The Snowman (15)
As a huge fan of Scandinavian crime author Jo Nesbø and having read all of the Harry Hole novels, the prospect of finally seeing the character 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. That’s just what they dug themselves into. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The 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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Loving Vincent (15)
The live action filmed against green screen and then both that and the backgrounds rendered as handpainted animation in the style of van Gogh, taking some seven years and 200 artists to bring to fruition this is a work of impressive ambition and visual brilliance. Although opening with the legendary ear severing of 1888 following a tempestuous visit to Arles by Gauguin, the events unfold in 1891, a year after the painter shot himself, dying two days later. Adopting a whodunnit narrative, charged by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd), an old friend of Van Gogh, to deliver a recently discovered last letter bv the artist to his brother Theo (the film title inspired by the way he signed them), Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), like Roulin Snr. a subject of Vincent’s paintings, travels from Arles to Paris to talk to Impressionist paint supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), only to discover Theo too has passed on.
Returning to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died, with the intention of delivering it to Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who treated him in his final months, unable to understand why van Gogh would kill himself just six weeks after declaring himself calm, Roulin, sporting the yellow jacket from his portrait, does some digging round. In the process, talking to Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), whose family ran the inn where van Gogh stayed and died, Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) with whom, the local boatman (Aidan Turner) implies, he may have had a liaison, their prickly housekeeper (Helen McCrory), various villagers and Dr. Mazery (Bill Thomas), who disputes the official coroner’s findings, he’s persuaded that van Gogh was shot by someone unknown rather than committed suicide.
The plot itself is somewhat slight, but provides sufficient intrigue to keep the narrative going while the Polish directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, focus on rendering the scenes in van Gogh’s familiar impressionist technique (although the black and white flashbacks – with Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent – have a more ‘realistic’ look), including recreating the settings of almost 130 of the paintings themselves, among them The Night Cafe, Wheatfield with Crows, and Starry Night Over the Rhone. Clint Mansell’s score adding to the mood and with a piercing poignancy when the contents of the letter are finally read, it’s an impressive and often illuminating insight into a genius who, more than 200 years after his death, still remains an enigma. (Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)
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 Virgina 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)
The Ritual (15)
When their friend Rob (Paul Reid) is killed in a store robbery, Luke (Rafe Spall), who was with him at the time, but hiding out of sight, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Dom (Sam Troughton) decide to commemorate him by going hiking in Sweden, a trip he’d suggested before his death. With Dom injuring his ankle, deciding to take a short cut, they head into the woods. Not all of them come out again.
A British horror movie that variously borrows The Blair Witch, The Hills Have Eyes and The Wicker Man, the four first stumble upon an eviscerated stag hanging in a tree, a series of enigmatic symbols carved into the trees and then an abandoned cabin with some sort of witchcraft wicker effigy upstairs where they all have decidedly bad dreams. Luke is, of course, haunted by the guilt of not trying to help his mate (with several hallucinatory flashbacks), while, whatever they may say, the others clearly see him as responsible. They too have buried fears that manifest in their nightmares, and it soon turns out that they’re being stalked by the woods’ mysterious inhabitants and some unseen creature for paganistic purposes.
Mining themes of guilt and redemption, director David Brukner does a good job in establishing an initial suspense, but the further it journeys into familiar territory the less involving and the more ponderous it gets, the bickering between the four, and especially Troughton’s judgemental Dom, becoming repetitive, winding up with a third act that’s so dimly lit it’s hard to work out what’s going on, not to mention and features a particularly underwhelming CGI ancient monster. Spall’s fevered performance is far better than the material or his co-stars, but it’s still not enough to sacrifice your time for. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
American Assassin (18)
With the established stars of action movies now starting to get on a bit, Hollywood’s becoming increasingly desperate to find new and younger blood on whom to build franchises. Hence Michal Cuesta’s adaptation of Vince Flynn’s airport lounge pulp page turner knocking a decade or two off its hero, Mitch Rapp, so as to cast Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien.
Opening with a scene that’s likely to be something of raw nerve for many, Rapp is wounded and sees his girlfriend, to whom he’s just proposed, murdered when a bunch of armed Islamist terrorists start shooting up the Ibiza beach where they’re holidaying. Fast forward 18 months and, recovered but seething with barely repressed rage, now sporting healthy face fuzz, Rapp has mastered gun and martial arts skills and learned Arabic so that he can infiltrate the Libyan terrorist cell responsible and take out them and their leader. What he doesn’t know is that he’s being monitored by the CIA, who swoop in and do the job for him. Then. back in the USA, he’s invited by cool, no nonsense CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who reckons he has the exact psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine, to join her black ops team. So, it’s off to the woods for some boot camp training under the command of hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a suitably taciturn Michael Keaton). Meanwhile, Kennedy and her boss (David Suchet) have been meeting with some top level Iranians regarding the theft of weapons grade plutonium from Russia and ascertained that the man responsible has arranged to acquire a nuclear trigger, so he duly despatches Hurley, Rapp and fellow trainee Victor (Birmingham’s Scott Atkins), hooking up with Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar), to take the arms dealer and the thief and recover the plutonium.
Needless to say, things go pear-shaped, Rapp ignoring orders and taking off to finish the mission. Naturally, things get more complicated when it turns out the one who stole the plutonium calls himself Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) and is actually one of Hurley’s former protégés gone rogue and is playing to provide the Iranians with everything they need, scientist included, to make a nuke to attack Israel
Thus the stage is set for another maverick race against the clock complete with several twists and reveals in the final stretch that steers this away from the Islam-bashing narrative it first seems.
The result of four screenwriters, it’s fairly generic and cliché-bound, complete with the chiselled dialogue you might expect along with the stoicism in the face of pain patriotism (Keaton figures in a particularly nasty torture scene) and the repeated mantra about not making it personal. It’s not big on character depth or development, but, variously unfolding in Warsaw, Istanbul, Malta and Rome, it delivers the limited action sequences in workmanlike manner, building up to the big CGI effects climax, doing the job efficiently enough to ensure the sequel promised in the final shot. (Vue Star City)
American Made (15)
In 1978, tapped for smuggling illegal Cuban cigars, TWA pilot Barry Seal was approached by the CIA to run secret surveillance missions over Colombia, a success that, through the early 80s, led to him becoming a bag man between the CIA and Nicaragua’s General Noriega, delivering pay offs in return for information on Communist operations in South America. Then, he was approached by the Medelin Cartel, the biggest drugs operation in Colombia, headed up by Pablo Escobar, who recruited him to transport their cocaine to the United States. Then, further concerned about the Communist-run Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA got him to fly arms to the supposedly opposing Contras, except instead, he ended up flying the guns to the Cartel who armed their forces and then got the Contras to smuggle cocaine into America. Before long Seal, who by now had been relocated by the CIA from Louisiana to Mena in smalltown Arkansas was making so much money he was having to set up any number of front businesses to launder it, and even then he was still burying it in the garden and stuffing it into cupboards. And even when it went pear-shaped, and he was being pursued variously by state police, the FBI, CIA and the DEA, he was still able to come out on top.
Unfolding between 1985 top 1986, it was one of the biggest covert operations ever run by the US government. His story’s been told before, but, screenwriter Gary Spinelli taking a cue from GoodFellas, never as well or as entertainingly as here by director Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) with a permagrin Tom Cruise donning the aviator sunglasses as Seals. Played with an eye on the comedic element in the whole situation (rather akin to the recent similarly-themed War Dogs), it romps from one implausible but real scenario to the next as Seal’s ‘business’ empire continues to expand. Although initially wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) is oblivious to Barry’s double life, but when you’ve got wads of dollar bills all over the house, it’s hard to keep things that secret and she readily takes to the wealth and the life, although things almost come crashing down thanks her to her self-serving slacker brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons he can deal himself an easy hand in the cash flow.
Not until the final act when, now working for the White House and Colonel Oliver North, he’s inadvertently outed as betraying the Cartel and becomes a marked man, while the Iran-Contra scandal blows up in the government’s face does it really involve any real tension, and even then, as he moves from motel to motel, recording the videotapes that would eventually reveal his story (and provide the film’s to camera framing device), it still manages to play for edgy laughs as, each morning, he wonders if his car will explode.
Following the disappointment of The Mummy and a series of autopilot Jack Reacher turns, Cruise is on peak form here, bringing a winning charm and charisma to the film’s anti-hero embodiment of the American Dream on speed. Liman’s also well served by a solid supporting turn from Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler Monty Shafer who gets to bask in the reflected glory of his protégé’s successes while turning a knowing blind eye to extracurricular activities as long as they serve to further the political agenda, and burning any trail when compromised. There’s evidence of some edit room chops (Jesse Plemons’ local sheriff and his suspicious wife seemingly the biggest victims), but even so the film flows at an exhilarating rush, making it easily Cruise’s best since Collateral. (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, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
His shortest feature at a concise 106 mins, Christopher Nolan has executed a technical if not necessarily emotional triumph in his account of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940 with the help of a flotilla of small privately-owned vessels, dubbed Operation Dynamo, following their collapse under the German offensive.
Essentially, this is more about the operation itself, and splitting the narrative into three interconnected stories (and, indeed, time frames), on land, sea and air, means there’s only limited engagement with any of the characters involved. Unfolding over the course of a week, we’re first introduced to one of the soldiers, the generically named teenage Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he narrowly escapes German bullets (in a departure from the usual war films, the enemy are never seen other than as aircraft and two blurry figures in the final scene) to make it to the beach where the British Expeditionary Force troops (some 400,000 in all) are awaiting a miracle. Hooking up with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard), they initially manage to get aboard a rescue ship berthed at the jetty by stretchering a wounded soldier, only for the ship to be sunk, leaving them back where they started.
Very much evoking 40s wartime features, the sea section, which takes place over one day, begins back in England with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a local civilian skipper, his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, seeking to prove himself, enthusiastic schoolfriend George (Barry Keoghan) setting sail for Dunkirk to help with the rescue. En route they rescue an unnamed shellshocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) from the wreck of his torpedoed ship, his reluctance to return to Dunkirk setting up a subsequent tragedy.
The air section, which covers just one hour, involves two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as. mostly behind oxygen masks, they take on the Messerschmitts and Heinkels wreaking havoc on the troops and ships, the three time scales coming together for the final moments as Dawson’s boat heads towards a bombed minesweeper while Tommy and a fellow soldier (singer Harry Styles acquitting himself well) flounder in the sea after their appropriated trawler, strafed by the unseen enemy as target practice, sinks. Rounding out the cast, Kenneth Branagh gives a quietly impressive performance as the highest-ranking naval offer at the scene, while James D’Arcy is his opposite number in the Army
As ever, making very effective use of sound design, especially in the opening gunshot moments, and keeping the dialogue sparse and to the point, Nolan delivers massive spectacle (no less than three ships sink, spewing survivors into the waves), but without feeling the need to offer the visceral graphics of a Saving Private Ryan (indeed, there’s almost no blood to be seen), tightly winding up the tension which, even if it circumvents the heart, has a firm grip on the nerves.
The film is largely shot in 70mm which, should you be fortunate to have a cinema capable of screening it as such, gives it an extra sense of immersion and depth, but whatever the format, this is the work of a master, if perhaps slightly clinical, filmmaker and stunning stuff. (Vue Star City)
Joel Schumacher’s cult 90s thriller, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon, about a bunch of med students who participate in a series of near death experiences only to find past tragedies and sins coming back to haunt them, gets a remake from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, but fails to bring the corpse back to life.
Nine years on from an accident in which, distracted while driving, her younger sister died, Courtney (Ellen Page) is now a med student obsessed with the idea of there being an afterlife. To which end, she persuades her fellow students, trust fund playboy Jamie (James Norton) and insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) to assist in her in an experiment, stopping her heart, recording any brain activity, and then bringing her back. When things hit a hitch in the revival process, they call on another of the group, Ray (Diego Luna) to help. When Courtney suddenly seems to have developed new abilities, Jamie demands to go next and when Marlo (Nina Dobrev), a senior student with a thing for Ray, learns what they’re up to, she insists on flatlining too and, having had another run in with her controlling mother, Sophia turns up demanding on following suit.
Needless to say, the immediate highs are quickly replaced by disturbing lows, each of those who went under finding themselves being haunted by something from their past, the car crash, an abortion, a medical miscall that cost a life, the humiliation of a fellow student; as Jamie puts it, the side effects are trying to kill them.
By its very nature, the laboured storyline is episodic, with each getting their own haunting, and there’s only so many fleeting glimpses or sudden appearances of ominous figures you can have before it all starts getting repetitive rather than scary, while, the final act, where everyone, or at least those that make it that far, set about finding redemption and atonement, just feels like the writers lost interest. Page is good, but deserves better, while the others do what’s necessary and, in a nod to the original, Sutherland puts in a couple of appearances as the hospital’s testy senior doctor . It’s watchable but unnecessary. Do not resuscitate. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG)
Voted the favourite children’s story of all time, Winnie the Pooh, written by Alan Milne, brought the world a sense of happiness and innocence following the dark days of WWI. One person it didn’t bring happiness, however, was Christopher Robin Milne, the little boy who, the son of the author, featured in the stories along with his toys, Pooh, Tigger and the others. Opening with Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) receiving news that his son is missing presumed dead in WWII, it flashes back to the author’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme and his return home, traumatised by what he went through, with even a champagne cork popping triggering traumatic memories. Already a successful writer for Punch magazine, determined to write a book about ending wars, he decamps to the country with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), their cherubic-looking young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whom they’ve nicknamed Billy Moon, and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), to whom they virtually hand over all parental duties. When he fails to bring himself to put pen to paper, Daphne takes off back to London, declaring she won’t return until he’s written something. Eventually, this turns out to be Vespers, the famous poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers. It proves to be a huge success and, in response to his son’s request to write him a book, he embarks on the tales of the 100 Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eyeore, Piglet and the others, all based on where they live and his son’s stuffed animals. And of course, on Christopher Robin himself.
The books fly off the shelves, but it’s not Milne for whom the fan letters come and who is in demand for interviews, it’s his son and he and Daphne duly wheel him out on the celebrity circuit, even, at one, point, as the prize in toy manufacturer’s competition, oblivious, unlike Olive, to the effect it’s having on the boy. Grown up to resent the books’ success, as the teenage Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther) remarks to his father before he sets off to war, his childhood was happy enough, it was the growing up that was a misery, the stories’ make-believe version in the stories making him the source of constant bullying.
Directed by Simon Curtis, it’s a hugely melancholic work that slots comfortably into the long line of literary biopics such as Finding Neverland and Shadowlands and the shortcoming of the writers concerned. Certainly, neither of them caring that much for kids, Milne comes across as a slightly priggish figure, while Daphne seems to have no maternal instincts whatsoever, leaving it to Olive to be the only one that shows the boy any actual love. On the other hand, the scenes where father and son are forced to spend time together alone are rather sweet and show the side to Milne that allowed him to create such tender tales.
However, while handsomely photographed and finely acted (with a cast that also includes Stephen Campbell Moore and Richard McCabe), despite the commentary on the destructive, exploitative fall out of fame, Christopher Robin robbed of the intimate moments of his childhood as well as his very identity, it never quite manages to be as dramatic as it ought. Nonetheless, there’ll be few dry eyes by the end. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Home Again (12A)
This finds Reese Witherspoon back in familiar romcom mode as 40-year-old Alice, who, recently divorced from her record producer husband, takes her two young daughters, hypochondriac Isobel (Lola Flanery) and snarky Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), moves from New York back to her late filmmaker father’s sprawling estate in L.A. and sets up a decorating business, the girls spending time hanging out with their retired actress grandma (Candice Bergen).
Meeting up with Harry (Pico Alexander) while quietly celebrating her fortieth, things end up with her agreeing to let him and his mates, George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff), all of whom are trying to make it in the movie business, live in the guest house, and also starts dating Harry. Then along comes the ex ((Michael Sheen), trying to worm his way back in their lives. Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Something’s Gotta Give director Nancy Meyers, who produced, don’t expect anything original, but fans of Witherspoon’s comedic cuteness likely won’t be disappointed. (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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
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