MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Oct 27- Thu Nov 2

NEW RELEASES

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explain how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Breathe  (12A)

The directorial debut of Andy Serkis and written by William Nicholson, in many ways this is a companion piece to The Theory of Everything, as produced by their son, Jonathan,  it tells the story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) who, supported by his constantly supportive wife Diana (Claire Foy), was struck down and paralysed from the neck down by polio in the 50s, but survived for nearly 40 years with the help of a mobile breathing machine he devised in collaboration with their Oxford prof and amateur inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).

Like the Hawking film, it’s both an inspiring testament to the human spirit and a romantic love story, but it’s also very conservative and old fashioned and too often sentimentalises matters while only intermittently succeeding to achieve an emotional engagement.

Within the film’s first few minutes, the couple meet at a cricket match while he’s still working in the tea brokering business, marry,  travel the world and she becomes pregnant when he’s suddenly struck down with polio, hospitalised and, unable to breathe without a ventilator, given just a few months to live. He pretty much gives up hope, but is rallied round by Diana who, refusing to let him die in hospital, defies the supercilious doctor (Jonathan Hyde)  and takes him home and his respirator so he can spend time with his son, subsequently moving him to a cosy house in the country.  Here, he hits on the idea of  creating a mobile ventilator using a wheelchair and, next thing you know he’s  jaunting off overseas with the missus and one of her twin brothers (both played by Tom Hollander),  linking up with Dr. Clement  Aitken (Stephen Mangan), director of the Disability Research Foundation, getting into mass production, liberating his former fellow patients and finally delivering an inspirational speech to a conference in Germany after witnessing the country’s  iron lung treatments where patients are more like prisoners.

Limited to the odd raised eyebrow, some facial expression and an overused smile, Garfield does his best while Foye is all resolute stiff upper lip and English rose, but it’s an uphill struggle against Serkis’s functional direction and a script that rarely elicits any sense of tension and brushes over any of what must have been some very difficult and painful, but physically and emotionally, times. Instead you get a largely lighthearted romp that includes a  hillside party with the locals when the  respirator breaks down while holidaying in Spain and Teddy is summoned to fly over (in seemingly record time) to fix it.

And, despite being real people, there’s also virtually no background given to any of the characters, wheeling on Ed Speelers for no good reason as a chum in the doldrums  and with an unrecognisable Diana Rigg having a couple of lines as Cavdenishs’s wealthy benefactor. On top of which, while Garfield does sprout a few grey hairs to show the passing of time, Foy looks almost  younger at Robin’s  ‘going away’ party ,than she did when they first met.

Certainly, Robin’s speech to the assorted German doctors tugs at the heartstrings, but it’s all too reverential and rose-tinted, ultimately suffocating the story with reverence rather than allowing it to, erm, breathe.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jigsaw (18)

Seven years on from the underwhelming so-called Final Chapter and eleven years after John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – aka Jigsaw, the  sadistic serial killer with a warped sense of morality, met his end in Saw III, he’s apparently back as a new writing and directing team look to resuscitate the franchise and give it some new, ahem, blood.

The action cuts between two sets of events, as we first meet five unrelated captives with buckets over their heads and chains that draw them towards a series of buzzsaws. They’re quickly whittled down to four, the dead body turning up hanging from a tree in the local park. Investigating the murder, the body having half its head sliced off, the coroner team, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonnerville (Hannah Emily Anderson), quickly conclude from the forensic evidence, and a memory stick with an audio recording hidden on the body, that, impossible though it seems, this is the work of Jigsaw.

Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who worked the original cases, doesn’t buy this and reckons it’s the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, back in Jigsaw’s lair, the survivors. Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles, Ryan (Paul Braunstein) and Carly (Brittany Allen) are told that, if they want to live, they have to play his games and confess their sins. One by one their number is  bloodily reduced to two, meanwhile Bonnerville’s revealed to have  a Jigsaw obsession while Logan convinces surplus to plot Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennet) that it’s the clearly shady  Halloran who’s actually the killer.

As you’ll have assumed, there’s a shoal of red herrings swimming around not to mention a well-worn sleight of hand to explain how Kramer can still be carrying out his gruesome and graphically detailed Punisher-like killings when he should be rotting in the grave. However, once the curtain’s pulled back to reveal what you’ve been watching, it quickly becomes apparent that the pieces don’t fit and the contrived set-up and motivations lack both logic and plausibility. However, the fact that you don’t care about any of the characters  that it’s not remotely scary or as clever as it thinks it is, is unlikely to prevent this from shredding the box office.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW PLAYING

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; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Death of Stalin (15)

As the writer of The Thick of It and its film spin-off, In The Loop, as well as the American version, Veep, Armando Iannucci is unquestionably the sharpest and funniest political satirist of the 21st century, added to which he also wrote and directed numerous episodes of I’m Alan Partridge and the subsequent feature Alpha Papa. So, you should know that his latest, a comedy set around the power struggle to fill the shoes of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin following his death, an adaptation of the French graphic novels, is going to be caustically hilarious.

It opens  in 1953 with Paddy Considine as Andreyev, a radio producer who’s just broadcast a live  piano concerto, featuring soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), when he gets a call from Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) demanding to a copy of the recording. Unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded. So, he has to prevent the audience from leaving, round up some people from the streets to fill the empty seats, bring in a replacement conductor and tell the musicians to do it again, assuring them that no one’s going to get killed.

The disc is duly collected and taken  to Stalin (along with a hidden note from Yudina), who’s just finished a tense dinner and a screening of a John Ford Western with the inner circle, among them preposterous, pompous and somewhat oblivious deputy leader Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in his bad wig, Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), secret police  chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and foreign affairs minister Molotov (Michael Palin) whose just been added to Beria’s new list of ‘traitors’ to be eliminated, as was his wife, he himself, an avowed Stalinist, condemning  her supposed treachery.

But then, returning to his office, Stalin reads Yudina’s note, promptly has a seizure. When his not quite yet dead body is discovered the next day everyone vacillates over calling whatever doctors haven’t been exiled from Moscow and, when he finally pops his clogs, sparking a power struggle to take over with everyone scurrying around like headless chickens. Malenkov becomes the de facto new leader, closely manipulated by the Machiavellian Beria who, for his own duplicitous reasons,  immediately sets about ‘pausing’ the executions and freeing prisoners, pre-empting an increasingly frustrated Khrushchev who sees this as a chance for reform and ends up being assigned the thankless  job of arranging the funeral.

They also have to deal with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) who’s been driven to distraction by the death and his embarrassing deadbeat drunkard son Vasily (Rupert Friend) who insists on speaking at the funeral. And, as the plotting grows more intense between the rivals to the throne, enter Jason Isaacs giving a scene-stealing Yorkshire-accented turn as the truculent bully boy war hero Zhukov, enlisted by Khrushchev to scupper Beria’s plans.

You  might want to brush up on your Soviet Who’s Who first, but, although Iannucci does play fast and loose with the facts and chronology, this is comedy not a history lesson (though it clearly has contemporary resonances), and, as with his past work, power and incompetence go hand in hand with political stupidity, mining laughs from one of the most brutal periods in Soviet history and playing it  out as a farce peppered with lines like “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.”  Malcolm Tucker would have been right at home.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Geostorm (12A)

The writer of both Independence Day movies, Dean Devlin now gets to direct his own disaster blockbuster, one firmly in the tradition of such things as Armageddon, Volcano,  Deep Impact, The Core and The Day After Tomorrow. Like the latter, this has a weather centred plot as well as trotting out a familiar message about man playing God.

Set just a few years hence, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is the engineer who designed and led the international team that, in response to disasters triggered by climate change, built a space station and a network of satellites dubbed Dutch Boy, able to control Earth’s weather. Now, three years later, his now estranged younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), who has some sort of senior position in DC and   was forced to fire him for insubordination following a senate hearing into his management of the project, has been ordered by the Secretary of State (Ed Harris) to get him to go back into space and investigate what caused a malfunction that turned an Afghan village into popsicles,

While up at the station, another disaster occurs as Hong Kong is ripped apart by what is officially reported as a gas mains explosion. However, it soon becomes clear that these, along with the death of one of the station crew, were no accidents or glitches in the system, but were deliberately designed. With just a couple of weeks before American officially cedes control of Dutch Boy to the international community, it seems as though some is sabotaging things and has weaponised the satellites, Jake recovering data that suggests that this might go all the way to the top of the White House and President Palma (Andy Garcia), who also just happens to be the only one who possesses the kill codes to shut the station down.

Given that both NASA and the station crew have been locked out of the system, that Dutch Boy’s auto-destruct has been triggered and the world’s experiencing a series of natural disasters that range from heatwaves in Moscow and typhoons in Mumbai to a tidal wave in Dubai (curiously, Great Britain seems to escape catastrophe this time around)  and the clock’s ticking to a  geostorm that will wipe out most of the planet’s population, there’s only one thing Max and his Secret Service girlfriend Sarah (Abbie Cornish) can do, and that’s kidnap Potus and get the codes to Jake who, along with station commander Ute Fassbinder (Alexandra Maria Lara) is still up there in space as the seconds tick away.

It’s all pretty generic stuff with its mix of mass city destruction, conspiracy theories, resolute action man sacrifices, the murders of those who get too close, and even the young daughter Jake (who’s divorced) has promised he’ll return safely. Naturally, only a small fraction of the budget went on the dialogue, the rest being lavished on an array of impressive special effects. Likewise, discovering  just who’s behind it all won’t come as any surprise at all.

The performances are adequate to requirements, though Cornish is especially impressive with a character that deserves her own spin-off, and while Butler never really convinces as a genius scientist, he does the action man stuff well enough and it all  zips along entertainingly enough, punctuating the multiple set-pieces with its  writ-large environmental messages and the need for global cooperation. And at least, this President does seem to take the matter seriously.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; 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.  (Vue Star City)

Happy Death Day (15)

In a nutshell, this is Groundhog Day meets Scream as Theresa, aka Tree (Jessica Rothe), a somewhat catty college medical student wakes up in the room of fellow student  Carter (Israel Broussard) with a massive hangover from getting wasted. It’s her birthday, but, for reasons we learn later,  that’s something she’d rather not think about. The day continues to get worse, until, finally, someone stabs her to death. Then she wakes up again and it starts all over and, with small variations (and some added extra victims), will continue to do so until she works out who the murderer in the plastic baby  mask is, compiling a  list of suspects that include  the sorority’s bitchy queen bee (Rachel Matthews), her diffident  roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine) and  even her married lecturer lover (Charles Aitken). Oh and then there’s also that newsflash about some serial killer who’s in the local hospital.

Like Scream, it has a knowing self-awareness of the slasher genre and constantly winks and calls attention to itself, but as well as a horror it also works as a film about self-discovery and maturity as each time Tree is murdered and wakes up again, as well as being increasingly weaker she also learns a little more about herself and changes her attitudes and the way she treats others, which is, essentially, the film’s underlying moral. On screen throughout, Rothe in her first major lead role is impressive, displaying  wide range of increasingly intense emotions (and a nice line in humour) as she moves from being somewhat unlikeable to a character you really root for and, having already proven a massive US hit, while this is, on its own terms, great fun, it will also surely catapult her to far better movies. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

It (15)

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. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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 NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Loving Vincent  (15)  

The live action filmed against green screen and then 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; MAC)

The Mountain Between Us (12A)

Neurosurgeon Ben (Idris Elba) and photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) both have to be somewhere the next day, he for important surgery, she for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But storms have grounded all planes. So, she hits on the ideas of the two of them sharing a private charter plane. However, enroute, over the mountains, the pilot (Beau Bridges), who hasn’t filed a flight plan,  has a stroke and the plane crashes. He’s killed but Ben and Alex both survive, although she has an injured leg, as does the pilot’s dog. Now, stuck ona mountain with no phone signal they can either wait in the wreckage and hope the emergency beacon, which fell off with the plane’s tail, is working and people will come looking, or they can try and make it out together.

And that’s pretty much it as far as plot goes as the couple slowly make it down the mountain, hitting and few obstacles and brought together through the determination to survive,falling in love along the way. There’s some moments of suspense and some character development regarding why buttoned-up Ben’s wife left him, though rather less insight into Alex, but mostly this is a simple romantic adventure love story, told in a  direct, light and unfussy manner by Abu-Assad, making his English language debut

A two-hander for  the bulk of its running time, Winslet and Elba, in his first romantic lead,  have a genuine chemistry and spark, their characters are likeable  and Chris Weitz’s screenplay avoids melodrama for a natural rhythm and a sense of wit, as well as upending stereotypes by making him the cautious one and she more inclined to take risks.

There’s a lot of walking through snow, a post survival coda that makes a last minute bid for the tissues and the message that love gives you something to live for. It’s not deep, there’s no action, but while the scenery make be cold, the film delivers a warm glow. (Vue Star City)

 

My Little Pony  (U)

It may be cantering for the preschool girl audience, but that’s surely no excuse for the uninspired animation and the plodding story for this big screen extension to the hugely successful TV series. But, if they adore it on TV, why bother upping production values if you don’t need to. As far as the story goes, the Mane 6, Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball again), Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), Pinkie Pie and Shutterfly  (both Andrea Libman) are getting ready for Equestria’s  annual Festival of Friendship when along comes the villainous Storm King (Liev Schreiber), his hedgehog sidekick Grubber and Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), an embittered unicorn with a broken horn,  to spoil everything, looking  to kidnap the  princesses and steal their power for themselves. The ponies escape, and go off in search of Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba) for help, a  journey that  involves them with a pirate captain (Zoe Saldana), a con-artist cat (Taye Diggs), an over-excitable  seapony (Kristin Chenoweth). It’s good to see some girl power, friendship, kindness and  self-reliance messages being trotted out while the song by Sia (who also voices  pop star Songbird Serenade) isn’t bad, but, while all those uncritical  little girls will be love it, faced with almost 100 minutes of bland sugary sweetness, grown-ups might well sympathise with the Storm King when he says  “I’m so totally over the cute pony thing!”   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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 from  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.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

The Snowman (15)

As a huge fan of Scandinavian crime author Jo Nesbø and his Harry Hole novels, the prospect of the character finally being brought to the screen with an adaptation of arguably the best in the series and with the inspired casting of Michael Fassbender and Let The Right One In director Tomas Anderson at the helm, anticipation was high. However, while by no means a disaster, this is disappointingly underwhelming.

It doesn’t help that the book is the seventh, by which time Hole’s character is firmly established, a celebrated Oslo detective who came to fame after cracking an Australian serial killer case, but also a self-destructive, chain-smoking alcoholic with a dysfunctional private life, and the screenplay struggles to provide much by way of background, characters such as former girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her hero-worshipping son Oleg and his boss  DCI Hagen are only lightly sketched.  And just who Toby Jones is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. On top of which, the film makes some radical departures from the book’s plot, including the fate of one of the major characters, but does at least stick to the basic set up that someone is abducting and killing (generally decapitating them with an electric noose) women (the latest being Chloe Sevigny)  and leaving a snowman at the site, the evidence suggesting that it may have something to do with them having children by unknown fathers.

Working alongside  Hole investigating the missing women before it becomes a homicide case is a new arrival from Bergen, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s got her own agenda involving wealthy but corrupt businessman  Arve Støp (JK Simmons). The disappearances also trace back to a case many years earlier, shown in flashbacks (although it takes a while to realise this), in which another disgraced  alcoholic cop (a bizarrely badly dubbed Val Kilmer) has been asked by a Bergen businessman (Adrian Dunbar) to investigate his wife’s disappearance.

Disjointed, the direction and the screenplay fumble joining the dots and, while the snow landscapes are impressively shot, there’s rarely any real sense of tension and certainly none of the bleakness of the novel, although the opening sequence as a fatherless young boy watches his mother drown herself in her car on a  frozen lake is undeniably chilling.

Still, as I say, on its own terms, it’s a reasonable enough crime thriller, suitably grisly in places and Fassbender does that world weary, hangdog thing well, but it simply lacks the essence of Jo Nesbø’s book. And, to crown it all, they don’t even get his name right. It’s pronounced Hu-ley not Hole. A bit of a snowballsup.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Victoria and Abdul  (PG)

An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown,  Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship.  This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.

Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the  many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers.  Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her  “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.

As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the  Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant,  bringing over his wife and mother-in-law  (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery,  the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby   (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor  (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.

Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed  all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal  any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot.   It’s pleasant and, once or twice  quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

The Electric Cinema  – 47–49 Station Street,  0121 643 7879

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich  0333 006 7777

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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