenzie, the other’s are all rather interchangeable and and have no backstories as such. Not that this makes the post-fire sequence as the wives and families gather in the local hall to await news any the less emotionally powerful, but it’s hard to feel any investment in their fates, to the extent that, ultimately, it’s the fires that dominate the film rather than the men fighting them. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (12A)
Buried away on just two screens and with no preview opportunities, this serves as a timely companion piece to the recent Wonder Woman movie in that it’s a biopic of Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans), the Harvard psychologist who invented the modern lie detector test and, in 1941, also created the character of created Wonder Woman. She was based on two women, his psychologist and inventor wife (Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and his mistress, former student and subsequent academic Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), whose love of big silver bracelets inspied Diana Prince’s own. Theirs was an often kinky ménage a trois relationship with bondage, role play and other fetishes, frequently and controversially often finding its way into the comic book’s feminist stories, aimed by Marston to celebrate women and teach young readers to respect them. At one point, repeated image of female domination of men even led to him being interrogated by self-appointed moral watchdogs (here emblemised by Connie Britton).
Told in flashbacks from 1945 to 1928 when it all began, and also featuring Oliver Platt as Max Gaines, the comic book pioneer and co-publisher of All-American Publications which also introduced Green Lantern and Hawkman to the world, it promises to offer a fascinating insight into the truth behind that golden lasso. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
The first of the year’s seasonal offerings reunites the main cast of the original movie, a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms, for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of the well-worn theme of daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.
Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a mellow Christmas with her single father boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.
Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed. Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.
There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations, but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Blade Runner 2049 (15)
Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s iconic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, director Denis Villeneuve, DoP Roger Deakin and screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Fancher (the latter co-wrote the original), deliver a haunting sequel which, set thirty years on in an forbidding LA some years after the Black Out that wiped all digital records and where it’s always snowing or raining, both honours Scott’s vision and deepens its meditation on the nature of the soul.
Following the collapse of the Tyrell Corporation as a result of replicant rebellions, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) rose to power after his synthetic agriculture saved the world from famine, acquiring the remnants of Tyrell and producing a new model of replicants, with a shorter life span.
However, there are still some extended life Nexus 8 models out there and it’s the task of LAPD replicants such as K (Ryan Gosling) to track down these ;skin jobs’ and ‘retire’ them. His latest mission brings him to one of Wallace’s old farming facilities and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) who, after a bone crunching fight, he eventually shoots. However, in scouting the area a box is discovered buried beneath a tree, in it a box of bones and, carved nearby, a date. The bones turn out to be that of a woman, a replicant, but the staggering revelation is that she died giving birth, apparently to twins and that, while the girl died, the boy, who would now be thirty, is still out there. As such, Lieutenant Joshi (an imposingly severe Robin Wright), K’s boss, orders him to find and eliminate the last remaining evidence so as to prevent the revolution that would surely ensue should such knowledge about the ability to reproduce become known and the fragile balance between the controlling humans and the ‘submissive’ replicants be overthrown.
As to the date, this resonates with a childhood memory K has about being chased by some other kids and hiding his wooden carving of a horse in an abandoned furnace, the date being carved on the base of the toy. Thoughts of Pinocchio are not without foundation.
Meanwhile, he’s not the only one with an interest in the case, Wallace having despatched his cold and lethal replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, mesmerising) to acquire the evidence and to find the child. All of which leads K, first to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juni) who, forever trapped inside an hermetically sealed environment on account of her weak immune system, crafts memories for Wallace’s replicants and assures K that his is real not an implant. And from there, accompanied by his hologram girlfriend Joi (a terrific Ana de Armas), essentially a souped up and sexy version of Siri, in search of Rick Deckard (a pleasingly gruff Harrison Ford), the long missing former Blade Runner, whom, it would seem, may have the connections and answers K is seeking.
It would be unfair to reveal much more of the plot, but suffice to say there’s a clever narrative sleight of hand designed to have audiences jumping to conclusions while, through cues such as Joi’s boot up melody, a snatch from Peter and the Wolf, the film cleverly weaves in notions of simulation and questions of what is real or just seems to be.
Visually it is an astonishing piece of work with inspired use of light and outstanding set design and CGI that include an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Las Vegas with a casino and holograms of Elvis and Sinatra, Wallace’s impressive but soulless headquarters, the sometimes transparent Joi’s transformations of appearance (in a remarkable ménage a trois she merges with a replicant sex worker to make love to K) and the few but riveting action sequences.
The performances are suitably dialled down and reined in, giving rise to many a moody inscrutable Gosling stare and the film often uses silence for effect, building both the emotional intensity and the suspense. On the other hand, the soundtrack can also be brutally extreme, Not all of it is clear, and intentionally so, though Wallace’s motives and plans are, perhaps, a little too obscure, but that is part and parcel of its allure – and the reason you’ll need to see it more and, while you don’t necessarily have to have seen Scott’s film, those who have will relish a startling final act nod to one of that film’s pivotal moments. At 164 minutes, it’s a touch overlong and it’s certainly not some popcorn sci fi, but, as with Villeneuve’s Arrival, it assumes an intelligence in its audience that Hollywood far too often assumes to be absent. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The directorial debut of Andy Serkis and written by William Nicholson, in many ways this is a companion piece to The Theory of Everything, as produced by their son, Jonathan, it tells the story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) who, supported by his constantly supportive wife Diana (Claire Foy), was struck down and paralysed from the neck down by polio in the 50s, but survived for nearly 40 years with the help of a mobile breathing machine he devised in collaboration with their Oxford prof and amateur inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).
Like the Hawking film, it’s both an inspiring testament to the human spirit and a romantic love story, but it’s also very conservative and old fashioned and too often sentimentalises matters while only intermittently succeeding to achieve an emotional engagement.
Within the film’s first few minutes, the couple meet at a cricket match while he’s still working in the tea brokering business, marry, travel the world and she becomes pregnant when he’s suddenly struck down with polio, hospitalised and, unable to breathe without a ventilator, given just a few months to live. He pretty much gives up hope, but is rallied round by Diana who, refusing to let him die in hospital, defies the supercilious doctor (Jonathan Hyde) and takes him home and his respirator so he can spend time with his son, subsequently moving him to a cosy house in the country. Here, he hits on the idea of creating a mobile ventilator using a wheelchair and, next thing you know he’s jaunting off overseas with the missus and one of her twin brothers (both played by Tom Hollander), linking up with Dr. Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan), director of the Disability Research Foundation, getting into mass production, liberating his former fellow patients and finally delivering an inspirational speech to a conference in Germany after witnessing the country’s iron lung treatments where patients are more like prisoners.
Limited to the odd raised eyebrow, some facial expression and an overused smile, Garfield does his best while Foye is all resolute stiff upper lip and English rose, but it’s an uphill struggle against Serkis’s functional direction and a script that rarely elicits any sense of tension and brushes over any of what must have been some very difficult and painful, but physically and emotionally, times. Instead you get a largely lighthearted romp that includes a hillside party with the locals when the respirator breaks down while holidaying in Spain and Teddy is summoned to fly over (in seemingly record time) to fix it.
And, despite being real people, there’s also virtually no background given to any of the characters, wheeling on Ed Speelers for no good reason as a chum in the doldrums and with an unrecognisable Diana Rigg having a couple of lines as Cavdenish’s wealthy benefactor. On top of which, while Garfield does sprout a few grey hairs to show the passing of time, Foy looks almost younger at Robin’s ‘going away’ party ,than she did when they first met.
Certainly, Robin’s speech to the assorted German doctors tugs at the heartstrings, but it’s all too reverential and rose-tinted, ultimately suffocating the story with reverence rather than allowing it to, erm, breathe. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)
The Death of Stalin (15)
As the writer of The Thick of It and its film spin-off, In The Loop, as well as the American version, Veep, Armando Iannucci is unquestionably the sharpest and funniest political satirist of the 21st century, added to which he also wrote and directed numerous episodes of I’m Alan Partridge and the subsequent feature Alpha Papa. So, you should know that his latest, a comedy set around the power struggle to fill the shoes of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin following his death, an adaptation of the French graphic novels, is going to be caustically hilarious.
It opens in 1953 with Paddy Considine as Andreyev, a radio producer who’s just broadcast a live piano concerto, featuring soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), when he gets a call from Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) demanding to a copy of the recording. Unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded. So, he has to prevent the audience from leaving, round up some people from the streets to fill the empty seats, bring in a replacement conductor and tell the musicians to do it again, assuring them that no one’s going to get killed.
The disc is duly collected and taken to Stalin (along with a hidden note from Yudina), who’s just finished a tense dinner and a screening of a John Ford Western with the inner circle, among them preposterous, pompous and somewhat oblivious deputy leader Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in his bad wig, Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and foreign affairs minister Molotov (Michael Palin) whose just been added to Beria’s new list of ‘traitors’ to be eliminated, as was his wife, he himself, an avowed Stalinist, condemning her supposed treachery.
But then, returning to his office, Stalin reads Yudina’s note, promptly has a seizure. When his not quite yet dead body is discovered the next day everyone vacillates over calling whatever doctors haven’t been exiled from Moscow and, when he finally pops his clogs, sparking a power struggle to take over with everyone scurrying around like headless chickens. Malenkov becomes the de facto new leader, closely manipulated by the Machiavellian Beria who, for his own duplicitous reasons, immediately sets about ‘pausing’ the executions and freeing prisoners, pre-empting an increasingly frustrated Khrushchev who sees this as a chance for reform and ends up being assigned the thankless job of arranging the funeral.
They also have to deal with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) who’s been driven to distraction by the death and his embarrassing deadbeat drunkard son Vasily (Rupert Friend) who insists on speaking at the funeral. And, as the plotting grows more intense between the rivals to the throne, enter Jason Isaacs giving a scene-stealing Yorkshire-accented turn as the truculent bully boy war hero Zhukov, enlisted by Khrushchev to scupper Beria’s plans.
You might want to brush up on your Soviet Who’s Who first, but, although Iannucci does play fast and loose with the facts and chronology, this is comedy not a history lesson (though it clearly has contemporary resonances), and, as with his past work, power and incompetence go hand in hand with political stupidity, mining laughs from one of the most brutal periods in Soviet history and playing it out as a farce peppered with lines like “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.” Malcolm Tucker would have been right at home. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
The writer of both Independence Day movies, Dean Devlin now gets to direct his own disaster blockbuster, one firmly in the tradition of such things as Armageddon, Volcano, Deep Impact, The Core and The Day After Tomorrow. Like the latter, this has a weather centred plot as well as trotting out a familiar message about man playing God.
Set just a few years hence, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is the engineer who designed and led the international team that, in response to disasters triggered by climate change, built a space station and a network of satellites dubbed Dutch Boy, able to control Earth’s weather. Now, three years later, his now estranged younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), who has some sort of senior position in DC and was forced to fire him for insubordination following a senate hearing into his management of the project, has been ordered by the Secretary of State (Ed Harris) to get him to go back into space and investigate what caused a malfunction that turned an Afghan village into popsicles,
While up at the station, another disaster occurs as Hong Kong is ripped apart by what is officially reported as a gas mains explosion. However, it soon becomes clear that these, along with the death of one of the station crew, were no accidents or glitches in the system, but were deliberately designed. With just a couple of weeks before American officially cedes control of Dutch Boy to the international community, it seems as though some is sabotaging things and has weaponised the satellites, Jake recovering data that suggests that this might go all the way to the top of the White House and President Palma (Andy Garcia), who also just happens to be the only one who possesses the kill codes to shut the station down.
Given that both NASA and the station crew have been locked out of the system, that Dutch Boy’s auto-destruct has been triggered and the world’s experiencing a series of natural disasters that range from heatwaves in Moscow and typhoons in Mumbai to a tidal wave in Dubai (curiously, Great Britain seems to escape catastrophe this time around) and the clock’s ticking to a geostorm that will wipe out most of the planet’s population, there’s only one thing Max and his Secret Service girlfriend Sarah (Abbie Cornish) can do, and that’s kidnap Potus and get the codes to Jake who, along with station commander Ute Fassbinder (Alexandra Maria Lara) is still up there in space as the seconds tick away.
It’s all pretty generic stuff with its mix of mass city destruction, conspiracy theories, resolute action man sacrifices, the murders of those who get too close, and even the young daughter Jake (who’s divorced) has promised he’ll return safely. Naturally, only a small fraction of the budget went on the dialogue, the rest being lavished on an array of impressive special effects. Likewise, discovering just who’s behind it all won’t come as any surprise at all.
The performances are adequate to requirements, though Cornish is especially impressive with a character that deserves her own spin-off, and while Butler never really convinces as a genius scientist, he does the action man stuff well enough and it all zips along entertainingly enough, punctuating the multiple set-pieces with its writ-large environmental messages and the need for global cooperation. And at least, this President does seem to take the matter seriously. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City
Happy Death Day (15)
In a nutshell, this is Groundhog Day meets Scream as Theresa, aka Tree (Jessica Rothe), a somewhat catty college medical student wakes up in the room of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) with a massive hangover from getting wasted. It’s her birthday, but, for reasons we learn later, that’s something she’d rather not think about. The day continues to get worse, until, finally, someone stabs her to death. Then she wakes up again and it starts all over and, with small variations (and some added extra victims), will continue to do so until she works out who the murderer in the plastic baby mask is, compiling a list of suspects that include the sorority’s bitchy queen bee (Rachel Matthews), her diffident roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine) and even her married lecturer lover (Charles Aitken). Oh and then there’s also that newsflash about some serial killer who’s in the local hospital.
Like Scream, it has a knowing self-awareness of the slasher genre and constantly winks and calls attention to itself, but as well as a horror it also works as a film about self-discovery and maturity as each time Tree is murdered and wakes up again, as well as being increasingly weaker she also learns a little more about herself and changes her attitudes and the way she treats others, which is, essentially, the film’s underlying moral. On screen throughout, Rothe in her first major lead role is impressive, displaying wide range of increasingly intense emotions (and a nice line in humour) as she moves from being somewhat unlikeable to a character you really root for and, having already proven a massive US hit, while this is, on its own terms, great fun, it will also surely catapult her to far better movies. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Originally adapted as a mini-series back in 1990, Stephen King’s mammoth novel gets a feature-length outing under director Andy Muschietti. Creepy without ever being as scary as it should, events spread over nine months, it’s been updated to the late 1980s and opens in smalltown Derry in Maine as young Georgie runs outside into the rain to float the paper boat made by his by his stutter-afflicted older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the boat drops into a culvert, he looks into it and is confronted by the face of a clown (Bill Skarsgarg), calling himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who lures him closer, bites off an arm and the drags the boy into the sewers.
A year later, Bill still believes his brother is alive, enlisting three schoolfriends, know-it-all wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sceptical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), to explore the sewer system looking for him. Bullied at school by the psychotic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, they’re the self-styled Losers Club, their number eventually swelled by shy chubby new kid Ben and homeschooled black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs), both of whom are also targeted by Bowers, and the supposedly promiscuous tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), another bullied outsider.
All have their own terrifying encounters with It, as the film gradually reveals the shapeshifting monster preys on his victims’ fears and Ben’s research uncovers that it appears every 27 years, each period characterised by children going missing, something the town seems unwilling to confront.
Naturally, all the kids (Bowers included) have their own torments, among them abusive or demanding fathers, an overprotective mother, guilt and, for Richie, a fear of clowns. But, while individually vulnerable, as Beverly points out, by staying together they may have a chance of surviving and destroying their nemesis.
Echoing the themes of friendship and coming of age on which Stand By Me was founded (along with the cruelty of the adult world) with an added serving of horror, following various individual close calls, they all head to the decrepit old house they’ve identified as the clown’s lair.
The film makes effective use of its haunting imagery, most especially the red balloon while, although bereft of backstory, Skarsgard’s white-faced monster, whispering “you’ll float too”, is a striking visual presence. However, while the opening is especially striking, the more set pieces that are introduced to give each youngster a turn in the spotlight, the more repetitive and the less effective they become. Likewise, the romantic rivalry between Bill and Ben over Beverly is never developed. Nevertheless, it’s an effective piece of work and the young cast acquit themselves well, Lillis ably living up to the Molly Ringwald reference tossed her way by Richie. Of course, however, with the film closing on their vow to return in 27 years time to take on It once again, the best they can look forward to in Chapter Two are some fleeting flashbacks. (Vue Star City)
Seven years on from the so-called Final Chapter and eleven years after John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – aka Jigsaw, the sadistic serial killer with a warped sense of morality, met his end in Saw III, he’s apparently back as a new writing and directing team look to resuscitate the franchise and give it some new, ahem, blood.
The action cuts between two sets of events, as we first meet five unrelated captives with buckets over their heads and chains that draw them towards a series of buzzsaws. They’re quickly whittled down to four, the dead body turning up hanging from a tree in the local park. Investigating the murder, the body having half its head sliced off, the coroner team, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonnerville (Hannah Emily Anderson), quickly conclude from the forensic evidence, and a memory stick with an audio recording hidden on the body, that, impossible though it seems, this is the work of Jigsaw.
Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who worked the original cases, doesn’t buy this and reckons it’s the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, back in Jigsaw’s lair, the survivors, Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles, Ryan (Paul Braunstein) and Carly (Brittany Allen) are told that, if they want to live, they have to play his games and confess their sins. One by one their numbers are bloodily reduced to two, meanwhile Bonnerville’s revealed to have a Jigsaw obsession while Logan convinces surplus to plot Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennet) that it’s the clearly shady Halloran who’s actually the killer.
As you’ll have assumed, there’s a shoal of red herrings swimming around not to mention a well-worn sleight of hand to explain how Kramer can still be carrying out his gruesome and graphically detailed Punisher-like killings when he should be rotting in the grave. However, once the curtain’s pulled back to reveal what you’ve been watching, it quickly becomes apparent that the pieces don’t fit and the contrived set-up and motivations lack both logic and plausibility. However, the fact that you don’t care about any of the characters, that it’s not remotely scary or as clever as it thinks it is, is unlikely to prevent this from cranking up another sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (15)
As absurdist and bizarre as Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, this reunites the Greek writer-director with its star, a heavily-bearded Colin Farrell, as reformed heavy drinker cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy, joined here by Nicole Kidman as his ophthalmologist wife Anna. They have two children, adolescent Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and her younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic) and live a comfortable happy life, and, even though he seems a little distant to them, he still deeply loves his kids. The couple also have an interesting line in sex games, one being termed ‘the general anaesthetic’.
Unknown to his wife, Steven also hangs out with Martin ( a suitably creepy Barry Keoghan), meeting him at the local diner or by the river, even buying him an expensive watch. Eventually, he even invites him home for dinner with the family, Martin striking up a relationship with Kim. There’s apparently nothing sexual about the relationship with Steven, but there is something unsettling. It transpires that Martin’s father died under Steven’s knife, and the latter clearly feels a sense of guilt.
However, after Steven’s invited, in turn, to Martin’s and his mother (a cameoing Alicia Silverstone) makes a pass at him, it soon becomes clear that Martin has his own agenda, and, shortly after an altercation between the two, first Bob and then Kim, lose the ability to stand. Steven’s warned this is the first stage and when they reach the third, eyes bleeding, they will die shortly after. To save them, Steven, who is in denial and initially refuses to accept this is anything other than a medical condition, must atone for what happened. Given that its inspired by Euripides’ tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis, the Greek legend of King Agamemnon, who, after accidentally killed a sacred deer, was ordered to sacrifice his daughter as punishment, you’ll have an idea where this is going.
Acted in a deliberately flat and formal manner, the lines delivered with dry and generally cold precision, it’s a mix of nightmarish horror and arch dark comedy that calls to mind the clinical coldness of Stanley Kubrik, in particular Eyes Wide Shut, in which Kidman co-starred with then husband Tom Cruise, the unease compounded by the use of shooting angles and a strident score which frequently erupts in jarring discordant bursts akin to the shower scene in Psycho. Closing with a wordless, menacing coda, this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but its pervasive dread is far more terrifying than any other horror movie this year. (Electric)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (12A)
Cheerfully contriving to bring back not one but two characters who were clearly killed off in the first film, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek secret agent romp resurrects both failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), respectively head blown off and shot through the eye. Charlie returns in the kinetic opening sequence, a frantic car chase through the streets of London, as, now equipped with a bionic arm, he and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) battle it out in the latter’s souped up taxi. He’s now in the employ of Poppy (Julianne Moore), deranged CEO of the world’s biggest – but secret – drugs cartel, the Golden Circle, who’s holed up in her own 50s-styled Poppyland theme park in Cambodia who, Charlie’s arm having hacked into Eggy’s computer, then sets about blowing up every Kingsman establishment in the country.
This leaves just two survivors, gadget-man Victor aka Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who, since we last saw him, has, in contradiction to Kingsman rules, acquired a Swedish Princess girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom); indeed, he’s at dinner with her and her parents, the King and Queen, when Poppy strikes, also taking out one his mates and his dog in the process.
Falling back on the Doomsday Protocol leads them to a secrets safe containing a bottle of bourbon and, from there, to Kentucky and an American secret agent organisation, Statesman, operating a distillery as a front as opposed to a gentleman’s tailors. Named after drinks rather than Knights of the Round Table, they’re headed up by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) whose team includes wildcard Tequila (Channing Tatum), electric lasso-wielding Whisky (Pedro Pascal) and gadget girl Ginger (Halle Berry) and, after clearing up an initial misunderstanding, the team join forces. It also turns out they also have in their keeping Harry, who, revived but now suffering from amnesia, thinks he’s a butterfly collector.
The plot per se finally kicks in when Poppy announces on television that she’s infected millions of drug users with a toxin that causes a blue rash and eventual death and demands the President abandon the war on drugs so she and her empire can go legit. Needless to say, Tilde winds up as one of the afflicted, making it personal for Eggsy while the President (Bruce Greenwood) reckons Poppy would be doing him a favour, much to the horror of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson). All of which, after a set piece on a cable car in the Italian alps, climaxes with Victor, Harry and Eggsy invading Poppy’s hide-out for the big shoot-out finale.
All of which serves to throw in an inordinate amount of silliness to go with the carnage, ranging from Poppy quite literally making mincemeat of Circle member Keith Allen and then serving him up as a burger, Eggsy having to implant a tracer on Charlie’s girlfriend (Poppy Delavigne) via a condom on his finger and, topping out her obsession with Elton John (she has robot dogs named Bennie and Jets), Poppy kidnapping the man himself for private performances, though turning Elton into an action man may be pushing suspension of disbelief a touch too far. Playing deadpan, no one’s taking this seriously, which, of course adds to the fun and Vaughn rattles it along at a cracking pace, with some stylish suits and a couple of cute puppies along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end credits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be back for the sequel. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Lego Ninjago Movie (U)
The third in the big screen Lego adventures, this is a martial arts mirror of the Luke/Darth Vader relationship in Star Wars with a helping of Power Rangers about high schooler Lloyd (Dave Franco), the son of supervillain Garmadon (Justin Theroux) whose base is an offshore volcano. Understandably ostracised, no one knows that, along with four of his schoolmates, Lloyd is secretly the Green Ninja, one of a team of element-powered heroes (including Ice, Fire, Water, and Lightning) who, under the mentorship of his uncle, Mr Liu (Jackie Chan), battle Garmadon and his forces in their battle suits to keep the city of Ninjago safe. Framed by flimsy live action sequences as a shopkeeper (Chan) recounts the story to a young boy, there’s a lot of estranged father/son sentiment to go with the action as the pair are forced to team up to fight an ever greater Godzilla-style threat (a live action cat, actually), but, despite some sly touches and the familiar self-awareness, cobbled together by nine writers with an uneven plot about Lloyd’s journey from self-doubt to confidence and the predictable reconciliation (both father and son have unresolved family issues), not to mention the fact that these Japanese characters all speak with white American accents, it falls several bricks of the Emmett and Batman Lego movies. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Those with an interest in the history of African Americans’ struggle to overcome prejudice and inequality should try and catch this biopic of the early years of Thurgood Marshall, a young civil rights attorney who went on to become the first African-American associate justice named to the highest court in the land. Set in 1940, it concerns one of his earliest cases, Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in which he defended a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown), accused of the rape and attempted murder of his white employer (Kate Hudson), a case that brought him up against the white establishment and put pressure on his marriage, not helped by his sense of self-righteous pride. Or the fact that evidence against his client was particularly strong.
Director Reginald Hudlin, it stars Chadwick Boseman, soon to be seen in the Black Panther, as Marshall with an air that calls to mind Denzel Washington while the courtroom drama itself has clear echoes of To Kill A Mockingbird. Josh Gad plays Marshall’s Jewish white co-counsel Sam Friedman, in his first criminal case, while James Cromwell is the forbidding judge who refused to allow Marshall, who was from New York, to speak in court because he wasn’t a member of the Connecticut bar. That task fell to the inexperienced Friedman, including the closing argument dictated by his partner who, reassigned to another case, didn’t actually stay to hear the verdict. While unlikely to actually win, it’s a good bet to find this among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld NEC)
The Mountain Between Us (12A)
Neurosurgeon Ben (Idris Elba) and photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) both have to be somewhere the next day, he for important surgery, she for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But storms have grounded all planes. So, she hits on the ideas of the two of them sharing a private charter plane. However, enroute, over the mountains, the pilot (Beau Bridges), who hasn’t filed a flight plan, has a stroke and the plane crashes. He’s killed but Ben and Alex both survive, although she has an injured leg, as does the pilot’s dog. Now, stuck ona mountain with no phone signal they can either wait in the wreckage and hope the emergency beacon, which fell off with the plane’s tail, is working and people will come looking, or they can try and make it out together.
And that’s pretty much it as far as plot goes as the couple slowly make it down the mountain, hitting and few obstacles and brought together through the determination to survive,falling in love along the way. There’s some moments of suspense and some character development regarding why buttoned-up Ben’s wife left him, though rather less insight into Alex, but mostly this is a simple romantic adventure love story, told in a direct, light and unfussy manner by Abu-Assad, making his English language debut
A two-hander for the bulk of its running time, Winslet and Elba, in his first romantic lead, have a genuine chemistry and spark, their characters are likeable and Chris Weitz’s screenplay avoids melodrama for a natural rhythm and a sense of wit, as well as upending stereotypes by making him the cautious one and she more inclined to take risks.
There’s a lot of walking through snow, a post survival coda that makes a last minute bid for the tissues and the message that love gives you something to live for. It’s not deep, there’s no action, but while the scenery make be cold, the film delivers a warm glow. (Vue Star City)
Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.
Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.
Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.
Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green, is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.
There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.
For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.
While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.
The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”
Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room, Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
My Little Pony (U)
It may be cantering for the preschool girl audience, but that’s surely no excuse for the uninspired animation and the plodding story for this big screen extension to the hugely successful TV series. But, if they adore it on TV, why bother upping production values if you don’t need to. As far as the story goes, the Mane 6, Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball again), Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), Pinkie Pie and Shutterfly (both Andrea Libman) are getting ready for Equestria’s annual Festival of Friendship when along comes the villainous Storm King (Liev Schreiber), his hedgehog sidekick Grubber and Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), an embittered unicorn with a broken horn, to spoil everything, looking to kidnap the princesses and steal their power for themselves. The ponies escape, and go off in search of Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba) for help, a journey that involves them with a pirate captain (Zoe Saldana), a con-artist cat (Taye Diggs), an over-excitable seapony (Kristin Chenoweth). It’s good to see some girl power, friendship, kindness and self-reliance messages being trotted out while the song by Sia (who also voices pop star Songbird Serenade) isn’t bad, but, while all those uncritical little girls will be love it, faced with almost 100 minutes of bland sugary sweetness, grown-ups might well sympathise with the Storm King when he says “I’m so totally over the cute pony thing!” (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Party (15)
Shot in black and white, as written and directed by Sally Potter, her first since 2012’s Ginger & Rosa, with its single location and one-act structure, this has a decidedly theatrical feel to its brief running time, calling to mind the caustic but equally comedic work of such names as Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Joe Orton channelled through a dark variation of a Feydeau farce.
Set in indeterminate (but post-Thatcher) period, the action unfolds in a London townhouse where Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a small soiree to celebrate having been made Health Minister, a springboard to becoming prime minister. As she prepares the canapés in the kitchen, fielding congratulatory phone calls, her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), a former Yale classic professor, is slumped in an armchair, listening to music, drinking wine and with a catatonic thousand yard stare that suggests he’s probably not entering into the excitement.
The first of the guests to arrive are Janet’s cynical old friend April (Patricia Clarkson) with her acerbic one-liner put-downs and her on-off touchy-feely new-agey life coach German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), followed by American academic Martha (Cherry Jones), an old colleague of Bill’s (and, according to April “a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker”) and her pregnant younger partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer).
The last to arrive is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker who’s been working with Janet on private-sector partnership initiatives. Like Godot his wife, Marianne, one of Bill’s former students, has yet to arrive, he’s clearly agitated, taking to bathroom to snort cocaine; he also happens to be carrying a gun in a shoulder holster. The one we see Janet holding she answers the door in the film’s flashforward opening scene.
From her phone calls, it is clear that Janet is having an affair, but, while you’re wondering whether that little secret will get outed, Bill delivers not one but two shockers of his own, one involving his health and the other concerning why Tom is in such a state.
Indeed, everyone here has relationship issues as, in a manner that recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, repressed secrets boil to the surface for a series of turbulent catharses that will affect the lives of all concerned.
While it has serious and often sharply satirical undercurrent, ramped up with ominous foreshadowings, this is an unexpectedly funny film from a director not best known for her laugh-a-minute work, the cast’s deadpan performances (particularly fine turns from Scott Thomas and Spall) finely honed and realised as the barbed dialogue unpicks such topic as the NHS, idealism vs. pragmatic reality and betrayal with deliciously nasty relish. (MAC)
Pecking Order (12A)
Following on from last year’s Tickled, here’s another quirky New Zealand documentary, this one about The Christchurch Poultry, Bantam, and Pigeon Club, an association dedicated to raising assorted poultry and entering them into various competitions, most especially, the prestigious National Show. Ranging from adolescents to near geriatrics, the chicken-breeding members are an odd, eccentric bunch, obsessed with their birds, but (as is clear from the fates of those who don’t come up to scratch) not necessarily sentimentally so.
However, for those that survive the pot, these are meticulously groomed in order to satisfy the rigorous ‘Standards’ – purple in the feathers is apparently a no go. It’s serious business and inevitably gives rise to serious rivalry. But that’s nothing compared to what goes on away from the poultry shows as a the film charts the power struggle for control of the Club between Doug, the long-standing 70-something incumbent President, and the much younger ambitious Mark who wants to shake things up a bit and reverse the 150 year old club’s declining membership numbers. A coup among the coops is in the offing.
Unfolding like a feathery real-life version of Best In Show (and yes, the big comp does end with the Best Bird), director Slavko Markinov indulges pretty much every poultry pun going in his title cards but always maintains an affection approach to his subject and characters and it’s hard not to smile at scenes like a bagpiper leading a procession of contenders across the road to the competition, staged four days away in sleepy Oamaru. Cracking fun. (Thu: MAC)
The Snowman (15)
As a huge fan of Scandinavian crime author Jo Nesbø and his Harry Hole novels, the prospect of the character finally being brought to the screen with an adaptation of arguably the best in the series and with the inspired casting of Michael Fassbender and Let The Right One In director Tomas Anderson at the helm, anticipation was high. However, while by no means a disaster, this is disappointingly underwhelming.
It doesn’t help that the book is the seventh, by which time Hole’s character is firmly established, a celebrated Oslo detective who came to fame after cracking an Australian serial killer case, but also a self-destructive, chain-smoking alcoholic with a dysfunctional private life, and the screenplay struggles to provide much by way of background, characters such as former girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her hero-worshipping son Oleg and his boss DCI Hagen are only lightly sketched. And just who Toby Jones is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. On top of which, the film makes some radical departures from the book’s plot, including the fate of one of the major characters, but does at least stick to the basic set up that someone is abducting and killing (generally decapitating them with an electric noose) women (the latest being Chloe Sevigny) and leaving a snowman at the site, the evidence suggesting that it may have something to do with them having children by unknown fathers.
Working alongside Hole investigating the missing women before it becomes a homicide case is a new arrival from Bergen, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s got her own agenda involving wealthy but corrupt businessman Arve Støp (JK Simmons). The disappearances also trace back to a case many years earlier, shown in flashbacks (although it takes a while to realise this), in which another disgraced alcoholic cop (a bizarrely badly dubbed Val Kilmer) has been asked by a Bergen businessman (Adrian Dunbar) to investigate his wife’s disappearance.
Disjointed, the direction and the screenplay fumble joining the dots and, while the snow landscapes are impressively shot, there’s rarely any real sense of tension and certainly none of the bleakness of the novel, although the opening sequence as a fatherless young boy watches his mother drown herself in her car on a frozen lake is undeniably chilling.
Still, as I say, on its own terms, it’s a reasonable enough crime thriller, suitably grisly in places and Fassbender does that world weary, hangdog thing well, but it simply lacks the essence of Jo Nesbø’s book. And, to crown it all, they don’t even get his name right. It’s pronounced Hu-ley not Hole. A bit of a snowballsup (Mockingbird)
Thor: Ragnarok (12A)
Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.
That done, he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin (Anthony Hopkins), they learn he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.
Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris, a reanimated army of the dead and her new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost, remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her. Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.
Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a cosmic wormhole called the Devil’s Anus) and return and save Asgard.
With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor a short back and sides) and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Victoria and Abdul (PG)
An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown, Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship. This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.
Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers. Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.
As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant, bringing over his wife and mother-in-law (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery, the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.
Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot. It’s pleasant and, once or twice quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Vue Star City)
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