MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Oct 7-Thu Oct 13

NEW RELEASE

The Girl on the Train (15) One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, as directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ global bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and, then, there was that incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.

A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, she fantasises as the perfect, happily married couple of her broken dreams.

So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony, she’s not just shocked, but takes it as a personal outrage  and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where she jogs to give her a piece of  her mind. Which, when she awakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of  detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney, reduced to virtually set dressing, unlike the character in the novel) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott, pretending to be a friend of Megan, to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.

Clearly nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and with the latter’s  same voyeuristic constituents, both film and book, which, told in disjointed flashbacks, offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked with infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.

Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who (though he’s quickly eliminated as a suspect) is actually something of an abusive thug.

Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film also has to act as an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired or her golf club rage, all of which are designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.

Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by binge drinking memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures, but, while the film works to make Rachel sympathetic,  they’re all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blood Father (15)

blood-fatherAlthough Warners are only releasing it on a handful of screens, this marks a powerful comeback from Mel Gibson with a character that deliberately riffs on the troubled star’s battles with the bottle and racist comments. Here, he’s John Link, a wild-haired, grey-bearded recovering alcoholic eking out a living as a tattooist in a desert trailer park not far from the Mexican border, just across the way from his sponsor (William H. Macy). Acrimoniously divorced, he also has a teenage daughter, Lydia (Erin Moriarty), he’s not seen in years.

They are, however, reunited when, in the opening sequences, she accidentally shoots her Mexican drug dealer boyfriend (Diego Luna) during a  botched home invasion, marking her as a target for his murderous gang and, more specifically, a heavily tattooed cartel sicario. With no one else to turn to, she calls dad, thereby setting in motion the stalk and chase narrative as the pair try to keep one step ahead while Link, violence always just simmering below the surface, calls on his past, notably a redneck  by the name of  Preacher (Michael Parks) who sells Confederate and Nazi propaganda online, to try and eliminate the bad guys.

As such, it’s fairly predictable genre fare, but director Jean-François Richet and screenwriters Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff crank it up a  level with the astute pacing and a sharp script that’s laced with thoughtful socio-political observations. However, it’s Gibson, who often recalling past characters such as Martin Riggs and Mad Max (he gets to ride a motorbike too), who is the volcanic and very physical energy that lights up the screen, the unpredictable Link switching from poignant tenderness to ferocity in a  heartbeat, and clearly revelling in the violence that serves as a cathartic release from his long pent up frustrations.   (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Little Men (12A)

little-menDirected and co-written by Ira Sachs, who made the tender autumn years gay relationship drama Love Is Strange (from which Alfred Molina puts in a cameo here), this is another beautifully observed New York story, although his time the central characters are from a much younger generation.

Learning that his semi-estranged father has died, struggling actor Brian (Greg Kinnear) and psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) attend the funeral with introverted wannabe artist 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz) who, when the family move into the old man’s Brooklyn apartment, strikes up a friendship with more outgoing Tony (Michael Barbieri), the teen aspiring actor son of Chilean single mother seamstress Leonor (Paulina Garcia) to whom his grandfather leased the adjoining shop.

However, now that Brian is the new landlord, the matter of rent rears its head. Her friendship and arrangement with his late father meant Leonor’s never paid the going rate, but the neighbourhood’s changed and gentrification means her dress store is all rather out of place. More to the point, the rent is far below what it should be and Brian, pushed by his sister (Talia Balsam), has to broach the thorny subject of renegotiating the lease. Leonora insists she can’t and, more to the point, won’t pay any more, pointedly telling Brian she was more family to his dad than he was.

All of which naturally impacts on two boys, although, rather than driving them apart by taking sides, brings them closer together in united defiance of the parents from whom they often feel alienated and to whom they now refuse to speak, sparking a row in the car when, after the opening night of Brian’s new play, an Off Off Broadway revival of The Seagull, neither will give him the plaudits he wants.

Very much an art house film, with unfussy, minimal direction, finely tuned performances and quiet observations on family and modern life, but most particularly on the platonic teenage bromance  between Jake and Tony, the latter persuading Jake to join him in applying to the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, an ambition that gives rise to a particularly striking scene between Tony and his acting coach. Such quiet and subtle films often get lost in the mainstream flood, so make the most of the opportunity to catch this while you can. (MAC)

 

My Scientology Movie (15)

msm_still_04Louise Theroux makes the transition from small to big screen with the investigative documentary about the Church of Scientology, the  controversial cult whose high profile numbers include Tom Cruise, John Travolta and, possibly, Will Smith. In keeping with the sly deadpan Theroux style, while serious enough, this is rather more lighthearted in tone than Alex Gibney’s recent documentary on the same subject, Going Clear.

From the moment he posted a tweet asking for any scientologists to contribute to his documentary and received several messages suggesting this might not be the best idea. Inevitably, no one from the Church was prepared to talk to him, but some high profile ‘blow outs’  did come aboard, specifically Marty Rathburn, who acrimoniously quit after 27 years and was the former enforcer for its little seen but much feared and allegedly violent leader, David Miscavige, and  Jeff Hawkins, a former Sea Org member, essentially the organisation’s elite SS  wing charged with neutralising any negativity  from SPs (suppressive personalities – i.e. any who says anything bad about the religion) and, with the harassing assistance of the ‘squirrel busters’,  those who leave.

Since there never any chance of Miscavige or Cruise participating, Theroux holds auditions for actors to play them in scenes drawn from extant footage of conventions and a rare TV appearance as well as Rathburn’s experiences and, while these take up rather too much time, Andrew Perez, who  ends up as Miscavige’s stand-in, is scarily convincing.

It’s not  long after Theroux starts filming that word gets out and they find themselves being shadowed and filmed themselves and two of the film’s funniest yet unsettling moments are when Theroux confronts a woman and a cameraman opposite their makeshift studio who refuse to say who they are or why they’re there and, later in a couple of run-ins outside Gold Base,  Miscavige’s compound, where a woman called Catherine Fraser, one of the Sea Org rottweilers, orders Theroux off their private property, all the while having him filmed and ignoring his protestations that it’s a public road. Even the two LA cops she calls seem bemused by the ridiculous nature of the situation. The second time around there’s a marvellously absurdist image of the Theroux and a scientologist circling each other, the latter with his HD camera, the former documenting the moment on his iPhone, all the while maintaining his trademark ironic politeness. Indeed, large portions of the film involve the two sides of the documentary pointing cameras at each other like some sort of Mexican stand-off.

Naturally, the Church denies all allegations and, in turn, accuses the likes of Rathburn as being vindictive and embittered liars and there’s a particularly awkward moment when Theroux’s probing of Marty’s past elicits an altogether less friendly and helpful side.

At the end of the day, it’s a little slow and  doesn’t really add much insight to the rumours, allegations and denials surrounding the Church, though clearly those seem on camera clearly aren’t one’s you’d invite round for tea and biscuits, but it’s never less than entertaining.(Electric; Mon with Q&A: Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman, Vue)

 

Supersonic (12A) 

supersonicIncessantly foul-mouthed, but often very funny documentary about the gobby  Gallagher brothers  Noel and Liam, their fractious relationship, their abusive father, and the rise to stardom with Oasis, featuring some rare, if grainy, early pre-fame footage.  (Mon, Wed/Thu: Electric; Mon: Everyman)

 

War on Everyone (15)

war-on-everyone01Following quirky Irish dramas The Guard and Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh make his American debut with an equally offbeat story of a pair of sharp-suited, cheerfully corrupt New Mexico detectives Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgaard), the sort of cops who turn up a murder scene eating cheeseburgers. The tone of the film is  immediately set when, behind the wheel of the latter’s classic blue Monte Carlo coupe, the pair chase down a coke-dealing mime, Terry pondering whether mimes say anything when they’re hit.

Bob is a happily married family man with a drop-dead gorgeous wife and  two spoiled overweight kids, Terry, who says he joined the force because “you can shoot people for no reason” (except neither of them have actually ever killed anyone – or at least not yet)  is a misogynist, racist, who only makes an exception for his Mexican partner. Recently returned from another suspension, are on their last chance. All the more reason then to try and secure a hefty stash of money when, sussing that a whole bunch of dodgy types  are in town for a heist, they decide not to inform their long suffering precinct boss (Paul Reiser), but, to keep watch and then make off with the cash once the crime goes down. Inevitably, things go bad and the money goes missing, leading the pair to take a trip to Iceland to track down their cocaine snorting  African-American Muslim convert informant Reggie X (Malcolm Barrett) as well as putting paid to a child pornography ring.

Populated by such oddballs as a politically sussed ex-stripper  (Tessa Thompson),  British aristocrat chief villain  James Mangan (Theo James) and his effeminate psycho henchman Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones), it inevitably evokes the flippant and cool style of  both Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, casually referencing American history, Greek mythology, famous suicides, dispensing wisecrack quips (“This is the police department. We’re surrounded by big fat racist pigs”, observes Reiss) and liberally scattering the soundtrack with Glen Campbell ballads.

Very much in the tradition of  maverick, non-PC cop buddies, Pena and Skarsgaard are terrific, the latter far better than in Tarzan, this makes a hugely enjoyable companion piece to Nice Guys, so it’s a pity the distributor and exhibitors didn’t have more faith in it rather than limiting it to just three screens. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza)

Yarn (12A)

yarnIcelandic documentary reveals how the traditional crafts of crochet and knitting have become one of the hottest movements in modern art, following assorted international artists and knitters as they bring yarn to the streets and into our lives in new ways.  (Sun: Electric)

Birmingham On Film

Sun

A Private Enterprise (U)

private

Seen by many as the first British-Asian film, this 1974 drama concerns a recent graduate fending off marriage offers, bogus spiritualism and parental expectations, while hatching his own plans for a small Birmingham factory selling Indian trinkets. (Electric)

 

 

Tue

Handsworth Songs (n/a) John Akomfrah’s 1984 documentary collage  for the Black Audio Collective involving archive footage and news material in an analysis of how the media tackles dissent. (Handsworth Library)

Thu

Millions Like Us (U)

millions

Launder & Gilliat’s 1943 home front drama about  women working in a munitions factory, filmed at the Spitfire works in Castle Bromwich and featuring many of the actual employees. (Greenwood Academy)
 

NOW PLAYING

Anthropoid (15)

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

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

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

 

 

Bad Moms (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The BFG (PG)

bfg2One of the attractions of Roald Dahl’s stories is that they are not all sweetness and light, there is a darkness and scariness to them in which children delight. Initially, it seems as though director Steven Spielberg and the late Melissa Mathison’s screenplay (she also wrote E.T.) might be remaining true to Dahl’s tone as it appears that, after plucking 10-year-old orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, who makes her initially bossy character endearing without being cloyingly cute) from her orphanage bed after she sees him walking London’s night-time streets from her window, he may actually be preparing to fry her up for his dinner. However, inevitably such darkness gives way to a more soft, family friendly approach about the importance of dreams.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bridget Jones’s Baby (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brotherhood (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Clan (15)

the-clan-02Granted immunity for his work as a member of the junta’s secret police, following the 1983 overthrow of the Argentinean dictatorship led by General Galtieri, Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella) became a seemingly respectable patriarch and businessman, his son, Alex (Peter Lanzani), a rising rugby star. However, Puccio, with the assistance of two sons, the complicity of his wife and the wilful ignorance of his daughters, also kidnapped four people for extortion between 1982 and 1985, killing three of them before the police broke into their Buenos Aires home to rescue the businesswoman they’d held hostage for a month.

Directed by Pablo Trapero, intercutting between the kidnapping and the police raid on the house, this superbly crafted real life thriller juggles politics, greed and family life, Alex’s decision to marry Monica (Stefanía Koessl)  leading to his refusal to take part in the third kidnapping and being blamed went it went pear-shaped. Often claustrophobic in its settings, it vividly cuts between Alex and Monica having sex in his car and the torture of the second victim, while the screams of their fourth intrude into the domestic set up.

His implacable composed demeanour punctuated by glimpses of the ruthlessness behind the mask, Francella is hugely impressive, even if the film  never really gives much insight into motivations (Puccio claimed he was forced into carrying out orders by shadowy political figures) while the film draws clear parallels between family and a country struggling to establish democracy.  (Tue-Thu: Electric)

Deepwater Horizon (12A)

deepwater-horizonRecounting  how the titular offshore oil rig experienced a blow out on April 20, 2010, killing 11 and spilling 210 million US gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster is US history, Peter Berg’s film is pretty much your standard disaster movie. Firmly divided into the arrogant BP suits who took safety shortcuts and the heroic workers who questioned such decisions and risked their lives to shut down the rig, the former’s embodied in sneering exec Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and the latter in family man chief electrician Mike Williams (Mark Whalberg) and his manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), both of whom point out the many problems with the rig, not least BP’s decision not to carry out an essential safety check. Providing support from the bridge is navigation crew member Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) who radios the mayday and is subsequently reprimanded by rig captain Kuchta as she has no authority.

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

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

The film does exactly what it says on the label, albeit the technical jargon will require an engineering degree to follow. However, despite being framed with audio of the real Williams’ testimony and some closing credit captions, other than mentioning how much oil was spilled, it fails to give full  detail of the environmental consequences or note that subsequent litigations  over negligence. With Berg more at home in chaos than corporate malfeasance, it delivers hugely impressive effects, the rapid edits capturing the way the station turned into a volcano before many even knew there was anything wrong, celebrating  the heroism,  but ultimately glossing over the real story. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Don’t Breathe (15)

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

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

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

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

 

Finding Dory (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free State of Jones (15)
free-state-of-jones
Directed and co-written by  Gary Ross, this tells the true story of how, during the American Civil War,  sickened by the slaughter and fighting to preserve the lifestyles of wealthy cotton plantation owners, Confederate medic Newton Knight (a  heavily bearded Matthew McConaughey) deserted, returned to Jones County, Mississippi, and formed a guerilla army  of fellow deserters and escaped slaves, living in the bayous and fighting back against Confederate tax collectors.  Previously married to Serena (Keri Russell), by whom he had a son, Knight also had a second son by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a freed slave, who he took as his common law wife.

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

 

The Girl With All The Gifts (15)

girl-2Extensively filmed in Birmingham, adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel and directed by Colm McCarthy, this post-apocalypse thriller posits a future where mankind has been devastated by a virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, hungries, who are attracted to their victims through smell.

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

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

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

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

 

Hell or High Water  (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hunt For the Wilderpeople (12A)

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

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

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

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

 

The Infiltrator (15)

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

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

 

Kubo and the Two Strings (PG)

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

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

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

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

The Magnificent Seven (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

miss-peregrinesAdapted from Ransom Rigg’s bestseller and directed by Tim Burton, this is a sort of X-Men meets Groundhog Day, complete with a houseful of mutant kids, time loops and scary monsters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pete’s Dragon (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Sausage Party (15)

saus 4Bringing a whole new meaning to the term crudités, this is  a frequently hilarious and constantly  foul-mouthed animation reminiscent of Team America that takes a food’s eye view of life in and beyond the supermarket.  Sitting on the shelves, the food can’t wait to be taken out into the Great Beyond by the gods (the customers), to where paradise awaits. At least that’s what the song they all sing every morning promises.

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

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

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

The Secret Life of Pets (U)

pets 3The latest from the team behind Despicable Me suggests that, when you leave the house in the morning, your pets aren’t just curled up in their baskets waiting for you to come home. When his owner brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a scruffy mongrel with abandonment issues, her terrier, Max (Louie CK), finds his life isn’t as cushy as it used to be. However, in his attempt rid himself this rival, following a run-in with a bunch of collar-stealing alley cats, the pair end up captured by New York’s Animal Control, prompting a rescue mission across Manhattan from their four-legged friends, among them sardonic fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and headed up by  Gidget (Jenny Slate), a feisty Pomeranian with a big crush on Max and some hidden kung fu skills, who enlists the help of red-tailed hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and Pops (Dana Carvey), a half-paralysed old Basset Hound bloodhound fitted with a set of wheels.

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

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

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

Suicide Squad (15)

SS-08502rv2Despite overwhelmingly bad reviews,  while undeniably flawed, it’s nowhere near the unwatchable disaster critics claim. In a nutshell, following the death of Superman, single-minded secret-service hawk Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plans to recruit a squad of super-villains, most of them currently in a top security prison courtesy of Batman (Ben Affleck), as a disposable asset to combat any possible future  meta-human threat. When one of them goes rogue, the others, led by their military handler, are sent in to evacuate a top asset from Midway City, which is  under attack by a two super-powered supernatural entities planning to destroy humankind.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swiss Army Man (15)

swiss-army-man-2You can’t fault this for being unoriginal. Cast away on a deserted island, Hank (Paul Dano) is about to hang himself when he sees a body washed up on the shore. This turns out to be Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who is very clearly dead. He also happens to be filled with gas and, when he sees the body start twitching, he again abandons his suicide attempt and, by employing a cork stuffed up Manny’s arse, uses him as a sort of fart-propelled jet-ski to get to land.

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

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

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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