MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Feb 10-Thu Feb 16

 

NEW RELEASES

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s BAFTA Best Animated Film winner, The Lego Movie, is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the ,law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series), it plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then, with the crowds assuming he’ll be off partying,  goes home to the emptiness of the Batcave and Wayne Manor, eats Lobster Thermidor and plays heavy metal guitar. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visit’s Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as its okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk  (15)

Director Ang Lee’s first since 2012’s award-winning Life Of Pi has proven rather less of a success, taking a  dismal $26m worldwide. Adapted from Ben Fountain’s novel, it takes place over the course of a single day (albeit with flashbacks) as decorated Iraq War hero Billy Lynn  (Joe Alwyn) and the other members of his platoon, Bravo Squad,  prepare to take part in the Dallas Cowboys’ 2004 Thanksgiving halftime show, the culmination of a PR photo opportunity victory tour to boost support for the war before they redeploy. Under fire during an operation, Billy went to the rescue of their wounded zen-philosophising sergeant (Vin Diesel), killing an enemy combatant at close quarters, an action captured on cellphone that earned him a medal, but has also left him, just a  small town Texas boy who only enlisted to avoid jail after beating up his sister’s heartless boyfriend, with post traumatic stress disorder.

He’s confused and in a  daze. Everyone treats him like a hero, but his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), the family’s only anti-war liberal, wants him to see a psychiatrists and get discharged, while around him, their manager, Albert (Chris Tucker) is trying to hustle them a  movie deal, the army PR man is in a flap (and has no idea what they’re going to be asked to do) and the event organiser just sees them as a prop for headline act Destiny’s Child (not playing themselves!).  Billy’s also being given the eye Faison (Makenzie Leigh), the star-spangled Christian cheerleader who seems to think it’s her patriotic God-given duty to be his groupie for the day. He, on the other hand, a wide-eyed, inexperienced innocent, is already planning their future.

Rightly, the others in the platoon have a more pragmatic view. Especially Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund), their unit commander who, while committed to doing his duty, is under no illusions about what either the event or the war is about, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind, most notably in scathingly sharp scene with Tim Blake Nelson’s Texas oilman.

Shot at 120 frames per second, five times faster than an ordinary movie, it has a vivid clarity that pulls you right into the picture, something that’s particularly effective in the close-ups. But, even so, whether in his response to team owner Norm Oglesby’s (Steve Martin) offer to bankroll the movie, but with a derisory payment to the men of Bravo, or his internal struggle over self-preservation and loyalty to his fellow soldiers, it’s Alwyn’s performance that pulls you into its emotional heart as the film addresses the differences between the media’s portrayal and the public perception of the troops and the reality, the squad’s reaction to the special effects showing just how affected they have been. The support they give is about the idea not the men themselves, as seen when, after the game, its fake marching band and the cameras are gone, they’re set upon by the stadium’s stage crew.

There are flaws, a somewhat hesitant Martin doesn’t fully make Oglesby the exploitative slimeball he should be,  save for Kathryn, Billy’s family are only loosely sketched, and the others in the squad are, inevitably, never given as much dimension as Billy or Dime; nevertheless, this deserved a far better response and bigger audience than it’s received. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

 

Fences (15)


Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Electric)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first in the adaptations of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named new senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But the,, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard (who just happens to be James’ husband),  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers, got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christians fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making ir rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. ((Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Prevenge (18)

Having written and starred in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, Alice Lowe adds director to the hyphenates, penning another serial killer warped black comedy,  this time involving a seven-month pregnant woman rather than sociopathic caravaners. A wry twist on antenatal depression, it has Lowe (who was herself pregnant during filming) as Ruth, a single mother-to-be following the death of her partner in (as hinted at in brief flashbacks) a  climbing Touching The Void-like tragedy. We first meet her in a pet shop run by a leering creep (Dan Renton Skinner) whose sales patter is loaded with sexual innuendo. As he bends down to show her one of the spiders, she cuts his throat. “One down”, she remarks. And so, adopting  a variety of different names, she moves around Cardiff adding others to the tally, among them DJ Dan (Tom Davis), a repulsive misogynistic pub DJ who pukes into his afro-wig in the back of the taxi and then slobbers all over her. But, it’s not just sexist men she kills. There’s also the kindly guy whose flat share ad she answers, and his flatmate, and also a  cold career woman spinster (Kate Dickie) who has no empathy for pregnant job applicants; but, disappointingly, not the very annoyingly upbeat midwife (Jo Hartley).

All of this is because Ruth’s under the delusion that her unborn baby is telling her to kill (“Baby will tell you what to do… Baby knows best”, says the midwife with wry irony), though clearly it’s her own grief, anger and a twisted  pre-emptive revenge, fuelled by (most of) her victims’ attitudes to women, pregnancy and children,  that leads her to the murders and an eventual Halloween party confrontation with a guy (Kayvan Novak) who runs a climbing school.

A grim, grisly and bleakly black satire as well as an observation on how pregnancy can make you feel you no longer have control over your own body, as with Lowe’s deliberately flat monotone performance, it makes a virtue of the mundanity of the settings, its mood of disorientation underpinned by its nervy electronic score. And, although the fact that the victims don’t all conform to the same type muddles the argument about attitudes to pregnancy and the moral debate between conscience  and foetus feels overdone, this is an impressive – and impressively transgressive – debut. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

The Space Between Us (PG)

 

Unfortunately, the distributor declined to make a screening available for review, but, marking director Peter Chelsom’s first since 2014’s dismal Simon Pegg  dramady  Hector and the Search For Happiness, this stars Asa Butterfield as 16-year-old Gardner who was born on Mars since  his astronaut mom didn’t realise she was pregnant when they set off to become the planet’s first colonists. She died in childbirth and, his existence kept secret from those back on Earth, he was raised by caregiver Kendra (Carla Gugino) under the watchful eye of colony head honcho Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman).

Gardner’s struck up an online relationship with Colorado foster teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson), though she’s naturally unaware that he’s calling her from space, (he tells her he lives in a New York penthouse which he can’t leave because of a bone disease) and now he wants to visit Earth to meet her and try and find his father.

Despite Shepherd’s objections, he’s given permission, but,  with tests showing that, even with skeletal implants, his body can’t cope with Earth’s environment, he realizes they’ll want to send him back. So, while there’s still time and he and Tulsa take off to try and find the father he’s never known.

Reviews have been fairly scathing about its cocktail of fish out of water, teen romance and search for identity and place road trip plot, a sort of adolescents answer to Starman, but, while it may not be a patch of Chelsom’s earlier child-centred feature, The Mighty, Oldman and Butterfield are always good value and the intrinsic sweetness and poignancy at the film’s heart may just about overcome the clunkiness that surrounds it. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

  

NOW PLAYING

Denial (12A)

This marks the return of director Mick Jackson with his first feature since 1997’s Volcano as, with a screenplay by David Hare, it recounts the true story of the libel case brought by self-proclaimed historian, anti-Semitic Nazi sympathiser David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic teaching Jewish history in Atlanta, who, in her book. Denying the Holocaust, has accused him of being a Holocaust denier, a charge he refuted and claimed had damaged his reputation and career. Had he won, citing the mantra ‘no holes, no Holocaust’, then it would have legitimised denial of six million deaths.

The film opens at a lecture by Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) where Irving (a chillingly creepy Timothy Spall) interrupts, offering money if anyone can produce any document confirming that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz or that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. Save for a haunting research visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland itself (the defence had to provide forensic evidence that the Holocaust happened), the remainder of the film centres around the two year trial in the Royal Courts of Justice in England, where the burden of proof in libel is on the accused, during which her council, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce, and renowned Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) refused to let her speak or for Holocaust survivors to testify so as not to allow Irving a platform.

Irving describes it as a David and Goliath battle and that’s largely how the film plays out, except it’s actually the defence team in the David role, having to engineer ways to ensnare Irving, defending himself, in a net of his own vanity and inaccuracies. Never sensational, it respectfully sticks to the facts (the courtroom dialogue is taken verbatim from the records) but, in great part due to Weisz’s nuanced performance, it is, while not without moments of levity, riveting and emotionally wrenching.  (MAC)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).

Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a  former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.

With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile,  the puritanical  Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.

Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.

Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie  (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.

The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a  few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino,  develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from  low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).

Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of  the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Vue Star City)

 

Gold (15)

Inspired by the story of Canadian mining prospector David Walsh who, in 1995, became the toast of Wall Street when his company struck gold in Indonesia, only for things to turn out to be not quite what they seemed, this is essentially another cautionary tale about greed can blind you. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, it stars Matthew McConaughey, sporting pot belly, seriously receding hairline and a snaggle tooth giving a deglamourised performance as Kenny Wells, a sweaty, ageing mineral prospector  with the gift of the gab whose late father’s once huge mining company has gone under, he and the remaining salesmen now hustling out of the Nevada diner where girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) works. Then, one night, he quite literally has a dream about finding gold in the Indonesian jungle and, pawning the last of their valuables, jets out to hook up with Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a maverick geologist who made his name discovering a massive copper mine.

Acosta’s looking for gold, but can’t get finance, which is where Kenny comes in, promising to raise whatever it takes. Pretty much operating by the seat of their pants, unable to get any of the Wall Street big boys to buy in, things almost go under. But, when Kenny wakes from a severe bout of malaria, Mike tells him they’ve struck gold. In fact, it would appear they have found the biggest goldmine in decades. Inevitably, these same Wall Street boys  now become vultures looking to get  a  piece of the action, among them his father’s old friend Clive (Stacey Keach), Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll), an investment firm go-getter who tries to swing a partnership, and heavyweight Mark Hancock (an oddly accented Bruce Greenwood) who wants to buy the pair out. And then there’s the corrupt politicians to contend with too.

Suffice to say that having gone from riches to rags and back to riches, Kenny finds himself back to rags again. Except, driven by his dream and his obsession rather than the money (he turns down $300 million), he and Mike manage to reverse fortunes yet again, even if he does lose Kay somewhere along the ride. But, as flashforward scenes of him being interviewed by an FBI agent (Tony Kebbell) about the overnight disappearance of  several hundred million dollars indicate, the see saw isn’t over yet.

Without giving too much away, it seems not everyone was being totally honest about what went down in Indonesia (there’s a nice in joke magazine cover titled Fool’s Gold, a previous McConaughey film), although the screenplay keeps one card up its sleeve to twist in the final moments.

Events occasionally moved along by voiceover as well as constant stream of 80s hits, it is, undoubtedly, overlong with something of a repetitive narrative, while the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience to get the blinded by greed message and feels the need to drop in lines spelling it out. It never gets to play in the same big leagues as Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room or The Big Short, all of which it echoes, but, even so, McConaughey’s underdog trying to grab a better kennel keeps you engaged, even if the end leaves you to question everything you’ve just seen and heard.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Vue Star City)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)   

It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed Unec, p in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I, Daniel Blake (15)

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

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

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

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

Jackie (15)

Chilean director Pablo Larraín makes his English-language debut with Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay about Jackie Kennedy (Oscar nominee Natalie Portman) in the hours and days following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Based on an interview she gave to  Life magazine reporter  Theodore H White  (Billy Crudup), unnamed here,  the week after the shooting, with speculative conjecture thrown in, it covers the aftermath of the shooting, the return of Kennedy’s body to the White House, vexed arrangements for the funeral, Jackie’s accompanying of the coffin to Arlington cemetery, the breaking of the news to her two children, Caroline and Jack, and the understandably emotionally difficult preparations to move out of the White House to make way for incoming president Lyndon Johnson. Stitched into this is a recreation of the 1962 TV documentary tour she gave inside the White House to give the public an insight and explain why she was restoring artefacts from past presidencies.

Cutting back and forth to the interview, which Kennedy controls, instructing the reporter what he can and cannot publish, it paints a picture of a traumatised woman trying to hold it together, looking to make her husband’s death meaningful, preserving his legacy and her own dignity, but very clearly on the edge of a breakdown. There’s a telling scene with a candid priest (John Hurt) where she talks about her husband flaws and her own wanting to die and, in response to the inevitable question as to what the bullet sounded like when it hit her husband’s skull, a very graphic description, although Larrain wisely keeps the equally vivid visual recreation until the final moments.

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

She’s ably supported by strong performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as PA and close friend Nancy Tuckerman and Max Casella as Jack Valenti, Kennedy’s media liaison who became Johnson’s special assistant and, understandably, had no wish for his new boss to be exposed to another potential shooter during a funeral procession. There’s also a fine cameo by Richard E Grant as Bill Walton, the Kennedys’ gay friend who served as Jackie’s interior decorator adviser. Though not called on to do much in terms of the narrative, Caspar Phillipson does a reasonable job of looking like JFK.

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme effectively underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (MAC)

 

 

La La Land (12A)

Having  swept the Golden Globes and likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers. 

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

Another Best Actor nominee,  Casey Affleck gives a low key career best performance as Lee Chandler, a taciturn, socially withdrawn and short-fused Boston janitor, who, called back to his Massachusetts hometown on the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), learns that, the boy’s alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mole) long having abandoned the family,  he’s been named as guardian for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), something for  which he feels singularly ill-equipped. Not least on account of the heartrending tragedy that led to his divorce from  wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and forced him to leave several years earlier  and which has tormented him ever since.

 Returning to the scene, where people still give him looks, brings the pain to the surface once more as he tries to deal with both his and Patrick’s emotions and find a way to offload the responsibility to someone else, possibly Joe’s friend George (CJ Wilson). Yet, when his now dry  and remarried former sister-in-law makes unexpected contact, he’s wary of her re-entering Patrick’s life.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

Not that it’s unrelentingly downcast. With the lippy Patrick juggling two girlfriends, as well as an awkward dinner table moment involving Mol and Matthew Broderick, there’s an element of humour. But this too is coloured by the way Patrick deals with his father’s death by trying to hang on to the life he has as well as wanting to renovate the creaky and near clapped-out trawler in which the two of them (and, in earlier days, Lee) went fishing.

Working from Lonergan’s insightful screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza)

 

 

Moana (PG)

The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and   Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.

She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about  how  shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who  knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave  comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.

Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.

And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway  cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple  have the courage to  be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips  “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against  bursting into song.

Cravhalo brings a lively  spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including  a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore  nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the  new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.

The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny  another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that had its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was written off  as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.

Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster.  Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan), works in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate  his clapped out old pick up.

Meanwhile, smarmy villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard.  To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.

It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.

Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as they climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments of stupid fun, but, for a film that purports to have an anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only.  (Vue Star City)

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)

Although the final scene keeps the door open for continuing adventures, this, the sixth in the series all written and mostly directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring wife Milla Jovovich, does draw a line under the long-running post-apocalypse saga of the battle between the Umbrella corporation and Alice (Jovovich), the enhanced is she/isn’t she clone of  Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the corporation’s murdered, co-founder, whose mind was used to create the Red Queen artificial intelligence programme which takes the hologram of a little girl, in a world devastated by the zombies created  as a side effect of  the T-Virus designed to eradicate all illnesses.

It turns out that the apparently not dead Umbrella CEO Dr Isaacs (Iain Glenn) to unleash an airborne antidote to cleanse the world so that the rich and powerful, cryogenically frozen in The Hive, can then take over. Which is why, picking up a few weeks after the last installment and blithely dispensing with logical narrative continuity, the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), who wanted to destroy humanity in the previous film but now wants to save it,  tells Alice she has to get back to Raccoon City, where it all began and stop them. Of course, as she herself is infected, that means she’ll die too, Got all that?

Which basically boils down to a long Mad Max aping chase/battle with Isaacs in his armoured tank and the undead hordes in his wake and then another one at the survivors’ stronghold in Raccoon City, where she’s reunited with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from Extinction for another battle against Isaacs, this time inside The Hive itself.

As such, it does what’s expected of it, no more, no less, with an assortment of CGI creatures (this adds a dragon to the tally in a particularly inventive opener as she battles it with a Hummer), relentless explosions and fights, scenery chewing from Glen and the flat but ever-entertaining delivery by a leather-clad Jovovich, along with her impressive athleticism, which this time includes taking out a  bunch of tooled-up goons while suspended upside-down from a  harness. In a plot twist as incredulous and improbably as it is ingenious, she also gets to play another version of herself. Hardly great art or great cinema, nonetheless the series has been an entertaining ride and, if this really does close the book, it goes out in fine style. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rings (15)

Just like the recent Blair Witch reboot, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle  remakes, is that you watch a  certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a  flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers’ TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend  Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, prompting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?

Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast  provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas haven’t been before, while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently swapped for the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind  man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

The signature  John Williams theme may be absent, but the first of the standalone Star Wars spin-offs  sets a high standard, serving as a prequel to 1997’s A New Hope  (hope being a word that occurs repeatedly) to detail how Princess Leia came to be in possession of the knowledge about the fatal flaw that enabled the rebellion to destroy the Death Star.

As with last year’s The Force Awakens, George Lucas’ contribution is limited to inspiration and acknowledgement, and, like its predecessor, the film is all the better for it. Directed by Nuneaton-born Gareth Edwards, taking an even greater leap into the blockbuster leagues after 2014’s Godzilla, and with a screenplay by Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), it opens on the volcanic planet of Lah’mu with Imperial-scientist-turned-farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) being tracked down by the hissably terse white-caped Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star project, and, his wife murdered, forced to return to finish the work he began on the weapon of mass destruction. His young daughter, however, escapes capture and is rescued  and raised by Rebel fighter  Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).

Fast forward 20 years and, going under an alias, the now grown Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a thief doing time on a labour camp prison, until, that is, she’s broken out by Rebellion spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his scene-stealing hulking reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (drolly voiced by Alan Tudyk providing the bulk of the spare sarcastic comedic lines).

It seems that her father persuaded an Imperial fighter pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), to defect, giving him a message about the Death Star  to pass to Gerrera, now a maverick zealot, with several mechanical body parts. The Rebellion need Jyn to get to Gerrera, to find out what the message contains.

In many ways, this is an old fashioned war movie (particularly in the aerial combat sequences as the film cuts from one Group Leader to the next, each delivering their couple of lines of gung ho dialogue) and, in many ways, the plot to infiltrate the Imperial base to find Jyn’s father and  retrieve the vital information recalls the likes of ultimate sacrifice WWII dramas such as The Heroes of Telemark, Where Eagles Dare or even The Dirty Dozen.

While there’s references to the Jedi, there aren’t actually any in the film, although you do get blind Jedha monk Zatoichi martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) striving to connect to the Force and who, along with sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), eventually forms part of the Rogue One team  leading the assault on the Imperial stronghold.

Likewise, not until the final moments is there even a glimpse of a lightsabre, although it has to be said, the moment it appears, flashing red in the hands of one of the two brief appearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones), the thrill is palpable.

Although you do get a cameos by C-3PO and R2-D2, there’s none of the playing young tone evident in the original Episodes, indeed, from Cassian shooting an informant in the back (Daniel May’s performance well deserving his fate) to the slaughter-crammed climax, this is predominantly  very dark and grown up. Edwards handles the set pieces well and the special effects rise to the occasion, not least in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Jedah and the spectacular attack by the Rebel X-wing fighters on the Imperial fleet. However, by far the most impressive is the digital  resurrection of Peter Cushing, who died 20 years ago, playing Death Star commander Moff Tarkin, the role he took back in 1977. Indeed, his is one the film’s best performances.  Given the fact it’s been splashed all over the media, it’s no spoiler to say there’s also another digital cameo, with  a brief final shot of the young Carrie Fisher as Leia.

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld NEC;   Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Silence (15)

It’s  taken Martin Scorsese some 30 years to bring to the screen Shūsaku Endō’s novel about a 17th Century Jesuit missionary in feudal Japan and the struggle he wrestles with as to whether to apostatise (renounce God and his faith) in order to save those villagers who have converted from torture or death. As you might imagine, it’s as much an  intense and profound film as it is a book, itself based in actual events, addressing as it does such questions as free will, faith, martyrdom, doubt and the nature of belief.

Learning that  their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), apparently renounced God to save his life when his fellow missionaries were being killed and has gone Japanese, fervent young Portuguese priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) persuade their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them go and learn the truth, despite the danger they will face from the Japanese samurai, wary of the threat Christianity and its attendant colonialism poses, and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) as they hunt down the peasant converts, forcing them to recant (by placing their foot on an image of Christ) or be executed.

The padres’ first encounter with a Japanese is  Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a villager who makes a habit of apostatising whenever he’s in danger and subsequently coming back for forgiveness. He’s essentially Judas to Rodrigues’ Christ, the latter driven by a desire to find glory by embracing martyrdom, although, ultimately it’s the converts rather than he who tend to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.

At nearly three hours, it can be a bit of a slog, particularly in the second half when Driver disappears from the narrative as the pair are forced to split up and  the film focuses on Rodriguez’s internal and external dilemmas and crises of faith.

 It’s a very violent film, albeit in a detached matter that involves boiling water, drownings on crosses, burnings, being suspended head first over a  pit to bleed to death and one sudden decapitation that speaks about the Samurai mentality in much the same way that The Railway Man spoke about Japanese PoW camp commanders, Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) smiling graciously while ordering or watching sadistic tortures.

A subtly nuanced and committed performance from Garfield   downplays the character’s arrogance in the book and instead focuses on the consuming doubt that comes from the silence he’s met with when calling on God to  explain why the villagers must suffer. However, where The Mission and The Last Temptation of Christ were fairly clear, here the  philosophical and spiritual musings, especially in the austere third hour, are likely to prove too complex and rarefied for the average film audience to interpret. Indeed, when Neeson reappears and argues why Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, rather than viewing him as one last device to break Rodriguez, he seems to make perfectly logical sense. Even so, commandingly acted, visually striking and serious-minded, it’s a film that haunts, even as it challenges.  (MAC)

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Split (15)

Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

 

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City) 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

Last seen in 2005, extreme sports action hero and agent for the xXx-program,  Xander Cage is resurrected for a franchise reviving bout of all action popcorn nonsense that remembers to never take itself too seriously.

When a satellite plummets from orbit and crashes into New York, killing xXx-program founder Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) just as he’s recruiting a new agent and then a multi-cultural team invade a top secret briefing entailing assorted top government suits, take out all the security and steal the gizmo responsible, the so called Pandora’s Box, then new NSA head honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette) seeks out the long presumed dead Cage (Vin Diesel), who’s actually  living it up in the Dominican Republic, putting his skills to effective use to ensure the locals can watch the big match on cable TV.

Persuaded to return to action and having identified where the crew responsible for the attack are hanging out, as well as reclaiming his trademark fur coat, Cage insists on recruiting his own team of thrill-seekers, comprising punky green-haired crackshot Adele (Ruby Rose), crazy adrenaline junkie stuntman Tennyson (Rory McCann) and Nick, a DJ known as the Hood. To which end, they duly set off to the Philippines  where the other team of mercenaries, leader Xiang (Donnie Yen), fellow martial arts expert Talon (Tony Jaa), strongman Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the sexy but lethal Serena (Deepika Padukone) are hanging out, to recover the device. To complicate matters, Serena thinks it should be destroyed while Xiang wants to hang on to it, all of which is just an excuse for the three of them to play a  game of pass the grenade and for Xiang and Diesel to have a surfing motorbikes on water skies scene across the ocean.

At which point, it all starts to get a bit confusing to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, as well as even noisier and more action packed, a bit like Mission Impossible’s snotty OCD little brother.

Suffice to say, everyone ends up working together to track down the real bad guy and the other bigger and better Pandora’s Box, a nuts and bolts plot that serves to allow any number of fast cut fire, fist and feet fights, more eye-popping stunts, deliberately cheesy dialogue, and copious amounts of scenery chewing, much courtesy of the straight-faced Collette, as well as a delightful comic turn from Nina Dobrev as Marke’s bumbling geeky tech-op assistant.

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456. 

Odeon Birmingham –Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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