MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 4-Thu Nov 10

 

NEW RELEASE

The Accountant (15)

Following the box office misfire of Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool and collected thriller about a high functioning autistic maths prodigy numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a heavily tooled-up emotionally blank anti-hero vigilante for hire with a sort of female Charlie (as in Charlie’s Angels) as the voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.

Not having been involved in the screenplay himself, it perhaps lacks the visceral intensity of Pride and Glory and Warriors. But the fact that O’Connor has an autistic child does afford him a more involved perspective.

Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. head investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) essentially coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale at the ruthlessly bloody shootings of a mob boss and his enforcers.

We first meet the man in question, going under the name of Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman trying to squeeze them off their farm, and he’s subsequently hired to looking into some possible financial irregularities and ‘uncook’ the books of Living Robotics, a  high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned  the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused),  the  perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.

Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail (working out the figures on the office glass partitions), leads to them both being marked for elimination, he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.

Punctuating all this are a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through often brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, as well as to prison scenes where the adult Wolff bonds with and is mentored by a disgraced mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Gradually unfolding as an action movie in similar territory to the Bourne franchise and considerably better than) The Mechanic, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck deliver a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually all come together. The note of redemption that’s struck in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility the film’s previously worked hard to establish, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller, one which promises to see a solid (tax) return.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Nocturnal Animals (15)

nocturnal

It’s been seven years since fashion designer Tom Ford’s debut as writer-director, A Single Man,  but this slow burning revenge thriller, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, has been worth the wait and, as you’d expect, has a striking visual style. Indeed, the shots of obese naked women dancing in slow motion in front of a camera make an impact like few opening credits before them. They are, it transpires, part of the latest exhibition staged by high powered but emotionally distant Los Angeles gallery director Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose success is not mirrored by that of her businessman husband, Walker (Arnie Hammer), whose financial problems are threatening to bring them both down. It’s also clear from the scenes between them that the marriage is also on shaky ground, something confirmed when he says he has take off on a  weekend business trip and we subsequently see (and she hears) him in a hotel lift with another woman.

Before he left, Susan received the draft of the unpublished first novel by Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her college sweetheart and first husband who she’s not seen or heard from in 19 years. Dedicated to her, it’s titled Nocturnal Animals, the term he used for her on account of her insomnia. Settling down to read, the film now divides into three narrative strands: the present, flashbacks to their time together and the events in the novel which sees Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) taking a  road trip with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India  (Ellie Bamber) when, driving through West Texas at night,  they’re forced off the deserted highway  by a bunch of redneck thugs (led by an effectively repellant  Aaron Taylor Johnson,) who, mocking his weakness,  kidnap the women who are eventually found naked, dead after being brutally assaulted and raped. The investigation is taken on by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a grizzled,  rules-bending lawman who, as the months pass, makes it a personal quest to bring the murderers to justice and, if that fails, to help Tony gain revenge.

As the film interweaves between the timelines and the fictional events which, disturbed by but compelled to reading, have a huge impact on Susan it seems that Edward (who we never see in the present) is using his story and the memories it evokes, to hurt and punish his ex-wife, who never offered the support he needed and (echoing an accusation levelled by her monstrously ultra-conservative mother – Laura Linney) saw him as weak. There’s also another very specific reason that only becomes clear in one devastating flashback. Tellingly, Susan visualises Tony as looking like Edward, while casting Fisher as the wife clearly has its own visual resonances. When gets to the part where the women’s bodies are found, she calls her own daughter for reassurance. Significantly, the flashbacks are only ever seen from Susan’s perspective, which further compounds the suggestion that this may be about a consuming sense of guilt, judging him, as a naive romantic,  in the same way that she judged herself for being “too cynical” to be an artist,  instead, basking in the reflected glory of those she curated.

Slowly and assuredly building the suspense and fuelled by a clutch of nominations-worthy performances, the ending won’t please those who like everything tied up neatly and there’s times when it revels in the junk culture it critiques, but there’s no denying it lingers in the mind. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Vue Star City)

 

Panic (15)

panicMade in 2014, but only now getting a release, this is an advance preview of Sean Spencer’s Rear Window-styled urban thriller set amid London’s Triad underworld with David Gyasi in his first starring role as a physically and psychologically-scarred agoraphobic music journalist who, armed with an Oyster and a hammer, sets out to find the kidnapped Chinese neighbour with whom he is obsessed. + director q&a.  (Thu: MAC)

Sonita (15)

Zarghuna Kargar, Author and Journalist, BBC interviews Sonita Alizadeh, Rapper and Activist on Daughters For Sale at Women In The World London Summit, Cadogan Hall, London. 10/09/2015

A remarkable Iranian documentary about a 14-year-old Afghan refugee living in Tehran who, after her family attempts to sell her into marriage, channels her frustrations and aspirations to follow in  Rihanna’s footsteps into rapping about her experience as an Afghan teenager at odds with her sexist surroundings.  (Until Wed: MAC)

 

A Street Cat Named Bob (12A)

bob-3Directed by Roger Spottiswood and based on the incredible true story that became a bestselling autobiography and subsequent series of books. This is a heartwarming tale about someone turning their life around with the help of a loyal friend. In this case, a cat.

It’s 2007 and James Bowen (appealingly played here by Luke Treadaway) is a recovering heroin addict on a methadone programme, living on the streets of London and earning spare change as a busker. Indeed, in a fictional version, his singing and the songs, written by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink, would probably see him landing a record deal and becoming a star.

In the real world, however, thanks to his caring and supportive case worker, Val (Joanne Froggatt), James gets one last chance when he’s allocated a social housing flat into which, one night, comes a stray ginger tom. When attempts to find its owner prove fruitless, James decides to keep him (or vice versa), a decision which, in turn, introduces him to Betty (Treadaway’s real life partner, Ruta Gedmintas), his vegan neighbour with her own past drugs-related tragedy, who informs him that the animal wants to be called Bob and has come to James for a reason.

And so it would appear as, taking him out busking, Bob’s soon attracting hitherto unknown crowds and turning the pair into a YouTube phenomenon and, when an incident has James banned from Covent Garden and busking, becomes his co-pilot as a Big Issue seller, perched on his shoulder outside Angel tube station in Islington with people regularly asking to have a selfie taken with him. His life gradually turning around, James seeks to reunite with his estranged father (Anthony Head), but, while there’s a general lightness of tone and often playful humour,  there will still be darker passages to navigate  before the happy ending.

The tone’s uneven (it’s no I, Daniel Blake in terms of social commentary), but, steering clear of mawkishness (yet still likely to have audiences reaching for a tissue), while minor, it’s an appealingly and very British  feelgood film about choosing life and  the redemptive power of friendship (at one point,  near destitute, James still puts Bob before himself) that’s well served by its central two legged cast, although  it will come as no surprise to learn that, mostly playing himself,  the real star here is Bob who makes Pudsy look like a rank amateur. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Starfish (15)

starfishIt’s perhaps symptomatic of the way cinema exhibition in the UK has changed, becoming less inclined to take risks on films that are not readily marketable, that, while back in 1989, Jim Sheridan’s directorial debut, My Left Foot, the inspirational story of a man who overcame cerebral palsy to become an acclaimed writer using only his foot, was given a wide release and went on to win two Oscars, this week Bill Clark’s equally true life film about a man who overcame life-changing sepsis is having just a one day  single screening around the country, with just two cinemas in Birmingham.

In 1999, Tom Ray, the happily married Rutland father to young daughter Grace, his wife Nicola nine months pregnant, was struck down one night with crippling pain. Taken to hospital, he woke up from a coma five months later to find he had had his hands and feet amputated and part of his lower face removed to save him from dying of Pneumonocochal Scepticemia, his wife having had to give permission to operate.

Based on the Rays’ story and written with no concession to disease of the week sentimentality by close friend Clark, the film stars Tom Riley and Joanne Froggatt, best known respectively for Da Vinci’s Demons and Downtown Abbey in an emotionally compelling account of what befell Tom and how it affected both him and the lives of those close to him.

Quite how much of the washed-out flashbacks relating to Tom’s absent father, an actor who abandoned the family home and his two sons (oddly, the film mentions the brother, but he never appears after Tom’s struck down) or the frictions between the Tom and Nicola’s mothers (played, respectively, by Phoebe Nicholls and Michelle Dotrice) are true to life is uncertain (though an end credits  note mentions that the father, who became a success in the theatre, never replied to his son’s letter asking for financial help when they reached desperation point). Likewise, the metaphor of the starfish for which the film is named, stemming from a bedtime story Tom tells Grace, and which plays a crucial symbolic role in the final moments.

However, the truth of the stress and emotional anguish Tom and the family went through is never in question and, while some things are condensed, elided or implied, making the emotional arc sometimes blurry,  Nicola’s fundraising speech and the scenes where an understandably embittered Tom verbally lashes out  and Nicola’s repressed stress finally floods out in a wrenching confessional are incredibly powerful, taking the film beyond  its specific subject and into a universal human drama about family and marriage. (Wed: Cineworld NEC; Vue)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

 Bridget Jones’s Baby (12A)

bridget-jonesHelen Fielding’s hapless singleton returns to the  big screen, reunited with the first film’s director, Sharon Maguire, and a script by Fielding and Dan Mazer (tweaked by Emma Thompson) that works from the former’s 2005 newspaper columns rather than her third novel. Which means Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is alive and married, though not to Bridget (Renee Zellweger), who, we meet blowing out the single candle on her cupcake to mark her 43rd  birthday.  After a  quick flashback (she’s still working as a TV producer, now for the Hard News programme and Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver is missing, believed dead), the plot gets into traction as she’s persuaded by the show’s presenter, Miranda (Sarah Solemani) to join her for a weekend music festival  where she accidentally ends up sleeping with an American called Jack (Patrick Dempsey). Then, having first bumped into him at Cleaver’s memorial, just over a week later, she also meets up with Darcy again, this time when they’re both godparents at a christening and, learning that he’s going through a  divorce, they too end up in bed.

Three months later, already under pressure to come up with a presentation for the show’s revamp demanded by snotty Gothy new boss Alice (Kate O’Flynn) and her ironic beard colleagues, she discovers she’s pregnant – and either of the two men could be the father.

She also learns that Jack is actually Jack Qwant, a wealthy  matchmaking website  guru who designed an algorithm for love, and books him on to the show so Miranda can quiz him about his sex life.

Suffice to say, after telling both him and Mark that she’s pregnant, but avoiding mentioning either to the other, coincidence eventually brings all three together and she’s forced to confess she doesn’t know which is the father, leading variously to everyone working as best for the baby and a competitiveness between the two men for Bridget’s affections.

Meanwhile, , Bridget’s mom (Gemma Jones) is standing for her local council, a side plot that chimes with Darcy defending an Eastern European all girl activist punk group and the film’s general juggling between  female independence and women’s rights and motherhood and marriage.

Although Bridget 2 was by no means a disaster, this, if not quite up to the level of the first,  is far superior, effectively mixing together hilarity and poignancy in a script that is at home with physical slapstick as it is one liners.  Thompson is a delight as Bridget’s bemused gynaecologist while further solid support comes from returning cast members  that include Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s dad, James Callis (gay mate Tom), Celia Imrie (Una), Neil Pearson (station manager Richard) and Sally Philips as best friend Shazzer.  Firth fits right back in as Darcy, the top QC who has problems articulating his emotions, while Dempsey is terrific as nice guy Jack, suddenly discovering that love isn’t just a theoretical proposition. However, as ever, it’s Zellweger who is the film’s heart and who again proves herself one of the finest comedy actresses around with the capability of also tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.  It’s been a long gestation, but the end result delivers a bouncy bundle of joy. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Until Tue: MAC)

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

doc-2Already on course to prove one of the Marvel Universe’s  biggest box office hits, this sees Benedict Cumberbatch  perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant and egotistical New York neurosurgeon who, his hands crippled in a car accident, sets off to Tibet in search of a mysterious order than he believes can heal him, eventually being taken in and mentored by  the so called Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton)  and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mystic arts. Initial skepticism quickly giving way to a driven desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, Strange’s first challenge comes when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disciple turned rogue who stole a forbidden spell, returns to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world, thereby  allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.

The occult arts are, of course, a licence to let the special effects run riot and the film doesn’t stint, characters creating warp holes with their special rings, both the Ancient One and Kaecilius using spells to make reality – as in the streets and buildings of New York – fold in on itself like some living kaleidoscopic Escher nightmare, everyone wielding mystical weapons and Strange, equipped with the Eye of Agamotto and his iconic sentient red cloak, able to move time back and forth.

However, as with all the Marvel Universe films, it’s about more than visual spectacle with the cast and screenplay bringing philosophical, psychological and emotional depth to proceedings, one scene in particular managing to be simultaneously funny, thrilling and dramatic, as Strange has to fight not only against those bent on destroying the world, but also his own insecurities and damaged sense of self-worth. Indeed, with his line in flippant humour, Cumberbatch’s Strange  is cut from similar cloth to Tony Stark.

 

Unlike the comics, here  Wong (Benedict Wong) is the keeper of the Ancient One’s library and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum as opposed to Strange’s valet,  while the romantic interest is provided  not by fellow mystic Clea, but by fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a name Marvel fans will recall from the short-lived Night Nurse and Nightcrawler comics. And while  Ejiofor may feel somewhat underused this time round, his role as Strange’s nemesis in the comic, ensures he’ll have much more to do in the inevitable sequel while the  obligatory  end credit scenes reveal that, before then, Strange will be casting a spell over the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Don’t Breathe (15)

dont bThe best thrillers build their claustrophobic tension by dispensing with unnecessary subplots and by focusing on the events in hand. Although it takes a while to get going, this is one such. Stuck in an economically depressed Detroit small town, Rocky  (Jane Levy), Alex (Daniel Zovatto) and the  less likeable Money (Dylan Minette)  raise money by breaking into the homes of  the more well-to-do, aided by the fact that Money’s father runs a security firm, so he has access to the passcodes and gadgets than can circumvent the burglar alarms. Rocky just needs one big score so she can get away from her dead-beat mother and her trash boyfriend.  Cue an isolated old house scoped out by Money, its sole occupant a grizzled army veteran (Stephen Lang) blinded in the first Gulf war, whose daughter was killed by a hit and run rich girl. She got off free and he got a hefty settlement, which Money reckons is stashed somewhere in the house. Although Alex has qualms about knocking over a blind guy, the three eventually decide to go for it.

However, although they dope his ferocious Rottweiler, the man himself proves less susceptible, realising there’s an intruder and swiftly taking out Money. Now, Rocky and Alex find themselves trapped in a darkened house of which their intended victim knows every inch.

And that’s pretty much it as the pair’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid their pursuer, all stubble, white hair and grubby vest,  and escape, preferably with the loot, regularly find them in an even worse situation.  Since that’s a fairly limited premise, the film, directed by Fede Alvarez, fresh off the back of his Evil Dead remake, introduces a little extra in which the blind man’s revealed to have a secret locked away that suddenly spins the moral compass and entails a rather unpleasant scene of sexual violence involving a turkey baster and Rocky suspended in a harness.

As with all such films, everyone proves surprisingly resilient, walking way from assorted  injuries and falls through windows, but, with the house a dimly lit and at times a blacked-out maze, Alvarez uses the shadows to ratchet up the intensity to a level that makes you forget the plot holes. Ultimately, effective though it is, it never quite lives up to the possibilities it offers and, inevitably, ends with the hint of a horror-franchise style sequel. Or maybe that’s just blind man’s bluff.  (Vue Star City)

 

The Girl on the Train (15)

gott_still-10One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.

A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.

So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage  and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of  her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.

Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s  same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.

Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.

Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.

Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although  the film works to make Rachel sympathetic,  they’re  all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; until Tue, Electric)

I, Daniel Blake (15)

daniel-bA sobering serio-comic tragedy for our benefit cuts times, Ken Loach returns to skewer the callousness of an uncaring system, opening with voice over tas recently widowed,59-year-old Newcastle joiner  Daniel (Dave Johns) delivers a series of increasingly frustrated responses to the  ‘health care professional’ assessing his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.

Inevitably, although his doctors and physiotherapists have told him not to return to work following his heart attack, he’s declared fit and his application’s denied. Duly visiting the job centre, he’s met with a minefield of  implacable digital-by-default bureaucracy and threats of sanctions, the patronising staff  ignoring his protestations that he can’t fill anything in online as he doesn’t have a computer or  know how to use one. While there, he witnesses the treatment of a Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and her two kids, recently relocated from London, who, late for an appointment, are refused benefits. He comes to her aid and both are duly ejected. Being a man of kindness and compassion, he helps her further, getting her food and doing repairs around her new flat and bonding with her and the children, the self-possessed Daisy (Briana Shann) and the younger, OCD Dylan (Dylan McKiernan).

The relationship between the members of this impromptu family and the good natured rapport between Daniel and his chancer high-rise neighbour stand in direct contrast to the uncaring attitudes of those embodying the Department of Work and Pensions, although, there is one token job centre employee who does show sympathy and tries to help Daniel through the labyrinth.

Written by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, there are times when it edges into both sentimentality and caricature, but the central characterisations and performances  are superb and both the act of protest that gives rise to the title and Daniel’s final testimony will make you want to cheer and cry respectively. At the end of the day, its social commentary about a  Kafkaesque bureaucracy isn’t saying anything new, but, as the government’s war of attrition on the poor  continues to gather force, it’s a movingly potent  reminder that those on the other side of the desk, on the other end of the phone, aren’t clients or numbers, but people with feelings and rights, especially to their dignity and respect.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Electric; MAC)

 

Inferno (15)

infernoSix years after Angels & Demons, Tom Hanks returns as Dan Brown’s code cracking academic, Dr Robert Langdon, again caught up in a life-threatening conspiracy involving ancient art and architecture, except this time it involves not some clandestine Catholic order, but a plot to unleash a plague that, to combat overpopulation and save the species, will wipe out at least half of mankind.

Like the previous Langdon novels, the equally labyrinthally-plotted Inferno isn’t great literature, but it is a compelling page turner packed with the many twists and turns. The same holds true of the film which, after we see billionaire prophet of doom  Zobrist  (Ben Foster) being chased through the streets of Florence before throwing himself from a  bell tower,  switches to Langdon in a Florentine hospital bed having nightmarish visions. It turns out he’s received a bullet wound to the head and he’s having visions straight out of Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Italian writer’s14th century epic poem, Divine Comedy, which provides a guide through Hell.  Suffering from head trauma memory loss, he suddenly finds himself on the run with English hospital doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) following an attempt on his life by a female assassin posing as one of the Carabinieri.

Hiding out at Brooks’ apartment, he finds that he’s got some thumbprint recognition biochemical container in his pocket containing Botticelli’s circles of hell painting inspired by Inferno. Except, you know, it’s somehow not quite right and there’s letters where they shouldn’t be. If only Langdon could remember how he got it, why he’s there and what his part in all this entails.

That would be enough to be going on with, but, to complicate things further, as he and Brooks set out across Florence (as well as sites of  architectural interest in Venice, Switzerland and Turkey, Langdon a living SatNav of their secret passageways), not only is the mystery assassin after him, but so too are some ultra-secret security firm (headed up by Irrfan Khan) and the World Health Organisation with a team led by French agent Bruder (Omar Sly) under his boss, and former Langdon flame, Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), all of whom want to get their hands on Zobrist’s plague.

It is, of course, riddled with narrative holes, the plague plot makes no logical sense and, naturally, nothing and nobody are who they appear to be. At least the film, again directed by Ron Howard, acknowledges the ludicrousness of the memory loss wherein Langdon can’t remember what coffee is called but does recall his email address and password.

There’s a lot of running through old buildings following the clues left by Zobrist as to the bio-device’s location, but it all just seems to be going through the motions as it heaves its way to a ludicrous showdown that essentially pivots on the fact that you can never get a cellphone signal when you need one.

Hanks is reliable enough, but Jones often delivers her lines like she missed the script run through and this is a first rehearsal. It does the job watchably enough, and surely has to be worth seeing just for the surreal moment when a bunch of heavily tooled men burst into Brooks’ apartment shouting “we’re from the World Health Organisation!” (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)

reacher Despite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a  franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.

It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while  investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.

So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the  conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of  Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.

So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of  fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.

Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be  and act differently depending on where she is in the plot  and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and  even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent,  lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Light Between Oceans (12A)

oceansAdapted, at great length, from M.L. Stedman’s bestseller by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, this is an upmarket art house tearjerker steeped in themes of guilt, love, forgiveness and redemption as well as philosophical moral quandaries.

Set just after the end of WWI, looking for quiet and solitude after experiencing the slaughter of the trenches, taciturn veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes the temporary position of the keeper of the Janus lighthouse on a remote island off the western coast of Australia, the former occupant having gone stir crazy following the death of his wife.

Sherbourne, however, welcomes the isolation, perhaps in part to assuage his feelings of survivor-guilt. Not that this last long. On his second meeting with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of one of the mainland families. Herself having suffered the loss of two brothers in the war (as revealed in one of the film’s most effective scenes), she takes him on a picnic and suggests he marries her. He demurs, but, a short-pen pal relationship later, they’re wed and sharing domestic bliss in the homestead below the lighthouse. She even persuades him to shave off the moustache. Before long, their happiness is compounded when she becomes pregnant. But then tragedy strikes as she miscarries. And then it happens a second time.

However, within days, Tom spots a rowing boat in the sea, in it a dead man and a living baby girl. It’s his duty to report this, but, when Isabel begs to keep the child, who she names Lucy,  and raise her as their own, his love and the suffering she’s been through, persuades him to go along with things.

Inevitably, at some point, Lucy’s real mother will put in appearance, duly doing so at the christening as Tom spots Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping at the gravestone for her husband (the fact she was ostracised by her wealthy landowner father – Bryan Brown – for marrying a German adds to the burden of suffering) and daughter, Grace, lost at the sea on the day before Lucy came into their lives.

Although unable to reveal the truth, Tom does leave a note saying the child is well, loved and being cared for, which, naturally enough, brings the local police into the matter. Even so, the secret remains. Until, four years later, when, struck by another pang of conscience, Tom sends  Hannah a package, with far-reaching ramifications that lead to Lucy  (Florence Clery) being reclaimed  and Tom, insisting he forced Isabel to go along with things, on a murder charge and she  ultimately faced with an agonising choice. Needless to say, very much chiming with today’s social services, the child’s feelings are given no consideration in the parental tug of war.

Handsomely mounted and with terrific intense performances by Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz, it’s serious-minded period melodrama of Thomas Hardy proportions as it explores the price and sacrifices love exacts, the cruelty of fate and the ill-advised choices made by flawed but good people. Just to underline the symbolism, Tom helpfully explains that Janus is named after the twin-faced god, looking to both the past and the future.

Unfortunately, although  never descending into Nicholas Sparks soap opera, the flashbacks to Hannah with her husband (Leon Frost) and baby seem loaded (surely the audience can be trusted to understand her sense of loss) and after carefully building things in the first two acts, the third feels  rushed and confused, the characters more one note,  and, while the epilogue is undeniably poignant, the crisis of love and loyalty that immediately precedes it is too elegantly handled  to unleash the emotions it seeks to elicit. Somewhere between the two turbulent oceans, the film is becalmed. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (12A)

miss-peregrineAdapted from Ransom Rigg’s bestseller and directed by Tim Burton, this is a sort of X-Men meets Groundhog Day, complete with a houseful of mutant kids, time loops and scary monsters.

Living with his emotionally absent parents, alienated Florida  teen Jake Portman’s closest friend his  eccentric grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), so, when he gets a message saying he’s in trouble he races over only to find the house ransacked and grandpa dying  in the woods, his eyes missing. Not only that, but he sees some sort of monster. This, he’s told, was just an hallucination, but Jake’s convinced now that the stories his grandfather told him as a child, about the house where he grew up, its strange residents, and the monsters, weren’t tall tales.

So, he persuades his father (Chris O’Dowd) that a trip to the isolated Welsh village of Cairnholm where Abe lived as a child under the care of a certain Miss Peregrine, will help him find closure, a suggestion endorsed by his shrink (Allison Janney) Once there, however, he’s disappointed to find the house a burned out shell, having been hit by a German bomb in 1943.

 

Sneaking off to explore the ruins, he’s greeted by a bunch of kids who look just like the ones in Abe’s old photo. As indeed they are, all having lived in the house, protected by a time loop that constantly resets to the previous 24 hours, for the past seven decades, under the protection of Miss Peregrine (Eva Smith), an Ymbrine who has the power to transform into a peregrine falcon.

They too are Peculiars with their own particular powers or abnormalities: firestarter Olive  (Lauren McCrostie), superstrong youngster Bronwyn (Pixie Davies), Fiona (Georgia Pemberton) who can make  control plants, Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone) projects  prophetic dreams through his eye, Hugh (Milo Parker) has bees living inside him, the  invisible Millard (Cameron King), Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) who has the power to bring inanimate objects – and the dead – to life, Claire (Raffiella Champan) who’s blessed with a ferocious set of choppers in the back of her head, the twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell) who always wear masks  (their power’s not seen until the last act) and, most significantly for Jake, Emma (Ella Purnell), who has to wear lead boots to stop her floating way and who had a thing for Abe back in the day, a spark that’s rekindled with Jake.

She informs Jake that he too is a Peculiar, although it would be spoiling things to reveal in what way; suffice to say it’s going to come in very useful in the struggle against the shape-shifting Mr. Barron (Samuel L Jackson), a renegade Peculiar who, in the quest for immortality carried out an experiment that backfired, transforming him and his cronies into monsters, referred to as the Hollows and the Wights, invisible in their monster form, who can only maintain human semblance by eating freshly harvested eyeballs, preferably children’s, a need that gives rise to one of the film’s most squirm-inducing (but also blackly funny) moments.

He now wants to capture Miss Peregrine in order to repeat the experiment, and Jake may just be the one to lead him to her and her charges. All of which culminates at Blackpool Pier and Tower with a present day battle involving stop-motion animated skeletons. It’s   a bizarre and eccentric tale while also providing an awkward first love between Emma and Jake (cue a cheeky nod to Titanic).

A pity then that, for all its often spectacular visuals and effects, it’s almost all a ponderously lifeless, exposition-heavy and confusing preamble to the rushed – but admittedly exciting – amusement park climax. O’Dowd disappears from the film around halfway never to be heard of again, while Rupert Everett looks highly uncomfortable as a dodgy ornithologist and Judi Dench makes a fleetingly unnecessary cameo as another Ymbrine.

Purnell’s the best of a variable cast of characters that are given little by the way of depth, but, fatally, the usually reliable Butterworth, struggling with his American accent (something that’s the subject of a throwaway in-joke) is a blank, while a consciously brittle Green is far too knowing for her and the film’s good. Not until the customarily scenery-gobbling Jackson eventually shows up is there anything remotely resembling fun.  While enjoyable enough in parts, at the end of the day it’s more wan than weird. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

My Scientology Movie (15)

msm_still_04When  Louise Theroux tweeted asking for any scientologists to contribute to his documentary about the controversial religion, he received several messages suggesting this might not be the best idea. Inevitably, no one from the Church was prepared to talk to him, but some high profile ‘blow outs’  did come aboard, specifically Marty Rathburn, who acrimoniously quit after 27 years and was the former enforcer for its little seen but much feared and allegedly violent leader, David Miscavige, and  Jeff Hawkins, a former Sea Org member, essentially the organisation’s elite SS  wing charged with neutralising any negativity  from ‘suppressive personalities’.

Since there was never any chance of Miscavige or Tom Cruise participating, Theroux holds auditions for actors to play them in scenes drawn from extant footage of conventions and a rare TV appearance as well as Rathburn’s experiences and, while these take up rather too much time, Andrew Perez, who  ends up as Miscavige’s stand-in, is scarily convincing.

It’s not  long after before word gets out and they find themselves being themselves filmed and two of the film’s funniest yet unsettling moments are when Theroux confronts a woman and her  cameraman opposite their makeshift studio who refuse to say who they are and, later, in run-ins outside Gold Base,  Miscavige’s compound, where a woman called Catherine, one of the Sea Org rottweilers, orders Theroux off their private property, all the while having him filmed and ignoring his protestations that it’s a public road. There’s a marvellous absurdist image of  Theroux and a scientologist circling each other, the latter with his HD camera, the former documenting the moment on his iPhone, all the while maintaining his trademark ironic politeness.

Naturally, the Church denies all allegations and, in turn, accuses the likes of Rathburn as being vindictive and embittered liars and there’s a particularly awkward moment when Theroux’s probing of Marty’s past elicits an altogether less friendly side.

At the end of the day, it’s a little slow and  doesn’t really add much insight to various  rumours, allegations and denials, though clearly those seem on camera clearly aren’t one’s you’d invite round for tea and biscuits, but it’s never less than entertaining. (MAC)

 

Ouija – Origin of Evil  (15)

ouija-2-originDespite being  a thoroughly forgettable  horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to  which Before I Wake  director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set  in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of  local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of  anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Queen of Katwe (PG)

queen-of-katweIn 2013,  already one of the first two Ugandan female chess players to become a Woman Candidate Master, Phiona Mutesi won the Uganda National Junior Chess Championship. Remarkable enough in itself, but all the more so since she was only 17, a teenager from Katwe, one of the worst of the Kampala slum villages where she lived with her sister Night, brothers Richard and Brian and widowed mother, Harriet. Based on the  book of the same title, this inspirational Disney film tells the story of her rise from selling cassava on the streets to becoming one of the top players in the world of chess. Directed by Mira Nair and starring newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, it begins with her curiosity at seeing a bunch of boys gathering in a shed under the supervision of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former football and star turned part-time ministry worker sports coach who’s persuaded the lads to learn chess. Inviting her to join them, he quickly realises she has an innate gift and intelligence for the game and persuades her pragmatic tough love, self-sacrificing  mother (superbly played by Lupita Nyong’o ) to allow her to continue and compete. Phiona’s gathering confidence and ascendency in the chess ranks, competing in the wealthier parts of Kampala, the Sudan and, eventually, Russia,  does, however, place more financial stress on the family, something both she and Robert, with the help of his teacher wife, seek to try and alleviate in order for her to keep playing.

Like most underdog sports movies, it follows a fairly predictable journey, complete with the inevitable highs and lows along the way,  inevitably also using chess as a metaphor for life, built around themes of community, strength, education, class divides and hope. As rich in emotional colours as the fabrics the women wear, it is rather more extended than need be, stretching out the running time to take in the clash between Harriet and Night, who takes off with one of the local ne’er do wells, but Phiona’s story is one young girls – and indeed anyone struggling to rise above the hand life deals them – should see.   (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Storks (U)

storks-2There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of  Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.

Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.

Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a  job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.

Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d  like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.

Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.

There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Trolls (U)

trolls-3Created in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, kown as Gonks in the UK,  were a huge fad in both the 60s and at different times from the 70s to the 90s.  Now they’re back, making their feature film starring debut in  this animated Day-Glo musical adventure from the various creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda that’s aimed very firmly at the under-7s.

A felt scrapbook prologue introduces the Trolls as “the happiest creatures the world had ever known”, always ready to burst into a song or dance and hugging every hour. They  once lived in a tree in the middle of the town, but their neighbours, the ogre-like Bergens, led by King Gristle (John Cleese),  had no idea what happiness was. They were the most miserable creatures in the world. Seeing how happy the Trolls were, they thought that they could feel that happiness too – if they ate a Troll. And so began the annual ritual of Trollstice, during which the Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski) would pluck Trolls from the tree and serve them up. Until the day came for Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to have his first taste of Troll and it was found that the Trolls had all escaped, leaving the Prince in tears and Chef in exile.

Twenty years later, after being led to freedom by King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), the Trolls live safely hidden in the forest, enjoying a  life that is all rainbows, under the uber-enthusiasm of the brightly pink Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). To commemorate their escape from the cooking pot, she’s planning to hold the biggest, brightest and loudest party ever. Something that Branch (Justin Timberlake), who, coloured a drab grey, is, for reasons we discover later, the world’s only unhappy troll, warns will give their location away.

And, so it is that, in the midst of their celebrations, along comes Chef who  scoops up a bagful of Trolls, including blue Biggie (James Cordon), the giraffe-like Cooper, hippie-philosopher Creek (Russell Brand),  fashion twins Satin & Chenille (Icona Pop) and Sparky who, to the delight of the youngsters, farts glitter dust.

And so, Poppy resolves to rescue them, a quest in which she’s reluctantly joined by Branch and which will involve them joining forces  with scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who’s secretly in love with Prince Gristle, giving her a Cinderella-styled rainbow hairdo makeover, complete with discarded skating boot in place of a glass slipper. And, inevitably, any number of mostly disco-driven songs, the soundtrack featuring both new Timberlake numbers  and old hits like True Colors and I’m Coming Out.

Although there’s some sly references, there’s very little here for the grown-ups. However,  as well as a subtle anti-drugs caution about pill-popping to feel good,  the message about how true happiness lies within you has no age limits and, while the film’s relentless energy may be exhausting, it’s also infectious with such various  inspired and funny moments as the talking Cloud Guy. Anyone older than their shoe size may find it annoying, but it’s still hard not to leave without a  smile on your face.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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

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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