MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 30-Thu Oct 6

 

NEW RELEASE

Deepwater Horizon (12A) Although telling the story of how the titular offshore oil rig experienced a blow out on April 20, 2010, killing 11, injuring 17 and spilling 210 million US gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the biggest in the world and the worst environmental disaster is US history, Peter Berg’s film is pretty much your standard disaster movie. Firmly divided into the arrogant BP suits who took safety shortcuts and the heroic workers (most of whom look rather more cinematically attractive than the real-life counterparts) who questioned such decisions and  risked their lives to shut down the rig and save their colleagues, the former’s embodied in sneering exec Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and the latter in family man chief  electrician Mike Williams (Mark Whalberg) and his manager , Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), both of whom point out the many problems with the rig, not least BP’s decision not to carry out an essential safety check on the rig’s cement base from which deadly methane could leak if cracked. Providing support from the bridge is navigation crew member Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) who radios the mayday and is subsequently reprimanded by rig captain Kuchta, who also, later, tells her not to push the cut off button as she has no authority.

With heroes and villains clearly delineated, once the slow build up eventually results in the blow out and subsequent inferno, the film gets on with the disaster formula while, back home, Williams’ wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter (whose experiment with a Coke can foreshadows the events on the rig), the only crew family members to play any significant role, wait for news.

The film dutifully milks the exchanges between Harrell and Virdine to underline BP’s blasé disregard for its hired hands in the search for profit and, along with Rodriguez, Wahlberg duly does rugged determination to try and shut down the spill and get everyone off the towering, sorry, blazing inferno.

As such the film does exactly what it says on the label, albeit the technical jargon about negative pressure tests and the like will require an engineering degree to follow and there’s solid support turns from the likes of Ethan Suplee and Dylan O’Brien as crew members. However, despite being framed with audio of the real Williams’ testimony and some closing credit captions (one of which notes how the BP executives were charged with manslaughter but never prosecuted), other than mentioning how much oil was spilled, fails to give further detail of the environmental consequences or note that BP was found guilty of deliberate misconduct and gross negligence and the rig owners (Halliburton) and operators (Transocean) of being negligent. With Berg more at home in the chaos than the corporate malfeasance, it delivers hugely impressive effects, the rapid edits capturing the way the station turned into a volcano before many even knew there was anything wrong. It celebrates the heroism and the human spirit, but ultimately glosses over the real story. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years (12A)

the-beatles-eight-days-a-weekDirected by Ron Howard, this offers a month-by-month account of the band’s brief life as a live act, marrying both familiar and rare footage with new interviews (McCartney and Starr included), even touching on race issues with contributions from Whoopi Goldberg and African-American historian Kitty Oliver who recalls how the band refused to allow Southern promoters to segregate the audience at their shows. Exhausted by the four years of constant touring and looking to develop their music beyond the cute mop top image (not to mention burned by the backlash from Lennon’s bigger than Jesus quip), the band retreated to the recording studio to work on what would become Sgt Pepper. However, making good use of the concert footage (including a shot of  a young Sigourney Weaver at the Hollywood Bowl) this serves a reminder of the excitement they generated on stage, even if the screaming tended to pretty much drown out the music. (Electric; Mon: Everyman)

 

The Clan (15)

the-clan-01To all intents and purposes, having been granted immunity for his work as a member of the junta’s secret police, following the 1983 overthrow of the Argentinean dictatorship led by General Galtieri, Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella) was a respectable patriarch and businessman, his son, Alex (Peter Lanzani), a rising rugby star. However, Puccio, with the assistance of two sons, the complicity of his wife and the wilful ignorance of his daughters, also kidnapped four people for extortion between 1982 and 1985, the first being Alex’s teammate Ricardo Manoukian, killing three of them before the police broke into their Buenos Aires home to rescue businesswoman Nélida Bollini de Prado, who had been held hostage for a month earlier.

Directed by Pablo Trapero, intercutting between the kidnapping and the police raid on the house, this superbly crafted real life brilliantly thriller juggles politics, greed and family life, with Alex buying a surf shop and courting Monica (Stefanía Koessl), his decision to marry leading to his refusal to take part in the third kidnapping and being blamed by his father went it went pear-shaped. Often claustrophobic in its settings (the dining room, the bathroom and basement where the hostages are held), it vividly cuts between Alex and Monica having sex in his car and the torture of second victim Eduardo Aulet, while the screams of their fourth intrude into the domestic set up.

His implacable composed demeanour punctuated by glimpses of the ruthlessness behind the face, Francella is hugely impressive, even if the film – which makes knowingly use of songs such as The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, never really gives much insight into motivations (Puccio never doubted his actions, claiming to the authorities he was forced into carrying out orders by shadowy political figures) while the film draws clear parallels between family and a country struggling to establish democracy.  (MAC)

 

Free State of Jones (15)

free-state-of-jones
Directed and co-written by  Gary Ross, best known, perhaps for the first Hunger Games, this tells the true story of how, during the American Civil War,  sickened by the slaughter and of fighting to preserve the lifestyles of wealthy cotton plantation owners whose own sons could be exempted from the fighting if the family had enough slaves, Confederate medic Newton Knight (a  heavily bearded Matthew McConaughey) deserted, returned to Jones County, Mississippi, and formed a guerilla army  of fellow deserters and escaped slaves, living in the bayous and fighting back against Confederate tax collectors, eventually  declaring the Free State of Jones.  Previously married to Serena (Keri Russell), by whom he had a son, Knight also had a second son by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a freed slave, who he took as his common law wife.

With solid support from Mahershala Ali as Moses, who became one of the first freedmen when Abraham Lincoln’s anti slavery laws went through Congress, only to be lynched by the Klan when he stood for election, all of this is told with close attention to historical detail, both in the narrative and in title cards. Much is compelling stuff, especially the well-staged battle sequences and Knight’s confrontations with the local Confederate command, repulsing their forces to take control of  three counties. But Ross just doesn’t seem to know where to stop, overloading the film with brief scenes of Klan burnings and the like, until it becomes almost a series of episodic incidents in an effort to cram in all of Knight’s history. It also comes as a jolt when the film suddenly flashes forward 85 years to a courtroom scene when one of his descendents is being tried for miscegeny in marrying a white woman when he is, according to Mississippi laws, predominantly Negro. The frequent returns to the courtroom may be pertinent in showing how the abolition of slavery did nothing to end racism, but it feels clumsy and disrupts the body of the film. It’s an important and often involving work, but you can’t help feeling Ross’s pedagogic  intent might have been better served as a documentary. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall)

 

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

miss-peregrine

Adapted from Ransom Rigg’s young emo  bestseller with a screenplay by Jane Goldman and directed by Tim Burton, this is a sort of X-Men meets Groundhog Day   and comes complete with a houseful of mutant kids, time loops and scary monsters.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Purnell’s the best of a variable cast of characters that are given little by the way of depth, but, fatally, the usually reliable Butterworth, struggling with his American accent (something that’s the subject of a throwaway in-joke) is a blank while a consciously brittle Green is far too knowing for her own and the film’s good. Not until the customarily scenery-gobbling Jackson eventually shows up is there anything remotely resembling fun.  While enjoyable enough in parts, though decidedly scary in parts for the younger audience members,at the end of the day it’s more wan than weird. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Southside With You (12A)

southsidewithyou Unavailable for preview, this romantic drama from first time director Richard Tanne tells of the first date (they go and see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) and subsequent romance between future president of the United States, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and his first lady, Michelle Obama (Tika Sumpter). Well aware of her status as an up-and-coming female black lawyer, she feels at a disadvantage to the man she’s advising who’s now asking for a date, he challenges her assumptions and anxieties while she calls him on his past as a dope user in high school and his resentment towards his mostly absent late father. Dialogue heavy, it fancies itself a real life version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but the hagiographic approach softens any suggestion of anything more the mildest of criticisms.  (Cineworld NEC)

 

Swiss Army Man (15)

swiss-army-manYou can’t fault this for being unoriginal. Cast away on a deserted island, Hank (Paul Dano) is about to hang himself when he sees a body washed up on the shore. This turns out to be Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who is very clearly dead. He also happens to be filled with gas and, when he sees the body start twitching, he again abandons his suicide attempt and, by employing a cork stuffed up Manny’s arse, uses him as a sort of fart-propelled jet-ski to get to land.

Off the island, but no nearer any civilisation, Hank forms a bond with his corpse companion who would seem to come back to a sort of zombie-like life (though, this may all be in Hank’s mind), using his farts for a variety of purposes (including scaring off a bear and flying) and the body for others, such as chopping wood and providing a source of drinking water. When Manny displays an attraction a photo of a woman on Hank’s phone, Hank takes to dressing up in a drag, reflecting his own obsession with the woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he saw on a bus, as they ritualistically enact the relationship that he never had the nerve to pursue. Mercifully writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert eschew necrophilia, but there is plenty of talk about masturbation while Manny’s active erect penis serves as a sort of compass.

It is by far the most unusual role of Radcliffe’s career and he gives a wholly vanity-free performance, exposing his backside, talking through twisted expressions and vomiting water, while the ultra-intense Dano fully indulges in the arch theatricality. However, featuring an all vocal score by the Manchester Orchestra, its conjuring of a fractured mind and any commentary on suppressed masculinity and the inability to form relationships is eclipsed by the sheer barking nature of the premise, one which increasingly challenges audiences to remain in their seats the longer it continues. It’s actually quite touching at the end, but it’s also experimental theatre at its most pretentious. (Cineworld NEC)

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Anthropoid (15)

-anthropoidIn 1942, using the codename Operation Anthropoid,  the Czech government in exile sent two agents, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis (played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, respectively) back to their homeland  to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called Butcher of Prague, Hitler’s third in command and the architect of the Final Solution. Although the attempt was bungled, it did succeed, although none of the agents or resistance members involved survived and the Nazi response was brutal. Like the Daniel Craig film, Defiance, this, directed by Sean Ellis, tells a little known story from the Second World War, highlighting unsung heroes who fought against Nazi tyranny to liberate their people. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as good.

Making their way to Prague after parachuting into Czechoslovakia and  avoid betrayal by a collaborator (wherein we see Kubis unable to shoot for his hand literally shaking with nerves, a moment inevitably revisited towards the end), they hook up with the surviving members of the resistance (Toby Jones among them) and enlist two local girls,  Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová) to pose as their girlfriends as they scout out the surroundings and plan the assassination, Gabcik and Kubis naturally falling for their respective women.

Since no one survived the superbly staged Cathedral gun-battle  after the pair were betrayed or the subsequent Nazi reprisals, pretty much everything on screen is surmised and, as such, frequently steeped in the clichés of resistance movies. Although Doran and Murphy are capable as  Kubis and the more aggressively resolute  Gabcik, the result, shot with disorientingly unsteady camerawork,  is a frequently flat and wooden affair, only coming to dramatic life in the final moments. “Boredom may be the biggest enemy we have here,” one of the resistance observes, audiences may feel likewise.  (Vue Star City)

 

Bad Moms (15)

bad momsConsidering this was written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the screenwriters of the Hangover trilogy, it will no surprise to learn that the comedy makes extensive use of  crude sexual gags and similarly coarse humour. What is a surprise is  how insightful and sympathetic it is about mothers trying cope with demanding kids, absent or useless fathers and, for some, hold down a  job at the same time. Chicago-based Amy (Mila Kunis) falls into all three categories. Pregnant and married at 20, her kids, neurotic overachiever Jane  and slacker  Dylan, expect to have everything done for them, she’s working far longer than her part-time agreement at a coffee company run by people barely out of training pants, has to all the shopping and housework and, to top it all, she’s caught her husband  (David Walton) having an online affair with someone on sex room website. When she says  the only thing she’s good at is being late, she’s only half joking.

No wonder she’s frazzled and doesn’t take kindly to the patronising attitude of bullying,  catty  privileged PTA president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her sidekicks, Stacy (an underused Jada Pinkett Smith) and the dim Vicky (Annie Murnolo). Blowing a fuse one night, she winds up in a bar  and bonding with brash, sexually forthright foul-mouthed single mom Carla (a go for it Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell), a clueless mother of four unruly kids whose controlling husband expects her to do everything (she fantasies of being hospitalised in a  car accident so she can get some rest). Agreeing that these days it’s almost impossible to be a good mom, they decide to be bad instead.

Which basically means slo-mo trashing a supermarket, making the kids get their own breakfast, cutting PTA meeting and even going to the movies during the day. Then, following a  Bake Sale incident with Gwendolyn, Amy decides to run against her for PTA president, which, in turn, means more slo-mo, this time at a boozy meet the candidate house party fuelled by cheap wine and dance music. There’s also the sub plot about the hot widowed decent dad (Jay Hernandez)  to whom Amy takes a shine, and the return of her husband looking to save the marriage (cue a very funny counselling session).

It’s a fairly predictable template in which the bully gets their comeuppance and the misfits come out on top, but, in great part down to the terrific energy and chemistry of the three leads (and some often hilarious improvisation, notably Carla using Kiki’s hoody to demonstrate how to have sex with an uncircumcised penis), it never feels tired while the one-liners are always dead on target.

It gets a little sentimental at the end (which includes a credits sequence of the stars with their own mothers, Bell’s being a dead ringer for Diane Keaton), but by this time it’s more than earned its right to tug at the heartstrings  too. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Ben-Hur (12A) Originally made in 1926 as a silent and then as the three hour plus Charlton Heston epic in 1959, the 1880 novel now gets another remake courtesy of Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, one that on track to be the biggest box office bomb of the year.  The screenplay is loosely faithful to the book a such that Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, a Jewish prince in Jerusalem falls foul of his Roman childhood friend, Messala (Toby Kebbell)  following an incident involving the Roman governor (here Pontius Pilate played by Pilou Asbæk) and sent off to slave in the Roman galleys, unaware of the fate of his mother (Ayelet Zurer) or sister (Sofia Black B’Elia). Some years later, free, seeking revenge, Judah takes on Messala in a chariot race. All of which comes with a parallel subplot involving Christ, his eventual crucifixion and Judah’s conversion to the new faith,

However, things have also been tweaked considerably. Now, Messala, the grandson of a disgraced nobleman involved in the Julius Caesar conspiracy) is Judah’s adopted brother (who has a thing for his ‘sister’), Judah marries family serving girl Esther (Nazanin Boniadi)  considerably earlier in the plot while Messala heads off to earn his advancement in a montage of battle scenes. Returned home, now  the incident involving Pilate is an attempted assassination by young zealot whom Judah (who would rather not trouble the waters by upsetting the Romans) was misguidedly harbouring and for which he claims responsibility and, feeling  betrayed, Messala duly dispatches him to the galleys (arguably the best scenes). Liberation here  comes following a  furious sea battle wherein he’s washed up on shore and tended to by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), an African chariot-racing entrepreneur who ultimately facilitates the big race, (here back in Jerusalem not Rome) and, in keeping with local carpenter Jesus’s love thy neighbour message, the film now has a ridiculous everyone reunited happy ending.

Visually, it’s often spectacular, but, in addition to the meandering and at times repetitive screenplay, neither Huston or Kebbell have the necessary screen charisma to carry things off (Freeman sleepwalks through it and still steals everything) and the whole thing, while not exactly terrible, is just dull and inert and lacking in persuasive dramatic plausibility, to which end, long before it enters the circus you’re like to find yourself wishing that sweet chariot would come to carry you home.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

The BFG (PG)One of the attractions of Roald Dahl’s stories is that they are not all sweetness and light, there is a darkness and scariness to them in which children delight. Initially, it seems as though director Steven Spielberg and the late Melissa Mathison’s screenplay (she also wrote E.T.) might be remaining true to Dahl’s tone as it appears that, after plucking 10-year-old orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, who makes her initially bossy character endearing without being cloyingly cute) from her orphanage bed after she sees him walking London’s night-time streets from her window, he may actually be preparing to fry her up for his dinner. However, inevitably such darkness gives way to a more soft, family friendly approach about the importance of dreams.

Although the ending is different, for the most part it’s faithful to the book’s setting (the 80s, including a reference to the Reagans) and story as, carried away to Giant Country to stop her and telling everyone that giants are real, Sophie quickly becomes friends with her enormous-eared abductor, the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), or, as she calls him, the BFG. It turns out that, a sort of country bumpkin, he too is a lonely misfit, bullied by his far bigger water-phobic fellow giants who, unlike him, are cannibals (and love snacking on human beans while he eats stinky Snozzcumbers), go by such names as Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher and Meatdripper and refer to him as Runt.

He also reveals that his visits to the land of humans are not about gathering tasty morsels, but to blow pleasant bottled dreams through the windows of sleeping children. He collects and crafts these dreams by travelling through a magical pool to the upside down world of Dream Country and netting the “phizzwizards” of which they are made. The scene where he takes Sophie along with him is like something out of Fantasia, even if John Williams’ orchestral score is (as throughout the film) rather overpowering.

However, when Sophie drops her handkerchief,  Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) puts his enhanced sense of smell to work and tries and track her down, prompting her to devise a plan to enlist the Queen (Penelope Wilton) in capturing the giants and stopping their children-eating raids. While it also entails the film’s biggest child-friendly fart scene, one not in the book, as the royal household, Korgis included, quaff the BFG’s frobscottle, resulting in an outburst of “whizzpoppers”.

The film’s biggest attraction is the BFG himself, facially designed to look like a distorted version of Rylance who, speaking in Dahl’s “gobblefunk”, brings huge warmth, soul and humanity to the role.

On the  downside,  the plot simply isn’t enough to sustain almost two hours, meaning there’s an awful lot of repetition and, with very little happening, it often feels sluggish, likely to cause much fidgeting among the small  children  who are its main audience.  There are, indeed, times when it is a thing of wonder, but, unfortunately, also too many when it’s just hugely wearisome. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza, West Brom;  Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue  Star City)

Blair Witch (15)

blair-witchIn 1999, adopting the premise of being an assemblage of video recordings found in the Maryland woods, made by a group of teenagers who vanished without trace, indie horror The Blair Witch Project, written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, was hailed as a genre landmark and launched the subsequent flood of found footage films. The largely unconnected sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was, however, terrible and a third instalment never materialised. Now, 17 years on (and set in that same timeframe) and without the duo’s  involvement, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have come up with a direct sequel wherein James Donahue (James Allen McCune), whose elder sister Heather was one of those in the first film, is convinced she’s still alive. All the more so when he finds found footage on the internet in which a figure he believes to be her appears inside a house.  As such, his determination sees college friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) offering to document his quest and persuaded to join him and their friends Ashley (Corbin Reid) and her boyfriend Peter (Brandon Scott) on a journey into the Black Hills

First, however, they need visit the people who uploaded the footage, local Blair Witch obsessives Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry,) who insist on accompanying them. It’s not long before all six are lost in the woods, simmering animosity growing between the two groups. The first night proves eventful as the familiar wooden symbols appear around their tents and things just proceed to go from bad to worse, time no longer makes sense and members of the group either disappear or come to an unpleasant end, finally leaving James and Lisa to stumble upon the old, abandoned house which was never found in the original search for the missing teenagers.

Although advances in technology now mean there are more devices on which to record the footage from different perspectives, when you get down to it this is simply just the first film with the same disorienting camerawork and noises, but different characters stumbling through the darkness and screaming. The performances deliver what’s required, but the writing doesn’t expand their characters to any depth and, while it often comes up with ingenuous ways to get footage, at the end of the day it largely boils down to dizzying shots of them running through trees and bushes, although there is one sequence that will have claustrophobics squirming.  The sound mix, while it can be overbearing at times, is probably the best thing here and, unless you’ve never seen the original film, even with the added gore, this retread ultimately can’t avoid the problem of trying to pull off the same surprise twice. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Bridget Jones’s Baby (12A)

bridget-joness-baby-750x490Helen Fielding’s hapless singleton returns to the  big screen, reunited with the first film’s director, Sharon Maguire, and a script by Fielding and Dan Mazer (tweaked by Emma Thompson) that works from the former’s 2005 newspaper columns rather than her third novel. Which means Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is alive and married, though not to Bridget (Renee Zellweger), who, we meet blowing out the single candle on her cupcake to mark her 43rd  birthday.  After a  quick flashback (she’s still working as a TV producer, now for the Hard News programme and Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver is missing, believed dead), the plot gets into traction as she’s persuaded by the show’s presenter, Miranda (Sarah Solemani) to join her for a weekend music festival  where she accidentally ends up sleeping with an American called Jack (Patrick Dempsey). Then, having first bumped into him at Cleaver’s memorial, just over a week later, she also meets up with Darcy again, this time when they’re both godparents at a christening and, learning that he’s going through a  divorce, they too end up in bed.

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

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

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

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

Although Bridget 2 was by no means a disaster, this, if not quite up to the level of the first,  is far superior, effectively mixing together hilarity and poignancy in a script that is at home with physical slapstick as it is one liners.  Thompson is a delight as Bridget’s bemused gynaecologist while further solid support comes from returning cast members  that include Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s dad, James Callis (gay mate Tom), Celia Imrie (Una), Neil Pearson (station manager Richard) and Sally Philips as best friend Shazzer.  Firth fits right back in as Darcy, the top QC who has problems articulating his emotions, while Dempsey is terrific as nice guy Jack, suddenly discovering that love isn’t just a theoretical proposition. However, as ever, it’s Zellweger who is the film’s heart and who again proves herself one of the finest comedy actresses around with the capability of also tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.  It’s been a long gestation, but the end result delivers a bouncy bundle of joy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Brotherhood (15) When Noel Clarke made his screenwriting debut with Kidulthood,  despite some narrative flaws, he was hailed as a new shining star of the British film industry. For the sequel, Adulthood, he also added directing to his CV, as well as starring in both films as inner city London school and subsequently homeboy psycho Sam Peel. However, this time round, grudging praise for his debut was replaced by less favourable critical comments, being dismissed in one review as ‘hoodie porn’. Perhaps inevitably then, the third in the trilogy which he’s again writer-director-star, has already been tagged with a similar condemnation as ‘gangster porn’.

It picks up the story some years on from Adulthood (in which  he’d been released after serving time for killing fellow teen Trevor) with Sam, married to Sariya (Olivia Chenery) with two kids (and another daughter unaware he’s her dad), now on the straight and narrow and trying to hold down a number of jobs to take care of the family. Not that this stops him giving in to desire when a naked Eastern European woman spreads her legs for him. When his brother, an up and coming singer, is shot to send Sam a message, he finds himself involved with  Daley (a suitably menacing Jason Meza), a gang boss involved in sex trafficking (cue numerous naked women as set dressing) and his henchmen, headed up by the sadistic Hugs (Leeshon Alexand) , who  also include a character played by  rapper Stormzy, who probably shouldn’t give up the day job.

All of which turns out to be a convoluted (and badly scripted) way of bringing Sam back face– to-face with Curtis (Cornell John), who, out of jail, wants payback for Trevor’s death, but not until he’s forced Sam to revive the bad boy side of himself he’s tried to bury. On top of which, as you’ll no doubt have guessed from Sam’s indiscretion earlier, a video duly arrives at home causing the missus to take off with the kids.

Bizarrely, given the overall grim and gritty urban tone with its brutal violence (one recurring character doesn’t make it to the end credits), Clarke also ladles on a huge dose of comic relief in the form of Henry (Arnold Oceng), Sam’s brother’s mate, who, drawn into ferrying Sam around in his Prius, tries to keep things from the wife with a running gag about a Sainsbury’s discount card and who is constant worrying that his son’s not really his. It’s very  funny, as are his attempts to act street, but it feels at odds with everything else. All the more so when, strong though the scene is,  things suddenly switch as he tries to talk one of the gang out of a life of violence.

But then the film’s uneven throughout, as indeed is the acting, the screenplay particularly clumsy in places (why does gang girl Poppy suddenly switch sides?), There are some really solid moments, but these are undermined by the plethora of clichés, clumsy plot shifts and any number of holes on the screenplay. Judging by the preview screening, there’s still a considerable audience out there to see things wrap up, but it’s definitely time Clarke put this increasingly tired saga to bed.   (Showcase Walsall; Vue  Star City)

 

Café Society (12A)

cafe 3Amiable and amusing, at times melancholic, set in the 1930s Woody Allen’s 49th feature is yet another homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood that  ticks off familiar themes of fate, class, doomed romance, guilt and, of course, his love/hate relationship with the movie industry. However, it never quite seems to know what it actually wants to be about.  Divided into three acts, in the first, Jewish Bronx kid Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) decides he’s had enough of working for his jeweller father (Ken Stott) and moves to Hollywood, looking to get work with his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), Tinseltown’s hottest agent who takes him on as a sort of errand boy and promises to introduce him around. He also arranges for his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him the town. Naturally, besotted with her beauty and won over by her down to earth attitude in a town where everyone’s namedropping, he quickly falls for her. She’s fond of him too, but says she has a boyfriend. In fact, she’s actually Phil’s secret mistress, setting up a line in romantic farce when they both learn each want to marry the same woman.

The second part of the story flashes forward a few years. Bobby’s now back in New York, running his charismatic gangster brother Ben’s (Corey Stoll) highly fashionable and successful nightclub, a well-known figure in café society  and married to divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively). Meanwhile his sister and her mild-mannered husband are having problems with the next door neighbor, something Ben takes it upon himself to fix.

The third act  kicks off when Phil and Vonnie turn up on a visit and, although both have changed, old feelings stir, then, after things with Ben take a turn, Bobby travels to L.A. and  again spends time with Vonnie, the film ending on New Year’s Eve with scenes set in the two cities.

Romantic melancholia is the overall tone, but Allen can’t resist the comedy side of things, at times running parallel to the main narrative (Ben’s habit of bumping people off and burying them in cement is played as a running joke), yet, at others, having no real bearing on proceedings, as in the admittedly funny but ultimately redundant scene in which Bobby organises a hooker only to turn out to be her first ever client leading to them arguing over him just telling her to take the money.  Likewise, Bobby’s bicoastal benefactors (Parker Posey, Paul Schneider) always seem on the verge of a subplot without ever getting there

Inevitably there’s plenty of humorous one liners, but you can’t help feeling that the film is wandering around looking for a focus, but never quite finding it. (Everyman)

 

Don’t Breathe (15)

Jane Levy stars in Screen Gems' horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE.

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

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

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

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

 

Finding Dory (U) Thirteen years after Finding Nemo  swam to Oscar glory, Pixar  have gone back into the water for a sequel, this time putting the focus on Dory (a terrific Ellen DeGeneres), the blue tang with short-term memory loss who helped grumpy clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) find and rescue his missing son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence).

Despite what the title suggests, it’s not just a simple rerun of the original. Yes, Dory goes missing and has to be rescued when she’s scooped up from the ocean and taken to the Marine Life Institute, a Californian fish hospital and conservation centre (with Sigourney Weaver as its audio tour guide) where its patients either become part of the exhibits before being returned to the ocean or are shipped to an aquarium in Cleveland.  However, this is less about Marlin and Nemo finding Dory, than Dory finding herself.

Following a flashback that shows her parents, Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton), looking to protect her from coming to any harm because of her short-term memory loss and to always follow the shells that will lead her home, inevitably, things go wrong and Dory gets swept away, forgetting all about her home and her parents.  Fast forward to a year after Finding Nemo, and, after a knock on the head, the now grown Dory suddenly has a brief memory burst. She remembers her parents.

The details are fuzzy, but now she’s aware that she’s lost and needs to find her family and home, which, as further flashes reveal, are somewhere called Jewel of Morro Bay. And so, accompanied by Marlin and Nemo, she sets off from the Great Barrier Reef to California where she’s sure her parents will still be waiting for her.

And so, after a narrow escape from a giant squid (in which Nemo’s almost killed, prompting Marlin to snap at Dory “Go wait over there and forget. It’s what you do best”), the three friends finally arrive at the Institute.

Inside, Dory finds herself tagged and informed by Hank (Ed O’Neill), a grumpy seven-tentacled octopus with chameleon-like abilities, that this means she’ll be shipped off to Cleveland. However, if she agrees to give the tag to him (so he can have a peaceful specimen life in the aquarium), he’ll help her escape Quarantine and look for her parents.  What follows is a series of mishaps as Dory tries to get to the Open Ocean exhibit where she’s convinced her parents are being kept and Marlin and Nemo try to find Dory, all of which variously involves an excessively talkative oyster, a pair of territorial sea-lions (Dominic West and Idris Elba), a wild-eyed loon bird, Dory’s short-sighted childhood whale shark friend Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale who’s convinced his echolocation no longer works.

As well the fraught journeys through the sunken wreck and the Institute, unlikely as it may seem, the film also contrives to introduce a truck chase action climax that sees Ed taking a very tentacles-on role and is arguably the funniest sequence. In decided contrast to  the Touch Pool, which presents  the interactive exhibit from the terrifying perspective of those being handled and will surely make kids think twice next time they’re at some Sea-Life centre.

That Dory and her folks will be reunited is never in doubt, but even so the needle swings all across the emotional scales, surely likely to bring a lump to the throat when, echoing Marlin, our memory-challenged heroine asks herself “what would Dory do?”   The theme of family is frequently sounded, but the film also reminds audiences to appreciate the moment and the things that make life worth remembering as well as, for all those who feel like outsiders, a reminder that they are not alone and to be who they are.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)

The Girl With All The Gifts (15)

girlExtensively filmed in Birmingham, adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel and directed by Colm McCarthy, this post-apocalypse thriller posits a future where mankind has been devastated by a virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, hungries, who are attracted to their victims through smell.

Within a military compound run by hard-nosed Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine),  scientist Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is working on a cure, her lab rats being a collection of children born to infected parents (cue a particularly gory description of how the kids ate their way out of the womb), by removing  the subject’s brain and spinal fluid. Incarcerated in cells, the kids, strapped into wheelchairs, are given daily classroom education by  Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who’s developed a particular bond with the genial and helpful  Melanie (impressive newcomer Sennia Nanua). However, physical contact is forbidden, as demonstrated by Parks who, wiping his skin of the pheromone-blocking gel, he causes one of the children to go into hungry mode. Needless to say, neither he nor Caldwell regard the subjects as children, referring to them as it and any emotional cues as the “exquisite mimicry of learned behaviour.” Only Justineau sees them as a human.

When the base is overrun, Justineau, an injured Caldwell, Melanie, Parks and accompanying cannon fodder take off to try and make it to the Beacon HQ. Parks still sees the girl as dangerous, Caldwell still wants to use her for a serum and Justineau still wants to protect her, while, out in hungries territory, the muzzled Melanie is actually their best chance of survival.

As such, the film transitions to road movie mode as the dwindling band have to navigate hungries-infested territory (spookily, they stand immobile until a smell or a noise awakens them), the landscapes reclaimed by nature, and, for a while it starts to feel somewhat repetitive, until two discoveries shift the balance of things once again.

It gathers its potency again in the final act where things don’t play out quite as you might have expected, the film blending some bloody sequences with a  strong moral resonance and thematic thread as well as the occasional flash of black humour (not one for cat lovers, though). Considine, Arterton and Close deliver what’s required, but are never much more than two dimensional characters, leaving Nanua to do the heavy lifting and, while her inexperience occasionally shows, she brings an intense emotional power to her character, struggling to balance her need for human connection with her need for blood. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hell or High Water  (15)

hell-or-high-Following gritty prison drama Starred Up,  Scottish director David Mackenzie makes his American feature debut with an excursion into Texas noir territory courtesy of a script by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan.  Set in a dying West Texas dustbowl of foreclosures, debt billboards and boarded up buildings, it wastes no time in opening with a bank robbery, two men in ski masks storming into a small Texas Midlands bank, but then having to wait until the manager arrives to open the safe.

The men are brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard, the former a divorced down on his luck rancher, the latter a sociopathic ex-con with an aggressive streak. He’s agreed to help Toby rob enough Texas Midland branches to raise the cash to stave off the bank’s foreclosure on the family ranch as the debt owed by their recently deceased mother falls due. Toby wants to keep the ranch in the family and put in trust for his two sons, for whom he’s never really been there. Especially since oil’s just been found on the land. Tanner just likes the thrill.

As the robberies are too small to interest the big boys, soon to retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the butt of his good natured racial stereotype insults, are drafted in, the former gradually piecing together a pattern and joining the dots to figure out where the pair will eventually strike.

Before it gets to the inevitable shoot-out climax, Mackenzie takes time to trace the relationship between the two sets of mismatched men, playing the Marcus and Alberto scenes with a dry humour while focusing the emotional content on the brothers, but all the while keeping the film’s state of the nation political themes (the little guy vs. the bankers) clearly in focus. There’s a nice use of scene mirroring too in Toby’s encounter with a diner’s sympathetic and equally struggling waitress  and Marcus and Alberto’s less friendly (but very funny) encounter with her mean-tongued aged counterpart (Margaret Bowman) in another steakhouse.

As you might imagine, there’s a strong Western flavour to proceedings with frequent references to the dying breed of cowboys as well as subtly suggesting the banks and the ranchers to be the cavalry and Native-Americans, respectively,   and the film is careful to avoid any black and white moralising as regards the brothers’ motivations and actions, bringing instead a sense of fate and destiny that culminates in a High Sierra-like desert stand-off.

There’s a certain predictability (there’s clear hints as to who lives and who dies), but equally times when it takes you to unexpected places, closing on an emotionally resonant open-ended coda. The core performances are excellent, Pine carrying a weight of guilt and obligation in his eyes, Foster always suggesting Tanner might kick off at any moment, but never less than loyal to his brother, while Bridges delivers a quietly understated but compelling turn.  It’s a well-crafted, slow burn, tense affair that could well loom large come awards season.  (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

Hunt For the Wilderpeople (12A)

huntMaori-Jewish New Zealand director Taika Waititi has made a name for himself for quirkily off-kilter comedies that also have an emotional heft, notably Eagle vs Shark and vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, to the extent that he’s now at the helm of  Thor: Ragnorak. Meanwhile, his fourth feature is quietly doing the rounds with to glowing reviews.

After being returned from a succession of foster homes,  troublesome, rap-loving plus-size 13-year-old orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is being given one last chance before juvie, as hard-nosed child welfare officer Paula (Rachel House) dumps him with outback couple Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grouchy, illiterate husband Hec (Sam Neill). Although he initially tries to run away, he’s eventually won over by Bella’s warmth and affection and, while Hec is less amenable, it finally seems as though he’s found family.

Which, of course, is when death steps in and sees Ricky, who composes haikus to express his feelings,  threatened with being taken back into care, prompting him to try and fake his death and take off into the  bush, Hec following to bring him back. All of which is misconstrued by the pugnacious Paula who  assumes the boy’s been kidnapped by Hec and launches a manhunt. With Hec injured and both unaware of what’s going on,  accompanied by their two dogs,  the pair wind up  spending several weeks in the great outdoors, matters getting worse when, oblivious to the innuendos as he describes his experiences with his ‘uncle’ to a group of hunters, Hec, himself an ex-con,  is presumed to be a paedophile, leading to even more law officers being drafted in, along with bounty hunters and, eventually, the army, as well as an encounter with oddball conspiracy theorist bush hermit Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby).

 

Firmly in the mismatched buddy genre, there’s no heavy duty sentimentality in the bonding between the Ricky and the prickly Hec (himself an outsider), and, while a connection does form, it is done so with grudging reluctance on the latter’s part. But that simply adds to the charm and humour of a film that, divided into chapters, cleverly switches tone, but always keeps you engaged. Beautifully shot with stunning scenery, both female supports are excellent (even if Paula does verge on caricature), but, both making full use of Waititi’s  terrific dialogue, it’s the outstanding core performances by Dennison and Neil that are the film’s biggest strength. Hunt it down.  (Electric; MAC)

 

The Infiltrator (15)

infiltratorBryan Cranston’s best work since Breaking Bad, he plays Robert Mazur, an FBI agent who, in 1986, realising the war on drugs could best be won by following the money not the drugs, persuades his non-nonsense boss (Amy Ryan) to let him go undercover and infiltrate the cartel headed up by Pablo Escovar. As such, posing as money launderer high roller Bob Musella, working his way up the chain by way of creepy money manager Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), he eventually hooks up with Escobar’s suave right hand man, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and is soon accepted as part of the network, although, by now, it has entailed  him having to recruit first time undercover agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) to act as his globetrotting fiancée, something that further intensifies and complicates the operation, especially when his fake and real world clash during a dinner with his actual wife (Juliet Aubrey).

Mining territory familiar from such films as Donnie Brasco, directed by Brad Furman, who made The Lincoln Lawyer, this makes no great play of conflicting loyalties to duty and new friends, but does clearly address the emotional toll it exacts as both Mazur and Ertz find themselves living rather than acting the roles. Also featuring a solid support turn from John Leguzamo as his Customs agent partner Emir Le Abreu, it never lets the tension slip, keeping you gripped right up to the final sting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

 Kubo and the Two Strings (PG)

kuboA combination of CGI and stop motion animation, the latest from Laika, begins with a voice announcing   “If you must blink, do it now” as, set in a feudal Japan,  it  opens with a woman in a small boat battling against mountainous waves with the help of her magical shamisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed lute. Washed up on the shore with her  one-eyed baby, the film flashes forward, the child, now grown to a boy, Kubo (Art Parkinson), spending his nights caring for his mother, who drifts in and out of a sort of catatonic depression  in their mountain top cave, and his days telling stories to the local villagers, using the shamisen to create animated origami shapes, most particularly that of a samurai based on Hanzo, his father, who died saving them from the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), Kubo’s grandfather, who took his son’s eye. Unfortunately, Kubo never gets to end his stories as he must always be back in the cave before night falls.

However, one day, after an old dear (Brenda Vaccaro) tells him how the villagers honour those who have passed on by conjuring their spirits in lanterns, Kubo seeks to do the same with his father. Nothing happens, but as the sun goes down a cloud of darkness forms, from which emerge The Sisters (Rooney Mara), the twin daughters of the Moon King, come to take his other eye. Rescued by his mother, seemingly at the cost of her life, Kubo finds himself alone – save for a no-nonsense talking monkey (Charlize Theron), the talisman that’s been brought to life in his mother’s last magical act.

Learning that,  to defeat the Moon King, he must finds his father’s lost indestructible sword and powerful armour, the pair (and the origami Hanzo) are joined on their quest by a samurai that once served Kubo’s father and is now cursed to take the form of a humanoid beetle (Matthew McConaughey channelling George Clooney) who’s ace with a bow, but comes up a little short in the brains department. As the tale unfolds, further secrets are revealed about Kubo’s family background and protectors.

Drawing on Japanese mythology, the story is as enchanting and mysterious as the setting within which it unfolds and the metaphors it embraces.  Visually breathtaking, it mixes action, adventure and humour with a liberal helping of philosophy about family, loyalty and the value of memories, though the meaning of the title never becomes clear until the final showdown between Kubo and his grandfather. In keeping with its interwoven spiritual themes of family, loss, grief and how those who have passed live on, it also substitutes vengeance for forgiveness and redemption in a climax and coda that are unexpectedly very moving. The race for the Animation Oscar just got very interesting.   (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lights Out (15) Produced by James Wan, but directed by first timer David Sandberg, this is based on his short film of the same name in which a woman switches a light on and off, and every time it is a off a female figure is framed in a doorway, the film ending in a scream. It remains the most effective thing here, this time taking place in a textile factory and culminating in the death of the owner, Paul. He’s father to young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who’s concerned that his mentally-ill mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) seems to spend a lot of time talking to an imaginary friend. That and the noises he hears a night mean he’s not sleeping, to which end the school nurse contacts his older step-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who, recalling her own similar experiences,  takes him off to the flat above a tattoo parlour she sometime shares with arms-length boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia).

So much for set up. With Martin having to return to his mom. Rebecca starts digging round and miraculously comes across cassette tape from her mother’s childhood days in a mental hospital  that, conveniently  starting from the necessary expositionary moment, reveals she had a mentally disturbed fellow patient friend named Diana who died during the course of some experimental light treatment. Could it be the same Diana mom talks to and whose long-taloned, wild-haired figure is framed in the  bedroom doorway back home and attacks both her and Martin! So they and Bret decide to stage an intervention with bipolar Sophie.

All of which makes for some predictable but clunky  jolt moments and various characters’ (including two cops) obligatory stupid decisions as everyone contrives to find different (and, it must be said, sometimes ingenious) ways to keep the place lit up. Which is fine as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go that far. The screenplay feels half-formed and has some woefully bad dialogue while the whole subject of mental illness is never used for anything more than a plot device. And, despite  his grisly death at the start, there’s barely any subsequent mention of Paul and it remains vague as to what happened to his predecessor. As the original short suggested, there was real scare potential in the concept. A pity so little of it made its way into the full length version.  (Vue Star City)

The Magnificent Seven (12A)

magnifYet another remake of a cinema classic (strictly speaking it’s a remake of a remake, since the original was a western variation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), director Antoine Fuqua putting   a spin on John Sturges’s 1960 masterpiece in which a bunch of guns for hire come together to protect a Mexican town from a bunch of bandits.  Here the town in need of protection being Rose Creek, a frontier community of homesteaders trying to make new lives for themselves while the bandits have been replaced by a ruthless mining baron, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), whose pressed many locals into working in the mine and is pressuring the others into selling up their land at rock bottom prices.

Having disrupted a town meeting, burned down the church and murdered a few of the townsfolk, he’s given them three weeks to decide – or face the consequences

To which end, having just been widowed in the confrontation, feisty Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett) sets out to find help. Enter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a sort of legalised bounty hunter, who, impressed at seeing him in action against a wanted killer and a bunch of other gunnies, she approaches with a deal.

Wearing black in a nod to the character played by Yul Brynner in the original, Chisolm agrees, not least since he has his own history with Bogue (exactly what’s not revealed until the end) and sets about recruiting the rest of the titular cast. Although one of the original seven was Mexican, Fuqua’s line-up is more multi-ethnic, lining up as hard-drinking but charmer cardsharp Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), shell-shocked Civil War Confederate sharpshooter legend Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his loyal knife-throwing Chinese sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), bulky mountain man tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche loner Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Then, having rid the town of the mercenaries and corrupt lawmen and liberated the mineworkers, they have a week to whip the townsfolk into fighting shape before Bogue and his army turn up.

There’s no dramatic deviations from the Sturges film, which means that not all of the seven make it to final credits, and, essentially character types, none of them have much of a backstory. However, making effective use of the landscape, a typical widescreen Western score and tried and tested Wild West clichés, Fuqua directs in solid style, delivering the requisite intense gunfight action as well as some quieter moments. Although Washington and Bennett give the strongest performances, the core cast acquit themselves admirably, both in the action and the quips, and, while this may not have the enduring quality of the original, it serves as potent shot of adrenalin in the ongoing attempt to revive the Western genre.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue  Star City)

Nine Lives (PG) A self-absorbed, ego-driven billionaire, Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey), CEO of Firebrand, is obsessed with building the biggest building in New York. Unfortunately, it turns out a rival in Chicago may be 60 foot taller, something his top executive (Mark Conseulos) failed to be aware of.  With the opening just a few days away, Brand is so consumed with the building that he’s totally forgotten daughter Rebecca’s (Malina Weissman) upcoming 11th birthday. But that should be no surprise, career-driven Brand’s single-minded obsession with being the best and wealthiest, means he’s always putting family second. It’s already seen him divorced from one wife, Martini-swigging Madison (Cheryl Hines), and he could be well on the way to a second, from Lara (Jennifer Garner). Nor does he have much time for  David (Robbie Amell), the  son from his first marriage, who works for him, but who he regards as ineffectual and weak.

In trying to come up with a suitable gift for Rebecca, he’s eventually persuaded to get  her what she actually wants, a cat, despite the fact that he personally hates them. To which end, he fetches up at Purrkins, a back alley pet shop run by Felix Perkins (Christopher Walken) who instinctively judges Brand to be in  need of a moral awakening.  However, taking a  detour to meet with Ian en route to Rebecca’s party, Brand ends up falling from his building’s roof, crashing through a window and landing in a  coma. His consciousness, however, winds up inside the cat and,  while his body lies in hospital, Mr Fuzzypants is taken in by his wife and daughter.

Brand’s  best attempts to let his family know he’s trapped in the cat come to nothing and, visited by Purrkins, he’s told he will stay there until he understands why it happened – but that time is running out. Meanwhile, despite David’s efforts to stop him, Ian’s pressing ahead with his plan to sell off the company.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it’s received almost unanimously scathing reviews. And yes, it’s no masterpiece. Spacey is fine in human form as the supercilious Brand, but his  work as the cat’s inner voice sounds phoned in. The parenting message about discovering what matters in life is family is nothing new and,  while clearly aimed at kids, the whole storyline about corporate backstabbing won’t mean a thing to them.

However, that said, Walken  is a sly treat  and the Fuzzypants footage (clearly inspired by YouTube cat videos), which includes the cat pouring itself a bowl of Scotch,  is frequently very funny  and never less than entertaining. And, who hasn’t wanted to use his ex-wife’s expensive handbag as a litter tray! (Vue Star City)

 

Pete’s Dragon (PG)  The original 1977 version of the latest Disney remake was a strange mix of live action, animation and songs involving a young orphan who hooks up with a magical green and pink dragon, whom he names Elliot and whose unseen antics get the boy labelled as a source of bad luck by the local fishing village folk. The plot also involved a shortage of fish, a medicine show charlatan and a lighthouse.

Mercifully very little of this has made its way into the new 80s-set version, wherein four-year-old Pete (winningly played by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in a car crash o and winds up spending the next six years living in the forest (touches of The Jungle Book) with his invisibility-powered green friend and protector dragon, whom he names Elliot after the dog in his storybook.

One day, spotting  forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) exploring near their cave, he steals her compass and, curious, sneaks down to the lumber company camp run by her fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), and his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), for a closer look. Spotted by Jack’s young daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), he’s taken into town to be looked after. Naturally, Elliot, unaware of what’s happened to his young chum, comes looking. Meanwhile, ignoring his brother’s orders to ease up on the logging, Gavin also stumbles across Elliot and determines to capture him as a sideshow attraction.

Eventually realising that her grizzled wood-carver father’s (Robert Redford) tall tales of having seen the so-called Millhaven dragon when he was young aren’t that tall after all, Grace, her dad, Pete and Natalie also set off to find Elliot.

Unfolding at a gentle pace, well-acted, delivering a nicely understated, but deeply emotional message about friendship, home and family and sensitively directed by David Lowery, this is an  old-fashionedly wholesome  delight that successfully balances state of the art CGI with real character depth. It should, however, be said that the crash which leaves Pete orphaned and his subsequent encounter with wolves are genuinely dark and scary and likely to upset very young children.

However, from the moment the dragon appears, despite the tense action sequences later in the film, the tone is far warmer, his dog-like features and personality, not to mention the flying sequences, bringing to mind The Never-Ending Story, just as the bond between Pete and Elliot recalls How To Train Your Dragon. The original film may have been one of Disney’s less successful outings, but this is up there among its very best.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Vue Star City)

 

 Sausage Party (15)

saus2Bringing a whole new meaning to the term crudités, this is  a frequently hilarious and constantly  foul-mouthed animation reminiscent of Team America that takes a food’s eye view of life in and beyond the supermarket.  Sitting on the shelves, the food can’t wait to be taken out into the Great Beyond by the gods (the customers), to where paradise awaits. At least that’s what the song they all sing every morning promises.

Particularly excited about the upcoming celebrations are Frank (a sausage, voiced by Seth Rogan) and Brenda (a hotdog bun, voiced by Kristen Wiig), who are looking forward to him slipping inside her. However, when Frank gets separated from his friends, Carl (Jonah Hill) and the slightly imperfect Barry (Michael Cera) and he and Brenda are left behind in the store, they embark on a journey across the shop floor that brings them into contact with a bickering Jewish bagel (Edward Norton) and an Arabic flatbread (David Krumholtz), a lesbian Taco ( Salma Hayek) and Firewater  (Bill Hader), a bottle of Native American booze, who confirms to Frank that the stories about the gods are lies – and that the purpose of food is to be eaten by humans.

As Barry has a narrow escape from being sliced open and targets a local stoner (James Franco) in an attempt to get back to the store, Frank tries to warn the others while he and the others are pursued by a feminine hygiene douche (Nick Kroll) bent on revenge. All of which involves a constant stream of expletives and sexual innuendo, but also, as, er, food for thought,  some subversive satirical socio-political commentary, swipes at national stereotypes and organised religion, a message about not letting prejudice blind us to what we have in common  and even a chewing gum version of Stephen Hawking and a literal singing Meatloaf.

There’s a sense of genuine horror at seeing a potato being skinned alive or baby carrots being chomped to pieces, while everything climaxes in a quite literal food orgy. Rude food indeed, you’ll never hear a frankfurter squeal in the microwave quite the same way again. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets (U) The latest from the team behind Despicable Me suggests that, when you leave the house in the morning, your pets aren’t just curled up in their baskets waiting for you to come home. When his owner brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a scruffy mongrel with abandonment issues, her terrier, Max (Louie CK), finds his life isn’t as cushy as it used to be. However, in his attempt rid himself this rival, following a run-in with a bunch of collar-stealing alley cats, the pair end up captured by New York’s Animal Control, prompting a rescue mission across Manhattan from their four-legged friends, among them sardonic fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and headed up by  Gidget (Jenny Slate), a feisty Pomeranian with a big crush on Max and some hidden kung fu skills, who enlists the help of red-tailed hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and Pops (Dana Carvey), a half-paralysed old Basset Hound bloodhound fitted with a set of wheels.

Meanwhile, Max and Duke have to learn to work together when they’re first forced to join up with and then find themselves on the run from Snowball (Kevin Hart), a crazy former magician’s white bunny who’s assembled an army of abandoned pets, the Flushed Pets, who live in the sewers and have vowed revenge on all domesticated pets and their owners.

Essentially, it’s an animal version of Toy Story with Max as Woody and Duke as Buzz Lightyear, the interloper competing for their owner’s affections, but it doesn’t have the same emotional depth, nor is it as clever as Disney’s recent Zootopia. There’s also too many peripheral characters to give them all the time they warrant and, after an often hilarious start, the plot gradually descends into a series of action movie chases.

However, impressively animated and taken at a nifty pace, it’s never less than fun and serves up an inevitable message about friendship and family. Just keep the kids away from the pet shop on the way home. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Suicide Squad (15)  Despite overwhelmingly bad reviews, this has so far notched up over $380 million and. while undeniably flawed, it’s nowhere near the unwatchable disaster critics claim. In a nutshell, following the death of Superman, single-minded secret-service hawk Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plans to recruit a squad of super-villains, most of them currently in a top security prison courtesy of Batman (Ben Affleck), as a disposable asset to combat any possible future  meta-human threat. When one of them goes rogue, the others, led by their military handler, are sent in to evacuate a top asset from Midway City, which is  under attack by a two super-powered supernatural entities planning to destroy humankind.

All of this requires a lengthy set-up, opening with Waller running down her proposed Task Force for the benefit of her fellow suits. And so, those not familiar with the minor bad guys in the DC universe get lengthy individual bios and flashbacks about: deadly assassin but caring father Deadshot (Will Smith); punk Harley Quinn (Robbie), a  former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who fell for the Joker (Jared Leto) and lost her mind after being electroshocked; Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); reluctant firestarter Diablo (Jay Hernandez);  the reptilian Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and Enchantress (Carla Delevingne), a witch from another dimension who inhabits the body of  archaeologist Dr. June Moone, who happens to be  the girlfriend of Navy SEAL Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who has the job of keeping them all in line, and detonating the explosive in the neck if they step out of it.  For the mission, they’re also joined by rope  artist Slipknot (Adam Beach) and deadly Samurai warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara), one of the good guys whose sword holds the soul of her dead husband. As you might imagine keeping tabs on everyone is often unwieldy (spoiler –the cast will be smaller in the sequel), especially whenever  it takes time out to add extra backstory to give them a sympathetic side.

Anyways, having  cut loose from Flag and resurrected her brother, the Enchantress is setting  about building an army of transformed humans  and some sort of machine that will end the world (like all such gizmos, this involves a lot of lightning and things swirling round in the sky). Meanwhile, the Joker is determined to get his girl back.

Although it sometimes stumbles, director David Ayer  manages to just about hold things together and the set pieces and battles are undeniably well handled and thrill-packed. Inevitably, some characters fare better than others, Smith gets plenty of smart lines and Robbie is clearly the main male-fantasy visual attraction as well as the most vibrant presence. Diabolo’s internal conflict makes him interesting, but the  other squad members don’t really register, a badly-served Delevingne especially coming off  a blank.  On the other hand, it’s arguably Wills who gives the most chilling performance as the ‘whatever is necessary for national security’ Waller.

Despite the advance hype, while the laugh may be effective, Leto’s Joker is something of a letdown, having none of the sly Nicholson charm or Ledger’s inspired lunacy, although at one point he does seem to be channelling Marlon Brando’s Godfather.

The film wants to be dark, but ends up  not quite  having the courage of its convictions, to the extent of delivering messages about the value of family that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie. Whatever fun this may have to offer,  that surely  can’t be what anyone expected.  (Vue Star City)

 

War Dogs (15)

war dogsA change of pace after directing the  Hangover trilogy, this finds Todd Phillips taking on a political moral fable that, much like American Hustle, shows the uglier side of the seduction of the American Dream. It’s based on the true story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, former high school friends who, in the mid 2000s, joined forces to become arms dealers, selling weapons to the U.S military, making millions by bidding on small scale contracts.

Attending a friend’s funeral, Packouz (Miles Teller), a professional masseuse,  reunites with the flashy foul-mouthed Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who’s moved back to town and invites him to a meeting at his makeshift company office and invites him to join  AEY (the name providing a particularly good joke later on). Basically, he explains, he scours the lists of military contracts up for tender to find the ‘crumbs’ that no one else is likely to bid on, then goes shopping on the military equivalent of  E-Bay to get the weaponry.  Although David and girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), are against the war, as Efraim argues, this isn’t about the war, it’s about money.  Also, David’s near bankrupt after his scheme to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to old folks homes flopped and Iz is expecting; and what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.

Things get off to a hairy start when they end up driving truckload of pistols from Jordan to the US military base in Baghdad through Iraq’s so called Triangle of Death. However, it puts their name on the map and before long, bankrolled by a Jewish dry clean chain owner (Kevin Pollak), the business is expanding. The crunch comes when they win a $300 million US Government contract to supply the Afghan military, a deal that means them partnering with dodgy arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). However, when David flies out to Albania to oversee the transport of millions of ancient rounds of AK-47 ammunition, he discovers that they’re from China and, while the US military will deal with almost anyone, China isn’t among them. So, faced with coming up with a way round things or losing the contract, he  arranges to have them repackaged into cardboard boxes, ultimately leading them to being busted for  attempting to defraud the U.S. Government.

However, it’s not just a rags to riches to rags story, that’s just the backdrop to the relationship between the two friends, the somewhat naïve David trying to get a piece of the pie without doing anything technically illegal, and Ephraim, a personality chameleon who wants the entire pie.  While often very funny, this is a remarkably dark piece of work about the economic imperatives of war and the lies it engenders,  fuelled by terrific  performances from Teller and an especially electrifying Hill, whose laugh that (like the giant Scarface poster on his office wall) says much about his character,  encouraging the audience to both root for its protagonists for playing the system. This isn’t about the hangover, this is about getting drunk on the American Dream  and finding your drink’s been spiked. (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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