MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Feb 24-Thu Mar 2

 

NEW RELEASES

Patriots Day (15)

Mark Whalberg teams up with his Lone Survivor/Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, for a third true  life drama about the events of April 15, 2013 when, towards the end of the  annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowds, killing three (including a young boy whose body had to remain until forensics had finished) and wounding many others,  leading to a four day citywide manhunt for those responsible. However, there’s nothing exploitative or crassly jingoistic flag-waving here, simply a procedural thriller designed to honour those involved in the tragedy and seeking to protect their city.

Initially seen making a drugs bust, Whalberg, as Tommy Saunders, a fictionalised cop serving probation  for  insubordination and sporting a  bad knee, is at the centre of the narrative, providing the audience’s eyes as things unfold. On duty just a few yards from the finishing line when the explosion occurs, he’s shocked, but swiftly swings into action  until the FBI, led by  Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), take over. But, although we get scenes of him with wife  (Michelle Monaghan), who has a narrow escape after coming to see him at the finishing line, he’s only one of those in the spotlight as the film intercuts between different stories.

There’s the station’s suburban Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons) who’ll be at the heart of the eventual shoot-out, a newly married couple who’ll both lose their legs,  MIT campus copy Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who was killed when he refused to let the terrorists take his gun, and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was taken hostage when they hijacked his car, but risked his life to escape and call 911. All of whom get enough backstory to make them feel real rather than simply plot devices.

As the authorities desperately try and track down the bombers using CCTV footage, Saunders enlisted to walk through the reconstructed scene in an abandoned warehouse to identify what cameras were where, and DesLauriers is at loggerheads with the Police Commissioner (John Goodman) and the governor (Michael Beach) about not releasing details of the suspects prematurely, Berg, using handheld cameras, gripping captures the urgency of the situation.

It’s to the film’s credit too that the bombers, Chechen-born brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), aren’t cardboard cut out bad guys either, as the screenplay addresses their relationship and motivations, indeed at one point, until he’s caught up in the momentum and his brother’s influence, the teenage Jahar appears to have reservations. Whatever their actions, they too are given backstories and personalities, with perhaps the most memorable moment from this perspective being the  scene between Tamerlan’s imperturbable white  American Muslim convert wife Kathleen Russell (Melissa Benoist), whose part in the attacks still remains unclear, and her equally cooly implacable female National Security interrogator  (Khandi Alexander).

As it heads towards the foregone conclusion the action cranks up as the net closes in, leading to the street fire-fight between the brothers and the cops and the eventual apprehension of  the second suspect in a boat in a Watertown backyard. But, as well as celebrating the everyday heroism, just as Oliver Stone did in World Trade Centre and Paul Greengrass in United 93, it also poses the question as to what’s justified in  the fight against terrorism when Tommy is taken aback to learn orders have been given not to read the suspects their rights if captured.

Tommy’s monologue about good and evil, love and hate, is a misstep in an otherwise level-headed  avoidance of simplifications, but, as its  ends by merging docudrama  with documentary  footage of Red Socks’ Boston Strong celebration and the actual cops and victims involved, it serves reminder that sometimes, like in Hacksaw Ridge, Hollywood heroism is actually the stuff of real life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A Cure for Wellness (18)

Licking his wounds after the not entirely justified  critical and box office mauling of The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski returns with a visually stylish but narratively bloated  Gothic body horror thriller, which, tipping its hat to the old Hammer horrors, clocks in at a ludicrously overextended 146  minutes. Much could have been cut without any loss, notably the prologue in which a financial services salesman working late has a heart attack, crashes into the water dispenser and dies. It’s a well  shot effective piece, but serves no actual plot purpose, an accusation that can be levelled at several scenes throughout the film.

In a set up that makes no actual sense, ambitious exec Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is ordered by his firm’s senior partners to go to Switzerland and bring back the CEO from the wellness centre for the rich and powerful where’s he taken off for treatment. Apparently there’s a merger going through and they need him sign off some paperwork and, it’s hinted, serve as the fall guy for some dodgy book-keeping, not least partly cooked up by Lockhart himself.

Arriving at the centre, located atop the Alps, overlooking the village where the residents (in true Hammer style) seem to have little affection for “the people on the hill”, he learns that the place was rebuilt following a  fire when the villagers, apparently outraged that the baron was, to sustain a pure bloodline, marrying his sister, stormed in and burned it and her in the process. As the long-winded plot unfolds, clues dribbled out by a crossword puzzle-obsessive patient (Celia Imrie) reveal there was more to it than just incest.

Lockhart is also given the runaround by the clinic’s owner, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) in trying to get to see his boss, Harold Pembroke (Harry Groener) who first says he has no interest in the business or returning, but then  agrees to leave that night. However, on his way back to the village to make arrangements, the car Lockhart’s in is struck bya  stag and he wakes up to find himself back in the clinic with a broken leg in plaster and Volmer saying he needs to get some rest and drink plenty of water. Pembroke, meanwhile has apparently been so stressed out at the thought of leaving, he’s having to have more treatment.

Further discoveries about the clinic’s past reveal the baron was conducting experiments on the local peasants, their dehydrated, mummified corpses later dug up in the grounds. Lockhart also meets time Hannah (Mia Goth), a pale and enigmatic young patient who  Volmer says is like a daughter to him. She tells him she’s a special case and that he’ll never leave, no one ever does.

The longer it goes on the murkier – and more repetitive – it gets as Lockhart keeps wandering where he shouldn’t seeing things he wasn’t supposed to and trying to get away, revealing more about the ‘cure’ the patients, mostly elderly, who contentedly wander around in white robes, playing croquet  or dancing, are receiving and forever shifting the goalposts about what happened that night many years ago (the time scale makes no sense) and the real purpose behind the experiments, both then and now.  Finally careering off into an overly protracted finale that’s more plain silly than actually creepy, it’s hard to take any of its seriously, even on its own terms, given that Isaac is clearly up to no good from the start and that his insistence on everyone drinking the water  patently a red alert.

Throw into this long slippery eels (not to mention red herrings), bodies floating in underground chambers, an eviscerated deer, Lockhart’s trip to the clinic dentist that makes Dustin Hoffman’s ordeal in Marathon Man look like a simple scale and polish, and flashbacks to Lockhart’s mother and a childhood trauma involving his father that  serve only to further muddy the coherence and widen the plot holes, and even the most patient audiences are likely to have given up caring long before the (anti) climax.

It’s not quite on the same level of staggering awfulness as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and, indeed, there are many visually inspired moments (Verbinski’s very fond of mirrored eye shots), but ultimately this is all atmosphere and style in the service of shallow substance. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

 

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)

 

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, BAFTA winner 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation 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 now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, 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,  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  to 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 Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of 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)

The Founder (12A)

A fascinating history lesson in how McDonalds came to be a globe-spanning franchise, John Lee Hancock’s film also comes with a moral dilemma for its audiences. Should they applaud Ray Kroc (an inspired Michael Keaton) for his drive and ruthless tenacity in building an empire out of what was a simple single mom and pop fast food takeaway or condemn him for the greed that led him to walk all over the two McDonald brothers with whom he had gone into a Faustian partnership, breaking their contract and denying them their due royalties? Is the film being bitterly ironic or is it, like Wall Street, endorsing the idea that greed is good, especially when it is directly linked to the very idea of America?

When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling 52-year-old travelling salesman with a smooth line in patter  and a long line of failed ventures behind him, his latest being trying to persuade diners to invest in one of his multiple mixer machines for their shakes. No one wants to know until, to his disbelief, he’s told he has an order for six machines in San Bernardino, California. Heading out to from Illinois to see them, he finds eager-to-please Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his less trusting brother Dick (Nick Offerman) who tell him how they set up their burger stand and revolutionised it with their Speedee service system, delivering food in 30 seconds not thirty minutes, doing away with car hop service and plates. The world’s first fast food business.

Dazzled by the possibilities, silver-tongued Kroc persuades them to join forces and let him franchise the idea. Despite traditionally-minded Dick’s resistance to many of Kroc’s ideas, the concept becomes a huge success. The problem is, the deal means Ray’s still struggling to pay the bills and Dick won’t renegotiate. At which point, the banks refusing to lend any more money, enter both Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of the new franchisees and her ideas of introducing powdered milkshakes to save on the cost of refrigerating ice cream, and Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who, later to become Ray’s business manager, opens his eyes to the fact that real money lies in owning the land on which the restaurants are built. All of which eventually leads to the big break between Kroc  and the brothers.

“Business is war,” declares Kroc, his a take no prisoners approach in which his neglected, long suffering wife (Laura Dern) becomes collateral damage to his single-minded ambition and what ultimately turns out to be a David and Goliath battle between the ones with the integrity and the ones with the money, in which Goliath wins.

Given that the film shows how the whole foundation of McDonald’s global empire is built on an act of deliberate theft, it’s patently not a glowing product placement eulogy and it doesn’t take much effort to draw the dots between the almost evangelical identification of the Golden Arches with the American dream, a parable that won’t be lost on its post-Trump audiences.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

The Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007, this is his  most lavish and ambitious to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, likely to reach beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, it’s designed to keep out a legion of monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a meteor crashed into a mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen, who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has killed one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle tethered to ropes, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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. (Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only now is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor, but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare) to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil),  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane), where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, Gianna herself going a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop one final bullet into every body, just to be sure.

Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Having scored all of the big BAFTAs except Best Actor, 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; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Fri-Wed: Mockingbird)

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s 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) and  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 goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. 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 visits 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 it’s 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)

 

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 (BAFTA winner 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, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Loving (12A)

In 1958, aptly named white construction worker Richard Loving married his pregnant black girlfriend Mildred in Washington DC. Unfortunately, they lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a state where interracial marriages were still illegal. One night, shortly after the marriage, the local sheriff broke into the house and arrested them. Richard made bail but Mildred was kept in a cell for a further five days. When taken to court they were advised by their lawyer to plead guilty, receiving a one year suspended prison sentence on the condition they left the state and did not return together for 25 years. They moved from the lush countryside where Richard was building their new home to room in a cramped house in a rundown Washington neighbourhood where they would have two further children.

Despite the fact that, five years later, their case was, on the instigation of Robert Kennedy, to whom Mildred wrote,  taken up by the Civil Rights Movement and led to a Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage a human right and overturning state laws against miscegenation their story has been largely forgotten.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose past work has included Mud and Midnight Special, that story is now the subject of this low key, slowly unfolding historical drama that’s anchored by breakout central performances by Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga.

There’s no courtroom dramatics (the eventual verdict is conveyed by a phone message to Mildred), indeed, save for that initial arrest and a tense nighttime scene involving headlights in Richard’s rearview mirror as he and Mildred return to Virginia for the birth, there’s no dramatics at all.

Faced with the judge at the Virginia court house, the couple, quiet and cowed, whisper their guilty pleas and there’s no strident protests about the iniquities of the situation. The most Richard does it mutter “It’s not right” when he’s arrested, unable to comprehend why two people in love cannot demonstrate that affection in public. They risk re-arrest to return to his midwife mother for the birth, and the law does come calling, but it was never an act of defiance. In Washington, they accept their lot, only an accident to one of the sons causing Mildred contact the Attorney General to try and move back to the quiet safety of the countryside. They are never part of the Civil Rights Movement,  but, while the taciturn Richard is reluctant to get involved and draw attention to them, when their lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), talks of it going to the Supreme Court, Mildred can see the bigger picture and, when the media take an interest, is the more vocal of the two.

It’s a conventional narrative taken at an unhurried pace in which, essentially, nothing happens for long stretches. But its impact lies in the way it underplays, most effectively as Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks (Marin Csokas) coldly and contemptously explains why their union is against God’s designs.  Likewise, a brick left on the back seat of Richard’s car is a far more effective than having one thrown through his window. It takes patience, but there is a quiet power here.  (Electric)

 

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

BAFTA Best Actor winner,  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, also nominated) 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 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 BAFTA-winning 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. (Electric)

 

Moonlight (15)

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and laden with Oscar nominations, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and who, in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel, played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forwards ten years,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night, he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened and inviting  him to visit. Briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; 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. (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

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, promoting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (and yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape, rather recklessly by taking it in turns to watch it, and Samara’s background. 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 hasn’t been before while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently for to 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.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; 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 (Vue Star City)

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)

 

The Space Between Us (PG)

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.

A cocktail of fish out of water, teen romance and search for identity and place road trip plot, a sort of adolescents answer to Starman, 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.  (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.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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 NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Toni Erdmann (15)

A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, directed by Maren Ade this is a bizarre, often very funny and at other mind-bogglingly surreal and absurd German art-house comedy that lasts for almost three hours. The title character doesn’t actually exist, rather it’s the alias that, donning fright wig and joke  buck-toothed dentures, shaggy, middle-aged, bored, divorced provincial music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) adopts to pull pranks on people like the postman. We first see the character at the start of the film, but then he doesn’t reappear until around half way through.

Wearing zombie make-up as part of a somewhat dubious farewell song by his class to a retiring teacher, he fetches up at his ex-wife’s to find his 30ish daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) back from Bucharest for an early birthday party. However, a work-obsessed business consultant for an international firm of specialising in oil trade restructuring (basically working out how many can be fired by outsourcing) , she’s barely off  her phone, leading  her father to sarcastically joke that he’s hired a substitute daughter in her place. Ines goes back to work, where she’s negotiating a deal and her father goes back home to his elderly sick dog. When the dog dies, with nothing else to concern him, he decides to visit Ines and try and rescue her from what he sees as her self-destructive (“Happy is a strong word”) isolation. Turning up unexpectedly, he proves both an inconvenience and an embarrassment as he imposes himself into her professional as well as personal space. She barely has time for him So, it’s a relief when he packs his bags and goes home. Until, that is, while out with a  couple of friends, who should turn up but dad. Or rather Toni, passing himself to her boss as a life coach to the CEO with whom they’re in negotiations. Forced to let him accompany her, Ines slowly finds that having him along tends to make people take her more seriously and, at the same time, she rather seems to enjoy going along with the masquerade.

As if this wasn’t odd enough, the film pushes further with a party scene in which  Ines is forced to deliver an impromptu full rendition of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love Of All and, later, a lengthy sequence where, following a wardrobe malfunction,  Ines blithely strips off completely,  telling the guests arriving for her birthday do that it’s a naked party and then her father turns up dressed as a ‘kukeri’, a  traditional hairy Bulgarian monster.

At times there s a feeling of everyone wondering what outrageousness they can come up with next, but, at heart, this is a serious-minded affair that subtly and often poignantly addresses such themes as parent-child relationships,  work and family, cultural divides, business ethics, corporate culture, workplace sexism, the dehumanising nature of modern technology. Driven by outstanding central performances, he a cocktail of Sir Les Patterson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Peter Sellers, she a cross between Tilda Swinton and Juliette Lewis, it builds to an emotional catharsis; there’s laughs, but when, at one point he snaps, “Are you really human?”, there’s also a sharp intake of breath.  (MAC; Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

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; 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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