Movie Round-up: this week’s new film releases, Jun 3-10

NEW RELEASE

Warcraft- The Beginning (12A) Stepping up another level after Moon and Source Code, director Duncan Jones takes on the effects  laden, motion capture adaptation of the fantasy videogame for an origin story about the cross-dimensional war between the hulking, tusk-teethed Orcs from Draenor and the humans of Azeroth.

Their world dying, using the life force of their captives, green-skinned Orc sorcerer  Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who commands the mystic power of the Fel, facilitates a portal opening between the worlds so as to send through a war party to take more prisoners and provide enough power to reopen the gate for the rest of the Horde to follow. The advance guard includes Durotan (Toby Kebbell, conveying soulfulness through his eyes), chief of  the Wolfrost clan, his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), his second-in-command, Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky), and Blackhand (Clancy Brown), another chieftain who becomes the Horde Warchief.

Pitted against them are widowed father Lothar (Travis Fimmel), who commands the armies of Stormwind’s King Lane (Dominic Cooper), Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer, providing some light comedic relief), a young magician who’s quit his training with the mages to follow his own calling, and Medivh (Ben Foster), a sort of Merlin-like figure who serves as the realm’s Guardian and is himself being tainted by the Fel. Following an initial battle between the forces, they’re subsequently joined by Garona (Paula Patton), a human-sized (with more delicate tusks) Orc-Draenei who was Gul’dan’s slave and who provides both the romantic interest with Lothar and plays a pivotal role in the film’s climax. Realising that the reason their world is dying is actually down to Gul’dan’s use of the Fel, Durotan proposes an alliance with the humans, inevitably leading to a major fall-out with Blackhand.

Reviews have, rather predictably, been sniffy, but, while flawed, this is actually impressive and involving, balancing the fierce and bloody combat with character driven storytelling and moments of humour, tenderness and poignancy between the bloodshed, loss and some shock deaths.  Although the Orcs are no relation to those in Tolkien (the term actually dates back to the Anglo Saxon Beowulf), there is much in common with Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit, not least that the different kingdoms of Azeroth include a race of squat dwarves, while the film also sports the influence of  King Arthur, the story of Moses (involving Duraton’s baby son Go’el)  and Avatar, not to mention the inevitable comparisons with Game of Thrones (the score is by its theme’s composer), fans of which should get a hefty kick from this.

By far the best videogame adaptation yet, it looks amazing, the pace and drama never flag and the cast deliver performances appropriate to the genre, the final moments setting things up for a sequel that actually feels worth waiting for. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

The Divide (12A)

divideBased on Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,  Katharine Round’s documentary on the gap between the haves and have nots turns the camera on seven people trying to carve themselves a better life in contemporary America and Great Britain,  societies where the top 0.1%  have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Among those featured are Auden, a Wall Street psychologist looking to join that top  1%, Leah, a worn down KFC worker  and the pregnant Jen, who’s regarded as an outcast among her upscale California gated community because she’s not as rich as everyone else.

Using archival news footage dating back to the era of Regan and Thatcher that widened the gap in encouraging people to acquire wealth and work for self-interest, it underlines the old chestnut that money can’t bring you happiness, but then neither does the lack of it, as viewers are invited to sympathise with both the wannabe high fliers like Auden and  losers like Keith, a lifer imprisoned for drugs offences. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, it’s a sobering look at our times. (Tue/Thu:MAC)

Love & Friendship (U)

Love-Friendship

Unlikely as it may sound, although you don’t usually associate the sophisticated wit of Jane Austen with laugh out loud moments, Whit Stillman’s adaptation and completion of her  long-unpublished and unfinished epistolary novella, Lady Susan, is one of the year’s funniest and most enjoyable films. Having appeared to be consigned to a future of routine and indistinguishable action movies, Kate Beckinsale has her career jolted back to life  as the newly widowed  Lady Susan Vernon,  a master manipulator who’s looking to find a suitably appropriate replacement, though, unfortunately, the most obvious candidate, Lord Manwaring, is inconveniently already married. So, with the conniving help of her best friend, scruples-free American  Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who is herself unfortunately married to a husband (Stephen Fry) “too old to be governable, and too young to die” and who forbids their association on pain of being sent back to Connecticut, she imposes herself at Churchill, the country seat of her late husband’s brother, Mr. Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), with the intention of  netting Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the impressionable  younger brother of  her late Mrs. Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), persuading him the  rumours concerning her scandalous past are pure slander, much to the horror of his doting clueless father (James Fleet) and mother (Jemma Redgrave).

Lady Susan’s plans seem to be going nicely until the unexpected arrival of her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who’s been expelled from the boarding school to which she’d been packed off out of the way, and who catches the eye of her mother’s intended prey.  To which end, she seeks to dump her on wealthy, eligible, but obliviously buffoonish bachelor (he thinks there’s Twelve Commandments) Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).

Opening by introducing each of the characters with attendant tongue-in-cheek  title cards, its littered with elegant caustic and witty barbs and one liners (“facts are horrid things”, the self-justifying Susan declares), their sharpness perfectly matched by every single performance, each with a knowing wink in their eye. Terrific.  (Electric)

Me Before You (12A)

me Basically a Brit take on the Nicholas Sparks school of doomed romance, Jojo Moyes’  bestseller gets a glossy feature adaptation by theatre director Thea Sharrock that benefits greatly from the presence of  the effervescent Emilia Clarke as unambitious and unqualified twenty-something Louisa Clark who, after losing her job at her small seaside town café, as the family’s main breadwinner, applies as carer and companion with a  wealthy family living at a country house. This turns out to be the son, Will (Sam Claflin) who, following the  accident seen in the opening moments, has gone from high flying financier to a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, paralysed from the neck down.

Understandably somewhat bitter at his fate, Will, whose physical care is administered by Australian physio Nathan (Stephen Peacocke), isn’t the most sociable of folk, but, predictably, Emily’s enthusiasm and sweetness melts the frosty hostility and condescension  and even gets him to laugh and smile. Although Emily’s already got a long-standing  – if somewhat useless – triathlon-obsessed boyfriend (Matthew Lewis), the friendship between her and Will slowly turns   to something more, particularly sparked when Will’s ex turns up with his best friend to announce they’re getting married and he’s invited to the wedding.

There is, however, a major spoke in the wheel,  when she learns that Will promised to give his parents (Charles Dance, Janet McTeer) six months before checking into Dignitas to put an end to what he sees as a life not worth the living.  So can Emma, as they hope, persuade him to change his mind.

Since the trailer pretty much gives away the entire plot (including a lovely moment involving bumblebee tights), you’ already know that’s not to be, but the journey to the foregone tear-stained but picturesque conclusion is nonetheless sweetly engaging as she gives him at least a temporary reason to live and he awakens her to  new possibilities and horizons, like classic movies and classical concerts. Although the support cast, which includes Jenna Coleman as Emma’s sister, Katrina,  have little to do, Claflin exudes charisma without having to move a muscle (or at at least very few of them) while Clarke is an irrepressible force of sunshine optimism, all to a ballad drenched soundtrack by such names as  Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

The Nice Guys (15)

niceguys2An inspired pairing of  a top form Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, as written and directed by Shane Black, set in 1977 Los Angeles (soundtracked to the likes of Earth Wind & Fire and an extended riff on the opening to Papa Was A Rolling Stone), this combines the hard boiled noir and corruption/conspiracy/cover up  of L.A. Confidential or Chinatown with the wisecrack banter  of such mismatched buddy cop movies as 48 Hrs or Black’s own Lethal Weapon.

Crowe is Jackson Healy, a burly bordering on overweight enforcer who’ll take a few bucks to persuade people to stay away from other people, and Gosling is Holland March, a former cop turned earnest but not entirely effective low rent private eye whose wife’s death has left him with a guilt hang up, a drink problem and a disapproving, feisty 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) who, it turns out, is probably smarter than the two of them together.

Their paths cross in the case of Amelia (Margaret Qualley), March trying to track her down, Healy warning him not to.  March has been hired by the mother of porn star Misty Mountains, killed in the opening spectacular scene as her car flies off a road and through a house, but who she’s convinced she saw two days after her death. He’s persuaded that the woman in question was actually Amelia, an activist with a group protesting over a car manufacture’s pollution and, as it later turns out, the missing daughter of  Department of Justice bigwig Judith Kuttner (Crowe’s LA Confidential co-star Kim Basinger). It appears that she and her boyfriend made an ‘experimental’ film designed to reveal high level corruption, and now the boyfriend is dead and anyone else connected with the film, which was supposedly destroyed in a fire, seems to be going the same way.

So, when Healy’s involvement is changed from preventing Amelia being found to tracking her down and keeping her safe, the two guys become reluctant partners in a plot that bounces between murder scenes, gunfights, drunken misadventures, Boogie Nights-style parties and intimate confessionals, neither of them quite having a firm grip on what’s going on or what they’re doing. Meanwhile, there’s a cold blooded killer by the name of John Boy (cue Waltons gags) also on Amelia’s trail, with a rather more deadly agenda.

A guilty popcorn pleasure that’s as hilarious as it is often violent, it plays the noir storyline straight, but still has a knowing glint of self-awareness  in its eye as it embraces the genre clichés, liberally punctuating it with brilliantly timed gleeful physical comedy such as the scene as as Gosling attempts to hold open a toilet cubicle door with his gun and pull up his trousers while having a conversation with Crowe. Hopefully a franchise awaits. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

Race (PG)

race In 1936, Afro-American Ohio State University undergrad athelete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Nazi-organised Berlin Olympics, breaking several world records and shattering Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. However, his achievement was snubbed  by  the American administration and it was not until ten years after his death that, in 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. Although there was an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1984, this is the first time his life has been brought to the big screen.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins, is a fairly straightforward affair , leaping straight in  as, in 1933, Owens (Stephan James) leaves his impoverished family, girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and his toddler daughter behind and heads for campus where he’s immediately singled out by coach and former athlete Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) as a likely contender to win Olympic gold.

As the ambiguous title suggests, the film concerns both his preparations for the event and the discrimination he encounters, both at home and in Germany, the screenplay also taking in the debate among America’s Olympic officials, here Amateur Athletic Union president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and construction  tycoon Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) as to whether America should boycott the Games on account of Nazi Germany’s policy regarding racial policies, a  rather ironic argument given the segregation enforced back home.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) has enlisted Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), here portrayed in a sympathetic light,  to document the preparations and the Games themselves.

Although it does show Owens’ friendship with German athelete Carl Long, who sacrificed his own career to celebrate Owen’s victory over him, it only offers a chilling glimpse of the Jewish persecution, shorthand depictions of  American racial prejudice and glosses over Brundage’s anti-Semitism (he was never brought to account for his collaboration with the Nazis in accepting a  commission to build the Albert Speer designed Nazi Embassy in America or forcing the scratching of the team’s two Jewish runners from the 400 metres relay). Nonetheless, it’s a solid middlebrow account that embraces both the events on the track and the moral and ethical stakes and dilemmas Owens faced away from it as well as personal temptations after his rise to fame following the Ann Arbor  athletics competition where he broke three different world records in just  over half an hour. A sort of Afro-American Chariots of Fire, it could have, perhaps, been told better, but even so, it remains an inspirational story well worth remembering.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway  Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles: Out of the Shadows (12A)

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-out-of-the-shadowsWhat would Vin Diesel do?” wonders one of the Turtles during another of the humdrum action sequences. Well, despite The Last Witch Hunter’s evidence to the contrary, were he sensible he’d probably turn down any offer to appear in  something like this empty, noisy and narratively-confused Michael Bay-produced sequel to the underwhelming 2014 revival of the adventures of the mutated amphibians named after famous Italian painters.

This time round, despite having saved the city, Leonardo (no longer voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael are still hiding underground, fearful that any daylight appearance would see them labelled as freaks and monsters, although, the exuberant Michelangelo can’t resist the chance of popping out of the sewers to mingle with a  carnival. Still, at least arch nemesis Shredder (now played by Brian Tee) is safely under wraps. Or at least he was until, despite an attempt by the Turtles in their battlebus to prevent it,  he was freed on his way to prison and escaped through  some sort of portal designed by fame-seeking mad scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) who’s also engineered a purple ooze (no, really, that’s what it’s called) that can transform humans into mutated versions of their inner animals, in this case turning moronic  cons Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) into a superstrong – and super stupid – warthog and rhino, respectively. The ooze, of course, might also work in reverse, giving the Turtles, the chance to become human, something self-elected leader Leonardo rejects without, to their anger, consulting either Michelangelo or Donatello, thereby causing a rift in the team and setting up the skimpy theme of the importance of friendship and working together to succeed.

What they need to succeed at is preventing Shredder carrying out his plan to open some space warp gateway and bring through his alien partner in crime, Krang, a sort of  betentacled blob of chewing gum that lives inside an armoured robot, and allow his world-crushing war-machine to be assembled in the skies above New York City.

Returning to assist them in their efforts are reporter April O’Neil (the ever vacuous Megan Fox) and her former cameraman, Vern (Will Arnett), who, having been told to take credit for saving the city last time around, has let hero worship go to his head and parades around referring to himself as The Falcon. They’re also joined by corrections officer turned vigilante Casey Jones (Steven Amell, tossing off sarcasm and looking like he wished he was anywhere else), wielding a hockey stick and pucks as weapons.

The whole thing screeches soullessly along with the most perfunctory banal dialogue, roping in the luckless Laura Linney, who inexplicably signed on to play police chief Rebecca Vincent, along the way to a climax plundered from The Avengers. Given they’re even more central to what passes for a plot, the Turtles still remain the one-dimensional personalities announced over the titles, though at least this is one dimension more than most of the human characters as the whole thing collapses into a series of CGI setpieces (skydiving, battles atop high buildings, etc) that are as slick as they are familiar. It will, of course, at least initially, pack in the less discriminating crowds, but hopefully will soon be consigned back to the shadows where it belongs. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

NOW PLAYING

Alice Through The Looking Glass (PG)

alice 1 Children familiar with the Lewis Carroll classic will find little mirrored in this sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Certainly the central  characters are here, though Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) had already appeared in the first film, but   a plot involving a literal race against time to save the Mad Hatter bears no relation to the book.

You can’t accuse it of not having an overactive imagination or being sluggish. Rarely pausing for breath, it hurtles from one visually eye-popping sequence to the next, and in terms of digital effects, you get certainly get your money’s worth. But it’s all taken at such a rush that the beating of the emotional heart (its ultimately about friendship and family) is rarely heard above the visual noise.

It opens some years on from the previous film, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now  grown and captain of her late father’s ship, The Wonder. Returning after a lengthy voyage, she discovers that her spiteful former suitor, Hamish (Leo Bill), now runs the company and that the fate of the family home rests with her mother (Lindsay Duncan) signing over The Wonder.

All of which culminates in a visit from caterpillar turned butterfly Absalom (Alan Rickman) who tells her the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in a terrible state and Alice plunging through a dimensional mirror back to Underland. Here, she discovers that, having found the first hat he ever made, the Hatter believes his family to still be alive and not incinerated by the Jabberwocky as he previously thought. That nobody believes him has sent him into a deep dark depression, his orange hair turned white.

Alice resolves to help by travelling back in time to save his family. Which involves stealing something called the Chronosphere, a time travelling gyroscope belonging to the part-human/part-clock Time (a terrific Sacha Baron Cohen) himself, ignoring his warnings that you can’t change the past and you might make the present worse. So, Alice goes Back to the Future, then.

Meanwhile, Time, who’s besotted with the exiled Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who wants the Chronosphere for her own purposes,  is in pursuit, giving occasion for a plethora of time puns at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and an explanation of how it came to be always one minute to teatime.

So, basically, this is an origin story as Alice first meets the younger Tarrant Hightop when he was just an apprentice to his disapproving hatter father (Rhys Ifans) and discovers why there’s history between him and the Red Queen, and then when he was just a boy, where we learn how the young Iracebeth came to have such a large head and that sister, Mirana, The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) wasn’t always quite the paragon of virtue she seems.

Although the core performances (Wasikowska, Bonham Carter, Baron Cohen and Depp) are all strong, it’s an often exhausting affair trying to keep up with the cluttered plot, the emotions getting lost in the sensory overload, but the kids will likely delighted with the visual effects and the eccentricity on offer. Whether you reckon the glass is half full or half empty probably depends on how old you are.    (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

The Angry Birds Movie (U)

angry4 Launched in 2009, the  iPhone game goes big screen as, sketching in the origin story over the opening credits and with a couple of flashbacks, we’re introduced to the Bird Island paradise of assorted flightless birds who live a contented, harmonious and good-natured existence. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Red (Jason Sudeikis doing feathered flippancy), a sarcastic cardinal bird with big eyebrows and anger management issues to the extent that he’s been exiled to live in a house on the beach.

Sentenced by the judge to anger management classes under ‘free rage chicken’ therapist Matilda (Maya Rudolph),  he meets up with three other anger-prone avians, hyperactive goldfinch Chuck (Josh Gad), quite literally short-fused blackbird Bomb (Danny McBride) who has a habit of exploding, and the bulky, monosyllabic Terrence (Sean Penn).

The main plot finally kicks in as a  ship rolls into the island, from which emerge Leonard (Bill Hader), a bearded green pig, and his assistant, proclaiming that they come in peace, but who patently have a hidden agenda. Naturally, even after loads more pigs turn up, the birds refuse to pay heed to Red’s suspicions until the swine make off with all the eggs (green ham and eggs, geddit Dr Seuss fans!) which they intend to turn into a hard boiled banquet. Now it’s time to turn to Red  for help who, along with his new buddies, sets off to find the Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), the island’s long missing guardian, and take the fight to Piggy Island.

With a staple plot about the misfit coming good and the message about accepting who you are and the strength of family, along with the obligatory bodily function gags, older members of the audience can have fun spotting the pop culture puns, among them nods to The Shining and, ahem, Jon Hamm.

Fitfully rather than consistently amusing as it wings its way to the big action sequence as the birds attack the pig city and Leonard’s citadel, it’s well animated and entertaining enough for a flutter, though having seen a mommy bird regurgitating into her chicks’ paper bags,  some kids might be well put off taking lunch boxes to school. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

Bad Neighbours 2 (15)  A quickie follow-up to the rowdy and ribald 2014 original sees Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s middle-class thirtyish suburban couple, now settling into parenthood,  facing further student neighbour problems, except this time it’s not from Zac Efron’s fratboys, but a new sorority house, Kappa Nu,  populated by “united women” and founded by doper Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) who, in defiance of  her prissy sorority leader (a cameoing Selene Gomez) intends to prove girls can party just as hard as the boys.

Indeed, this time round, struggling to find his place in the world, although initially enlisted by Shelby, intellectually-challenged (“there’s no I in sorority”) former college fraternity leader Teddy (Efron) winds up being  Mac and Kelly’s ally rather than nemesis. The same gags get recycled in different contexts and there’s yet more excuses for Efron to get his shirt off and display his abs. Which, for a large percentage of the audience, is probably reason enough to buy a ticket.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Captain America: Civil War (12A)  Echoing  Batman v Superman’s concerns over the collateral damage resulting from battle between  super beings as well as thoughtful reflection on whether the worth of one individual outweighs the greater good, the latest addition to the unfolding Avengers-related saga is the best yet. Opening with a 1991 prologue involving Hydra turning Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) into the Winter Soldier and his subsequent attack on a car to steal its mysterious contents, which proves to have far reaching resonances for one of the major characters as the plot unfolds,  things switch to Lagos where Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and the Scarlet Witch, (Elizabeth Olson) have tracked down Crossbones, who escaped at the end of The Winter Soldier. In the ensuing battle, several innocent bystanders are killed, prompting the US Secretary of State (William Hurt) to inform The Avengers that they have to agree to be brought  under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. Weighed down by guilt over events in Age of Ultron, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) agrees, Steve Rogers, however, is adamant they need to have the independence to act and refuses.

Battle lines are quickly drawn when an attack on the UN building during the signing kills the King of Wakanda and footage implicates Barnes in the bombing, though it transpires he’s been framed by vengeance-seeking villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). With orders to take him down, Captain America decides it’s his responsibility to get there first. On the other hand, Wakanda’s Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), otherwise the vibranium-armed Black Panther is determined to avenge his father.

Suffice to say, things end up with Team Captain America, now joined by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and a starstruck Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) pitched against Iron Man, War Machine, the Black Panther and Vision (Paul Bettany), with Romanoff caught between divided loyalties. Stark also has another ally as Tom Holland make his bow as the new Spider-Man, delivering a nice line in wisecracks.

There is, of course, loads of spectacular action, most notably the slug-fest at an airport that sees a decidedly big change in Lang’s powers, but the heart of the film lies in the emotional muscle it flexes as friendships and responsibilities are put under pressure.  If there’s a flaw it’s the need to repeat Barnes’s Hydra compliance programming to facilitate the third act, but even that has a solid ultimate payoff. Packed with human drama and fully dimensional characters, despite the quips, it’s a sober, serious affair that makes the two plus hours pass quickly and leaves you hungry to see where things move to for The Avengers: Infinity War.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City

Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) Stephen Frears delivers an affectionate account of the unlikely rise to fame of the titular Alabama heiress (Meryl Streep), a wealthy 1940s New York socialite whose determination to sing was second only to the fact that she couldn’t hold a note. Not that anyone in her circle is about to mention the fact, not when she has connections they’re keen to exploit. Of course, Jenkins herself is totally deluded about her abilities, a delusion protected by her failed actor husband-manager, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant),  who’s well aware of his wife’s shortcomings, but, despite having a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson),  is genuinely devoted to ‘Bunny’ and determined no-one burst her bubble, even if that means having to pay bribes for  favourable reviews.

He hires young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her and, while initially bemused, he too soon falls under Florence’s spell, though even he’s pushed to the limit when he and Bayfield discover that, following a wave of public enthusiasm for a   recording), she’s booked Carnegie Hall.

Walking a well-judged line between comedy and poignancy, while there is humour, it also celebrates her passion without any sense of irony, the sell-out Carnegie crowd initially erupting in laughter before coming to appreciate the heart and spirit of the woman on stage. Except that is for New York Post critic Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) whose coruscating review may well have precipitated Jenkins’ death (she was afflicted with syphilis from her doomed first marriage).

In terms of plot, it’s rather insubstantial and somewhat repetitive, but Frears’ lightness of touch and a trio of superlative performances from Streep, Grant (his best in years) and Helberg should see hefty returns from the grey pound audience, if not, necessarily, music lovers.  (Showcase Walsall)

Green Room (18)

green room 2Jeremy Saulnier follows up quirky but intense suburban crime drama Blue Ruin with a taut hillbilly survival horror on the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, except these backwoods butchers aren’t cannibals but white supremacists. Touring cross country playing whatever dives they can, scrappy DC punk outfit The Ain’t Rights – guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin), singer Tiger (Callum Turner), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat – are offered a gig playing to a bunch of skinheads at a private neo-Nazi heavy metal club in the Oregon wilds and, though initially reluctant, the fact they’re so broke they have to siphon gas to be able to travel, is a persuasive incentive. The gig goes well enough, but, having packed up their gear ready to leave, Pat nips back to the dressing room only find a woman he saw earlier in the bar stretched out on the floor with a knife in her head.

Unable to leave, they barricade themselves in the room, along with Amber (Imogen Poots), another punter who has a connection with the dead girl, and, eventually, one of the bouncers, while the heavily tooled-up staff and owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), try to figure out what to do.  Since talking them out, is clearly never going to work (though they are persuaded to hand over their loaded gun), things naturally quickly turn very violent and grisly involving  various characters having their throat torn out by attack dogs, being repeatedly knifed, their hand virtually severed (though nothing some gaffer tape can’t fix) and shot.

It’s a familiar set-up, but Saulnier gives it a fresh coat of paint, focusing on character as things build to a very gory retribution climax to deliver a genuinely gripping, nail-biting experience. And, delivered in the glow of a cigarette lighter, Poots’ ‘careful now’ may well prove the line of the year.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

A Hologram For The  King (12A) Once a  top salesman, today Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is in a downward spiral, acrimoniously divorced and  too financially strapped to pay his teenage daughter’s college fees, he’s having a mid-life crisis, a scenario pithily encapsulated in the opening dream sequence as Hanks sings the opening verse to Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, as his world goes up in puffs of smoke around him. He awakes on a plane bound for Saudi Arabia where he’s making one last stab to avoid going under, calling in a vague connection to the nephew of the king to give a pitch for  his company to land the IT provider  contract for the monarch’s much cherished, but long delayed project to build a completely new city in the middle of the desert.

However, things start to go wrong almost immediately when he oversleeps and misses the shuttle and has to enlist the services of a local driver (a scene stealing Alexander Black), then his official liaison constantly fails to appear and there’s absolutely no sign of the king turning up so he can make the holographic presentation. On top of which, his team have been stuck in a tent, with no wi fi, no food and the air con on the blink. And his boss wants results yesterday. On the upside, there is chemistry with the attractive doctor (Sarita Choudhury) who treatsClay for the cyst on his back after he tries to lance it himself.

Directed by Tom Twyker, who directed Hanks’ segments in Cloud Atlas, it’s an uneven seriocomic lament for the American Dream that never really strikes the Willy Loman note to which it aspires. The problem is that things don’t quite seem to hang together or get properly developed with characters only lightly sketched in and only passing reference ever made to cultural or political issues. The romance too seems to be treated in shorthand, one minute she’s operating on his cyst and the next they’re in bed, Likewise, the film wraps everything up in a hurry, almost as if they ran out of time or budget. Hanks gives another top hangdog performance and Black provides a winning line in droll humour, but, like the hologram of the title, the film ultimately lacks substance. (Vue Star City)

The Jungle Book (PG) Directed by Jon Favreau, Disney deliver a visually spectacular live action version of their iconic 1967 animation. Featuring impressive newcomer Neel Sethi as pretty much the only human on screen, it combines Kipling’s original book (the Water Truce appears here) with much-loved elements from the animation, including Baloo – voiced by Bill Murray –singing The Bare Necessities and, splendidly voiced by Christopher Walken, King Louie, here the last surviving Gigantopithecus, bringing a sense of menace to I Wanna Be Like You. The story, should you need reminding, tells how, having been found in the jungle by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the panther, and raised by wolves Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), the animals have to keep Mowgli safe from the one-eyed human-hating tiger, Shere-Khan (Idris Elba), and python Kaa (a brief but memorable and chilling turn by Scarlett Johannson) and return him to the human world.

Jumping straight in with its mix of tension and action as Mowgli, racing through the jungle canopy,  initially appears to be trying to outrun a wolf pack intent on bringing him down, the film combines humour, emotional clout  and scares (some of the scenes centred around King Louie may be a bit intense for younger eyes) in equal measure.

Sethi makes for a winning screen presence, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the scene stealers here are a magnificently laid back Bill Murray as a slacker Baloo and Walken’s raspy-voiced, mafioso-like King Louie who wants the man-cub to give him the secret of man’s red flower. They, like the other talking animals are so incredibly photorealistic you’d swear they were flesh and blood, Shere-Khan being a particular triumph of detail. Likewise the digital creation of the lush jungle is breathtaking, all the more given the whole film was shot inside a building in Los Angeles.

If you’re being picky, then some of the contemporary dialogue (“you’re kidding, right”, says Mowgli) doesn’t gel with the setting, but that’s a very minor niggle in a very terrific film. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch, Star City)

Minuscule (U) 

Minuscule_02Recalling fabulous 1996 French documentary Microcosmos about the life of insects, this is another French outing, this time a dialogue free tale that superimposes animated creatures (who ‘speak’ in sort of musical sound effects) on real natural landscapes when the remains of a picnic spark warfare between the red and black ants, with a young ladybird that’s become separated from his family caught in the middle of the battle. He befriends one of the black ants, Mandible, as they seek to save the anthill from the red ant warriors led by the fearful Butor. Expertly put together with anthropomorphism and anthropology going hand in hand, the assault on and defence of the anthill  with slingshots and fireworks) is as impressive as any action blockbuster.  (Vue Star City)

Money Monster (15)

MoneyMonsterJodie Foster’s latest directorial outing is another swipe at  wheeler dealer corporates and how their financial machinations can impact on the ordinary man in the street. George Clooney stars as titular fast-paced TV financial programme presenter Lee Gates, a slick talking, ego-driven showman who uses dance routines, costumes, sound effects and film clips to spark up his stock market tips. On his latest show he’s talking about how Ibis Clear Capital, a company he’d bigged up, has somehow managed to lose $800 million of capital overnight through what they’re calling a computer glitch. He wants to interview their CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West) to get a clearer explanation, but Camby’s off in one of his private jets and no one know where he is. Least of all the company’s head of PR, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), who’s been roped in as stand in for what will be basically be a non-probing puff piece

With  Gates’s long-standing director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) in the control room, everything’s going as normal. Until she spots a figure lurking behind the scenery. This turns out to be Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a delivery man who followed Gates’s advice and  invested the $60,000 left him by his mom in Ibis and has now lost the lot. He wants explanations too. Except he intends to get them with a gun and forcing Gates to wear a vest laden with enough Semtex to take out the entire studio.

And so, with the cameras still rolling and Fenn talking things through via Grants’ ear piece, the whole thing goes out live, as Lee variously tries to use logical argument and his charm on Kyle, inevitably making things worse, while, negotiation proving a no go, the cops try to get into position to take a shot. However, as the stand-off continues, information starts coming in to the studio that the computer glitch might in fact be a smokescreen for  “human fingerprints.”

Playing  out in pretty much real time, Foster keeps the tension tight, but also allows room for humour, most hilariously where the police set up a feed with Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend (Emily Meade) that decidedly does not go as they assumed.

Quite possibly the result of having three screenwriters, it’s at times a little disjoined with some shorthand plot notes and creaky  contrivances such as stoner Icelandic hackers to facilitate the unearthing of corporate malfeasance. The transition from the studio to a Wall Street showdown also somewhat deflates the tension and the ending is an inevitable given, but, while hardly in the same biting satire league as The Big Short, it delivers highly watchable entertainment along with a sizeable side-helping of wish-fulfilment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsalll Cue Star City)

 

Sing Street (12A)

singstreet-2Following on from Once and Begin Again, writer-director  John Carney’s  latest is another music-based story and indisputably one of the most uplifting, entertaining  and enjoyable feelgood  films of the year . Set in 1985, and loosely based around some of Carney’s own experiences as a Dublin teenager at a tough Catholic school, it tells of how, after being moved from his upmarket school  by his forever bickering, financially stretched parents (Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy), 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself in the Synge Street inner-city school run by the Christian Brothers, bullied by a skinhead off the estate and the priest headmaster  alike. Then, one day, he goes over to talk to an older girl, the enigmatic, pouty, perm-haired Raphina (Lucy Boynton), he sees sitting on a step opposite the school gates who tells him she’s soon off to London to become a fashion model. In turn, having recently been awestruck on seeing Duran Duran’s Rio video, he asks her to appear in a video for his band. She says she’ll think about. Now all he has to do is form a band.

Recruiting a bunch of fellow misfits, among them ginger-haired shortarse Darren (Ben Carolan) as the band manager and  Eamon (Mark McKenna), a reasonably talented multi-instrumentalist with a rabbit fixation, Sing Street are born along with Conor’s New Romantic song, The Riddle of the Model.

More songs follow  as the band gradually becomes more confident and polished,  dumping the covers and writing further stylistically varied numbers, with outfits to match, while a hesitant romance between Conor and Raphina gradually develops. Eventually, they have enough  to headline the school dance (cue a Back to the Future nod), but life, in the form of  his parents separation and an older romantic rival, has a way of never quite going as smoothly as you’d like it.

With spot on pastiches of The Cure, Spandau Ballet. Joe Jackson, any of which you could imagine being on Top of the Pops, even if its underdog comes good plot is a bit predictable, this is a real joy to watch, perfectly balancing poignancy and comedy with hugely likeable and relatable characters and climaxing with real punch the air showstopper.  Walsh-Peelo, Boynton and Carolan are particularly good, but arguably the star turn is from Jack Reynor as Conor’s older, drop out brother, Brendan, who gave up on his dreams and now just hangs around home getting high, but who gives him a pile of albums, from Hall & Oates to The Jam, as homework, setting up the film’s most moving scene. With  The Commitments and  Once, Dublin has already been the setting for two classic music-driven films about finding yourself and following your dreams and your heart. Sing Street makes it a trilogy. (Electric; Vue Star City)

Top Cat Begins (U) Having recently been adopted by Halifax to promote its mortgages, the rascally alley cat also returns with a new big screen animated outing, a sequel to 2011’s Top Cat, the Mexican original again being dubbed into English. This time round, it’s an origin story revealing how the wily feline (again voiced by Jason Harris Katz) got started and how he met up with his gang of friends, among them Benny, Brain and Choo Choo, as well as the long-suffering Officer Dibble as they take on the mysterious Mr. Big.  Unfortunately, featuring plastic looking characters and crawling along at a pace that makes snails seem like Formula 1 drivers, it has absolutely none of the wit or charm of the original cartoon, likely to bore and disappoint both nostalgia-seeking grown ups and  new young audiences alike. There’s a scene where Top Cat empties a dustbin and one of the things that’s been dumped is a DVD of the previous film. This will quickly follow suit.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch)

X Men: Apocalypse (12A)

x menPicking things up 10 years after the end of Days Of Future Past, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are taking in more gifted students at the Westchester school, among them  Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summers (Tye Sheridan), the brother of Alex (Lucas Till) aka Havok from First Class, and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), the former who emits destructive red beams from his eyes while the latter has mind control powers that rival the professor’s. Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is in East Berlin rescuing mutants like blue-skinned teleporter Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has gone to ground, working in a steel factory in Poland and living a quiet life with his new wife and daughter. All that changes with the awakening of the villain seen in the Ancient Egypt prologue, an immortal dubbed Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who, later described as the world’s first mutant,  is in the process of having his consciousness transferred into a new body when a rebellion against his rule leaves him entombed.

Now finally freed, he’s determined to reshape the world to his vision, wiping away centuries of civilization and any humanity deemed unfit to survive. For this, he needs his traditional four followers, here in the guide of winged mutant Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), with her lethal powerbeam arm, weather-controlling African street orphan Ororo (Alexandra Shipp) and Magneto who, after the tragedy that has befallen his family, has turned back to the dark side

All of which leaves Prof X, Beast, Mystique, the novice new recruits and, making  welcome returns, the speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), the CIA agent and Xavier’s former romance whose memories of their relationship he removed, as the film heads towards yet another bout of mass global destruction.

Directing for the fourth time, Bryan Singer brings a depth of emotion to his flawed characters while also delivering bar-raising set pieces and visual effects.  It does take a while to get up and running, but, once the plot kicks in, the excitement never slacken as it builds to its Phoenix climax. And, of course, there’s also the much anticipated cameo of a certain steel-clawed military experiment known as Weapon X. It’s difficult to see where the X-Men franchise goes from here, having basically come full circle back to where it began, but fans should most definitely see Apocalypse now.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Redditch – Kingfisher Centre, Redditch 08712 240 240

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

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