MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Friday Nov 11-Thu Nov 17

NEW RELEASE

Arrival (12A) It’s been almost 20 years since the last thoughtful and intellectually serious film about first contact (that being Jodie Foster in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact), but, following up Sicario, director Denis  Villeneuve has delivered a masterful contribution to the genre that is up there with both that and Close Encounters, and which, like them, is more focused on its human characters than its aliens.

When a dozen elliptical black obelisks suddenly appear over different sites around the world, England, Russia, India, China and the US among them,  and just hover there doing nothing (sorry, no mass destruction here) media hysteria and public panic inevitably grow. Meanwhile, US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlist top linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join a multinational team, along with leading  theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and help decipher the language, essentially noises, they have recorded from their contact with the occupants, eventually dubbed heptapods on account of their squid like appearance with  seven tentacle limbs at the base of their towering bodies.

Before all this, however, a prologue reveals that Banks has suffered tragedy, her marriage having fallen apart and having seen her baby daughter Hannah grow up only to die young of cancer, flashbacks of which regularly enter her mind when she’s trying to communicate with the two aliens, whom she and Ian  dub Abbott and Costello,  as they  seeks to decipher the inky swirl hieroglyphs that are their written language.  As you’ll assume, those flashbacks have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, as she and Donnelly seek to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ visit, some countries, headed up by China and Russia, naturally, are getting edgy and, on the basis of their own linguists’ interpretations of the aliens use of the  term ‘weapon’, are moving towards military confrontation, no one’s talking to anyone else any longer, their CIA liaison wants to shut operations down and the clock is ticking.

 

As in Close Encounters, Villeneuve keeps the creatures blurry, shrouded in fog behind a white screen, intensifying the air of mystery that surrounds them and, as with the best sci fi, the film isn’t about aliens but humanity and the big questions of life as the screenplay, adapted from  Ted Chiang’s The Story Of Your Life by Eric Heisserer, addresses themes of love, loss, time, communication and perception in serious-minded, but never heavy-handed fashion, even finding room for occasional levity, as when, considering the random locations of the discs, Ian notes that Sheena Easton had hits in the ’80s in all the nations where they’ve appeared. Relying on audiences’ familiarity with and acceptance of screen narrative conventions, the film cleverly harbours an M Night Shyamalan-like twist that, although the hints do gather in the final stretch, is virtually impossible to see coming and which delivers a breathtakingly audacious and heartfelt emotion-laded resolution.

Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much centred on and anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her, and quite possibly Villeneuve,  among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

American Pastoral  (15)

americanPhilip Roth’s work has yet to generate a fully satisfying big screen adaptation and, making his behind the camera debut by default when  Philip Noyce, the original director, dropped out, Ewan McGregor delivers a workmanlike account of his generational divide novel set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War protests.  Told in flashback as author Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn who also narrates) attends his New Jersey high school’s 45th anniversary reunion and learns of the recent death of its celebrated football star Seymour ‘Swede’  Levov (McGregor). The story proper begins with Levov taking his intended, Catholic girl and former Miss New Jersey Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to meets his glove factory owner father, Lou (Peter Reigert) whom she wins over despite his insistence on bringing up any kids as Jewish.

Move forward a few years and Seymour’s running the factory, where almost 80%  of the workers are coloured, and he and Dawn, who rears cows, have a daughter, Meredith (Dakota Fanning). Although she suffers from a stutter, life is perfect. But then Merry grows up, the Vietnam War comes along and,  introduced by Buffalo Springfield’s What’s That Sound, we find she’s become a radical acting outing her protests against the war and the liberal parents she sees as complacent. When the town post office is blown up, its owner killed, Merry, who’s the prime suspect, disappears   and is not seen or heard of again for some years. Dawn has a mental breakdown, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a  facelift, and  life goes on.  But then one day Seymour’s approached by a young woman calling herself Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) with a message from his daughter. Never having given up on her, he’s now increasingly desperate to male contact, even though Rita tells him Merry hates him and Dawn.

Narratively, not a great deal happens after this, other than he and Merry are eventually reunited, but not in the circumstances he would have wished for, and he learns her actions have extended beyond the initial bombing. He elects not to mention anything to his wife, who would seem to be having an affair with an artist neighbour.  Essentially, despite the War and the Newark race riots, this is the story of a father-daughter relationship, one dysfunctional from her side (an early unsettling scene has the young Merry asking dad to kiss her like he kisses mommy) and of a family’s fall from grace that’s serves as a metaphor for America of the period (Watergate gets a brief look in too).

Fanning delivers a relatively strong performance in the early going (rather less convincing in the penance stretch) that never seeks to make her character sympathetic or even especially relatable, but a miscast McGregor and Connelly are somewhat less effective. And while much is the fault of the screenplay’s overly melodramatic dialogue, it doesn’t help that the exchanges between the pair feel more theatrical than cinematic. McGregor isn’t the best at expressing depth of emotional intensity and the charge you would expect from the confrontations between Seymour and his daughter simply isn’t there, while Connelly has a tendency to overplay Dawn’s hysteria and coping mechanisms the longer the film goes on. The film does have its moments (notably the scene where Seymour and Dawn visit the widow  of the man killed in the bombing) and the theme of radicalisation seems especially pertinent, but ultimately, lacking the textures of the novel, the overall result  is flat, disjointed and overcooked. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Solihull)

 

Departure (15)

departureThe feature debut by writer-director Andrew Steggall, Juliet Stevenson stars in an inter-generational love  triangle set in the South of France where, in the throes of a collapsing marriage, Beatrice and her teenage son, Elliot (Alex Lawther, who played the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) are sorting out the family’s summer home. Enter Clément (Phénix Brossard), an older teen staying with his aunt while his mother battles cancer, with whom both introspective, emotionally fragile  mother and sensitive son (who quotes Proust and writes poetry) become sexually involved, each withdrawing into themselves and away from one another as they deal with their problems. It’s all rather arch and somewhat trite in its depiction of Elliot’s  sexual awakening and Beatrice’s need to be wanted, not helped by the slow pacing, florid  dialogue and the relentless aquatic imagery, the quality of the performances struggling against the mannered navel-gazing affections of the  screenplay and direction. (Mon: MAC)

 

Ethel & Ernest  (15)

ethelernestTo be screened by the BBC over Christmas, this is an early chance to catch the hand drawn animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ heartfelt graphic novel account of his Londoner mother and father’s lives, she a lady’s maid with middle-class aspirations and he a socialist-inclined milkman, from their first meeting in 1928 to their deaths in 1971 and, of course, his relationship with them. Taking in the Great Depression WWII, the birth of television and other notable events of the 20th century, it features the voices of Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent as the titular parents and Luke Treadaway as Raymond. It’s had mixed reviews and the distributor declined to provide access for a review. (Until Wed: MAC)

The Girl King (15)

the-girl-kingEnglish language Swedish historical drama from director Mika Kaurismäki about Kristina Vasa who, in 1632, aged 6, became the country’s first queen and found herself confronting a conservative Lutheran court embedded in tradition in her determination to modernise Sweden. Raised as a prince in a woman’s body, while pressured to marry the Chancellor’s son and produce an heir, she embarked on a  lesbian affair with her lady-in-waiting, countess Ebba Sparre. A lavishly appointed tale of intrigue, passion and war with a dynamic performance from Malin Buska, looking not unlike Mia Wasikowska.  (Wed: MAC)

Girls Lost (15)

girls_lostFantastical Swedish tale of sexual confusion as three outcast high-school girls find their friendship tested when the nectar from a mysterious flower transforms them into boys.  A story about  how we’ve created gender, and the struggle to know who you are when society is telling you who you should be.  (Tue: MAC)

 

Sembene! (12A)

sembeneDocumentary about the life and career of Sengalese  author turned director Ousman Sembene, regarded as the father of African cinema, whose films included Xala, Ceddo and Cannes award winner Moolaadé. Includes film clips, archival footage and interviews with Sembene. (Sun: MAC)

White Vs Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation (n/a)

all_blacks_0Documentary  about footballer  Len Cantello’s testimonial at West Bromwich Albion on 16 May 1979 and how an all-white team took on a side comprised solely of black players. (Tue: MAC)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

The Accountant (15)

theaccountantFollowing box office misfire Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool thriller about a high functioning autistic numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a tooled-up emotionally blank vigilante for hire with a female voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.

Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale.

We first meet the man in question, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman and he’s subsequently hired to looking into possible financial irregularities at Living Robotics, a  high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned  the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused),  the  perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.

Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail leads to them both being marked for elimination as he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.

Punctuating this is a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through  brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, and to prison scenes between  adult Wolff bonds and a former mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Gradually unfolding as an action movie, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck delivers a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually come together. The note of redemption in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller which promises to see a solid  return on investment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

American Honey (15)

american-honeyWriter-director Andrea Arnold’s first foray into American art house territory after her gritty UK urban estate indie dramas Red Road and Fish Tank is something of a marathon, clocking in just shy of three hours.

Leaving behind her broken Muskogee home, mouthy, streetwise 18-year-old Star (debut  actor Sasha Lane) impulsively hooks  up with Jake (Shia LaBoeuf) after meeting him at the local grocery store. A hustling salesman, he’s pied piper to a bunch of similarly disaffected and directionless teens (all of whom have equally despondent small town back stories) who work for Krystal (Riley Keough), the tough-as-nails boss of a travelling door-to-door sales operation flogging magazine subscriptions using whatever sob stories or lies they deem necessary. Travelling across the Midwest in the crew van, they’re dropped off in pairs to peddle their wares, picked up at the end of the day by Krystal who takes 80% of the money and woe betide those who come up short.

Jake, the team’s top salesman, pairs himself with Star to train her, but she blows their first house call when she takes exception to the lies he spins. Which, of course, naturally means that at some point, they’ll be getting it on together.  Other than friction between Star and Krystal, there’s not much more to it in terms of plot, Star proving increasingly adept at earning cash as things progress, the narrative variously involving her being picked up by three white Stetsoned good old boys and providing a little sexual relief for an oil field worker.

Punctuated by frequent images of flying insects and references to dreams, in many ways this is simply the dead end estates and lives of Arnold’s previous films written on a larger canvas, a dystopian coming of age road movie through American white poverty and collapsing dreams with Krystal as happy to relieve the have nots of their money as the haves.

If the visual imagery, iconography and washed out tones weren’t obvious enough, the frequently banal dialogue also spells things out  in unsubtle manner, as indeed does Arnold’s ‘ironic’ use of such numbers as The Dead Kennedys’ I Kill Children (sung by a little girl whose mum’s strung out on the couch) and the Lady Antebellum title track.

Although the mag crew never really comes into focus as characters, the performance by Keogh, LaBoeuf and, especially Lane, with her electrifying physicality, keep the attention until the final starlit moment, though, even here, Arnold can’t resist overdoing the symbolism by having Star plunge into a lake and emerge, presumably cleansed and reborn. It makes an effective point, but others have done as much and more in half the time.  (MAC)

 

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 NEC;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

doc-4Already on course to prove one of the Marvel Universe’s  biggest box office hits, this sees Benedict Cumberbatch  perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant and egotistical New York neurosurgeon who, his hands crippled in a car accident, sets off to Tibet in search of a mysterious order than he believes can heal him, eventually being taken in and mentored by  the so called Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton)  and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mystic arts. Initial skepticism quickly giving way to a driven desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, Strange’s first challenge comes when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disciple turned rogue who stole a forbidden spell, returns to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world, thereby  allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.

The occult arts are, of course, a licence to let the special effects run riot and the film doesn’t stint, characters creating warp holes with their special rings, both the Ancient One and Kaecilius using spells to make reality – as in the streets and buildings of New York – fold in on itself like some living kaleidoscopic Escher nightmare, everyone wielding mystical weapons and Strange, equipped with the Eye of Agamotto and his iconic sentient red cloak, able to move time back and forth.

However, as with all the Marvel Universe films, it’s about more than visual spectacle with the cast and screenplay bringing philosophical, psychological and emotional depth to proceedings, one scene in particular managing to be simultaneously funny, thrilling and dramatic, as Strange has to fight not only against those bent on destroying the world, but also his own insecurities and damaged sense of self-worth. Indeed, with his line in flippant humour, Cumberbatch’s Strange  is cut from similar cloth to Tony Stark.

Unlike the comics, here  Wong (Benedict Wong) is the keeper of the Ancient One’s library and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum as opposed to Strange’s valet,  while the romantic interest is provided  not by fellow mystic Clea, but by fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a name Marvel fans will recall from the short-lived Night Nurse and Nightcrawler comics. And while  Ejiofor may feel somewhat underused this time round, his role as Strange’s nemesis in the comic, ensures he’ll have much more to do in the inevitable sequel while the  obligatory  end credit scenes reveal that, before then, Strange will be casting a spell over the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Girl on the Train (15)

the-girl-on-the-trainOne of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ 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 there was also an 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, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.

So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage  and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of  her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) 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 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.

Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s  same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it 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 by 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 is actually something of an abusive thug.

Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, 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 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 and, although  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;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

I, Daniel Blake (15)

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

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

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

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

 

Inferno (15)

inf-3Six years after Angels & Demons, Tom Hanks returns as Dan Brown’s code cracking academic, Dr Robert Langdon, again caught up in a life-threatening conspiracy involving ancient art and architecture, except this time it involves not some clandestine Catholic order, but a plot to unleash a plague that, to combat overpopulation and save the species, will wipe out at least half of mankind.

Like the previous Langdon novels, the equally labyrinthally-plotted Inferno isn’t great literature, but it is a compelling page turner packed with the many twists and turns. The same holds true of the film which, after we see billionaire prophet of doom  Zobrist  (Ben Foster) being chased through the streets of Florence before throwing himself from a  bell tower,  switches to Langdon in a Florentine hospital bed having nightmarish visions. It turns out he’s received a bullet wound to the head and he’s having visions straight out of Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Italian writer’s14th century epic poem, Divine Comedy, which provides a guide through Hell.  Suffering from head trauma memory loss, he suddenly finds himself on the run with English hospital doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) following an attempt on his life by a female assassin posing as one of the Carabinieri.

Hiding out at Brooks’ apartment, he finds that he’s got some thumbprint recognition biochemical container in his pocket containing Botticelli’s circles of hell painting inspired by Inferno. Except, you know, it’s somehow not quite right and there’s letters where they shouldn’t be. If only Langdon could remember how he got it, why he’s there and what his part in all this entails.

That would be enough to be going on with, but, to complicate things further, as he and Brooks set out across Florence (as well as sites of  architectural interest in Venice, Switzerland and Turkey, Langdon a living SatNav of their secret passageways), not only is the mystery assassin after him, but so too are some ultra-secret security firm (headed up by Irrfan Khan) and the World Health Organisation with a team led by French agent Bruder (Omar Sly) under his boss, and former Langdon flame, Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), all of whom want to get their hands on Zobrist’s plague.

It is, of course, riddled with narrative holes, the plague plot makes no logical sense and, naturally, nothing and nobody are who they appear to be. At least the film, again directed by Ron Howard, acknowledges the ludicrousness of the memory loss wherein Langdon can’t remember what coffee is called but does recall his email address and password.

There’s a lot of running through old buildings following the clues left by Zobrist as to the bio-device’s location, but it all just seems to be going through the motions as it heaves its way to a ludicrous showdown that essentially pivots on the fact that you can never get a cellphone signal when you need one.

Hanks is reliable enough, but Jones often delivers her lines like she missed the script run through and this is a first rehearsal. It does the job watchably enough, and surely has to be worth seeing just for the surreal moment when a bunch of heavily tooled men burst into Brooks’ apartment shouting “we’re from the World Health Organisation!” (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)

reacherDespite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a  franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.

It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while  investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.

So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the  conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of  Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.

So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of  fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.

Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be  and act differently depending on where she is in the plot  and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and  even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent,  lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Light Between Oceans (12A)

oceans-2Adapted, at great length, from M.L. Stedman’s bestseller by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, this is an upmarket art house tearjerker steeped in themes of guilt, love, forgiveness and redemption as well as philosophical moral quandaries.

Set just after the end of WWI, looking for quiet and solitude after experiencing the slaughter of the trenches, taciturn veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes the temporary position of the keeper of the Janus lighthouse on a remote island off the western coast of Australia, the former occupant having gone stir crazy following the death of his wife.

Sherbourne, however, welcomes the isolation, perhaps in part to assuage his feelings of survivor-guilt. Not that this last long. On his second meeting with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of one of the mainland families. Herself having suffered the loss of two brothers in the war (as revealed in one of the film’s most effective scenes), she takes him on a picnic and suggests he marries her. He demurs, but, a short-pen pal relationship later, they’re wed and sharing domestic bliss in the homestead below the lighthouse. She even persuades him to shave off the moustache. Before long, their happiness is compounded when she becomes pregnant. But then tragedy strikes as she miscarries. And then it happens a second time.

However, within days, Tom spots a rowing boat in the sea, in it a dead man and a living baby girl. It’s his duty to report this, but, when Isabel begs to keep the child, who she names Lucy,  and raise her as their own, his love and the suffering she’s been through, persuades him to go along with things.

Inevitably, at some point, Lucy’s real mother will put in appearance, duly doing so at the christening as Tom spots Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping at the gravestone for her husband (the fact she was ostracised by her wealthy landowner father – Bryan Brown – for marrying a German adds to the burden of suffering) and daughter, Grace, lost at the sea on the day before Lucy came into their lives.

Although unable to reveal the truth, Tom does leave a note saying the child is well, loved and being cared for, which, naturally enough, brings the local police into the matter. Even so, the secret remains. Until, four years later, when, struck by another pang of conscience, Tom sends  Hannah a package, with far-reaching ramifications that lead to Lucy  (Florence Clery) being reclaimed  and Tom, insisting he forced Isabel to go along with things, on a murder charge and she  ultimately faced with an agonising choice. Needless to say, very much chiming with today’s social services, the child’s feelings are given no consideration in the parental tug of war.

Handsomely mounted and with terrific intense performances by Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz, it’s serious-minded period melodrama of Thomas Hardy proportions as it explores the price and sacrifices love exacts, the cruelty of fate and the ill-advised choices made by flawed but good people. Just to underline the symbolism, Tom helpfully explains that Janus is named after the twin-faced god, looking to both the past and the future.

Unfortunately, although  never descending into Nicholas Sparks soap opera, the flashbacks to Hannah with her husband (Leon Frost) and baby seem loaded (surely the audience can be trusted to understand her sense of loss) and after carefully building things in the first two acts, the third feels  rushed and confused, the characters more one note,  and, while the epilogue is undeniably poignant, the crisis of love and loyalty that immediately precedes it is too elegantly handled  to unleash the emotions it seeks to elicit. Somewhere between the two turbulent oceans, the film is becalmed. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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

miss-pAdapted 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. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Nocturnal Animals (15)

nocturnal-animalsFashion designer Tom Ford follows his 2009 writer-director debut, A Single Man, with a slow burning adaptation of Austin Wright’s revenge thriller, Tony and Susan, its shots of obese naked women dancing in slow motion in front of a camera like no credits opening before them. They are, it transpires, part of the latest exhibition staged by high powered but emotionally distant Los Angeles gallery director Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) businessman husband’s (Arnie Hammer) financial problems are threatening to bring them both down. The marriage is also on shaky ground, confirmed when he says he has take off on a  weekend business trip and we subsequently see him in a hotel with another woman.

Meanwhile, Susan’s received the draft of a  novel by Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her college sweetheart and first husband whom she’s had no contact with in 19 years. Dedicated to her, it’s titled Nocturnal Animals after  her insomnia. The film now divides into three strands: the present as she reads the manuscript, flashbacks to their time together and the events in the novel wherein,  driving through West Texas at night, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India  (Ellie Bamber) are orced off the deserted highway  by a bunch of redneck thugs (led by an effectively repellant  Aaron Taylor Johnson,) who kidnap the women. Eventually found naked, dead after being  raped, the investigation is taken on by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a grizzled lawman who, as the months pass, makes it a personal quest to bring the murderers to justice and, if that fails, to help Tony gain revenge.

As the film interweaves between the real timelines and the fictional events which Susan’s  disturbed by but compelled to read, seems that Edward (never seen in the present) is using the memories the story evokes  to punish his ex-wife, who never offered the support he needed and (echoing her ultra-conservative mother – Laura Linney) saw him as weak. There’s also another very specific reason that only becomes clear in one devastating flashback. Tellingly, Susan visualises Tony as looking like Edward, while casting Fisher as the wife clearly has its own visual resonances. Significantly, the flashbacks are only ever seen from Susan’s perspective, which further compounds the suggestion that this may be about a consuming sense of guilt.

Slowly and assuredly building the suspense, the ending won’t please those who like everything tied up neatly, but there’s no denying it lingers in the mind. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Ouija – Origin of Evil  (15)

ouijaDespite being  a thoroughly forgettable  horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to  which Before I Wake  director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set  in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of  local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of  anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Storks (U)

storks-3There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of  Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.

Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.

Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a  job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.

Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d  like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.

Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.

There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not.  (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A Street Cat Named Bob (12A)

bobDirected by Roger Spottiswood and based on the bestselling autobiography and subsequent series of books, this is a heartwarming tale about someone turning their life around with the help of a loyal friend. In this case, a cat.

It’s 2007 and James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) is a recovering heroin addict on a methadone programme, earning spare change as a London busker (courtesy of songs by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink). Thanks to his supportive case worker (Joanne Froggatt), James gets one last chance when he’s allocated a social housing flat into which, one night, comes a stray ginger tom. When attempts to find its owner prove fruitless, James decides to keep him (or vice versa), which, in turn, introduces him to Betty (Ruta Gedmintas), his vegan neighbour with her own past drugs-related tragedy, who informs him that the animal wants to be called Bob and has come to James for a reason.

And so it would appear as, taking him out busking, Bob’s soon attracting hitherto unknown crowds and turning the pair into a YouTube phenomenon and, when an incident has James banned from busking, joins him selling the  Big Issue, perched on his shoulder outside Angel tube station in Islington with people asking to have a selfie taken with him. His life gradually turning around, James seeks to reunite with his estranged father (Anthony Head), but, while there’s a general lightness of tone and often playful humour,  there will still be darker passages to navigate  before the happy ending.

The tone’s uneven, but, steering clear of mawkishness, while minor, it’s an appealingly and very British  feelgood film about choosing life and  the redemptive power of friendship that’s well served by its central two legged cast, although  it will come as no surprise to learn that, mostly playing himself,  the real star here is Bob who makes Pudsy look like a rank amateur. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Trolls (U)

trolls-movieCreated in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, known as Gonks in the UK,  were a huge fad in both the 60s and at different times from the 70s to the 90s.  Now they’re back, making their feature film starring debut in  this animated Day-Glo musical adventure from the various creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda that’s aimed very firmly at the under-7s.

A felt scrapbook prologue introduces the Trolls as “the happiest creatures the world had ever known”, always ready to burst into a song or dance and hugging every hour. They  once lived in a tree in the middle of the town, but their neighbours, the ogre-like Bergens, led by King Gristle (John Cleese),  had no idea what happiness was. They were the most miserable creatures in the world. Seeing how happy the Trolls were, they thought that they could feel that happiness too – if they ate a Troll. And so began the annual ritual of Trollstice, during which the Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski) would pluck Trolls from the tree and serve them up. Until the day came for Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to have his first taste of Troll and it was found that the Trolls had all escaped, leaving the Prince in tears and Chef in exile.

Twenty years later, after being led to freedom by King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), the Trolls live safely hidden in the forest, enjoying a  life that is all rainbows, under the uber-enthusiasm of the brightly pink Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). To commemorate their escape from the cooking pot, she’s planning to hold the biggest, brightest and loudest party ever. Something that Branch (Justin Timberlake), who, coloured a drab grey, is, for reasons we discover later, the world’s only unhappy troll, warns will give their location away.

And, so it is that, in the midst of their celebrations, along comes Chef who  scoops up a bagful of Trolls, including blue Biggie (James Cordon), the giraffe-like Cooper, hippie-philosopher Creek (Russell Brand),  fashion twins Satin & Chenille (Icona Pop) and Sparky who, to the delight of the youngsters, farts glitter dust.

And so, Poppy resolves to rescue them, a quest in which she’s reluctantly joined by Branch and which will involve them joining forces  with scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who’s secretly in love with Prince Gristle, giving her a Cinderella-styled rainbow hairdo makeover, complete with discarded skating boot in place of a glass slipper. And, inevitably, any number of mostly disco-driven songs, the soundtrack featuring both new Timberlake numbers  and old hits like True Colors and I’m Coming Out.

Although there’s some sly references, there’s very little here for the grown-ups. However,  as well as a subtle anti-drugs caution about pill-popping to feel good,  the message about how true happiness lies within you has no age limits and, while the film’s relentless energy may be exhausting, it’s also infectious with such various  inspired and funny moments as the talking Cloud Guy. Anyone older than their shoe size may find it annoying, but it’s still hard not to leave without a  smile on your face.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

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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