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MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jun 21-Thu Jun 27

 

NEW RELEASES

Toy Story 4 (U)

The fourth and final entry sees the Toy Story out on an emotional high as it pulls together the themes that have run throughout the saga for a finale that will have audiences welling up. It opens several years earlier when Woody (Tom Hanks) and the other toys, among them Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger), were still owned by Andy as Woody (motto ‘leave no toy behind’) daringly rescues a toy car that has got lost and is about to be washed away in the gutter. However, before Woody can climb back through the window, it’s slammed shut as he watches Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her three-headed sheep, Billy, Goat and Gruff, the porcelain lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly, being boxed up to go to a new home.  He attempts to rescue her, but she insists it’s time to move on to a new child and invites him to join her. Loyal to his kid, Woody refuses.

Fast forward to the present and his new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is off to kindergarten orientation and, ignoring the advice from the other toys, Woody, who she hasn’t played with in weeks (indeed, she even gives his badge to Jessie) and has lost his lost his role as keeper of the room to Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), sneaks into her backpack to ensure she’s ok. At school, he helps by providing her materials from which she makes herself a new plaything, Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork with pipe-cleaner arms, popsicle-stick feet and googly eyes. He’s her new favourite toy, but it takes a real effort for Woody to convince him that he’s a toy not trash (he keeps trying to get into the rubbish bins in a montage set to Randy Newman’s I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away) and that he’s important to Bonnie. The ironic symmetry is obvious, one is a toy who fears becoming trash, one is trash who doesn’t want to be a toy.

At which point, the family take a road trip to Grand Basin National Park and an amusement park where, separated from the others while he explains things to Forky, Woody comes across Second Chance Antiquesand spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the window. For the past seven years, in turns out she has embraced the life of a lost toy, enjoying the freedom of the park and become something of feisty kick ass (another of Disney’s female empowerment touches), riding around the park in a motorised skunk.  “Who needs a kid’s room,” she asks, showing Woody the panoramic view of the park, “When you can have all of this?”

The reunion is, however, overshadowed by the fact that the store also contains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a creepy vintage 1950s pull-string doll who, assisted by four Chucky-like ventriloquist dummy henchdolls, takes Forky hostage because she wants to replace her broken pull string voice box with Woody’s in the hope of getting a kid of her own.

What ensues are two extended rescue missions variously involving Bo, Buzz and Jessie alongside new characters joined at the paw plushies Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), mini-toy rescue cop Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canadian stunt biker Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) whose plagued by a sense of failure after being discarded when his abilities didn’t measure up to his marketing.

Exploring themes such as finding your purpose, self-worth, abandonment, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and that letting go and moving on doesn’t mean you stop loving or being loved, it will touch chords in both children and adults alike while also providing thrilling action sequences, dark and scary moments, affecting poignancy, laughs (not least in Buzz thinking his pre-programmed recordings are his ‘inner voice’) and touches of breathtaking beauty. From a joyful reunion to a moving parting of the ways farewell, this will take your heart to infinity and beyond. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Brightburn  (15)

An interesting idea that starts off well but has nowhere to go, this sort of blends together the origin of Superman with a dash of The Omen as Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), a childless farming couple from Brightburn in rural Kansas get their prayers for a miracle answered when a spacecraft crashes to earth containing a baby boy. They take him in, name him Brandon (a suitably creepy Jackson A. Dunn), hide the evidence and raise him as their own, but, come puberty, the kid starts zoning out, hearing voices and is drawn to the barn (naturally glowing red) where his folks have hidden his cosmic cradle. An encounter with the lawnmower reveals to Brandon he’s superstrong and impervious to harm, while his latent maliciousness manifests itself when he breaks the hand of a girl classmate (Emmie Hunter) after he’s been bullied. Clearly getting a taste for it, he proceeds to use his powers (superspeed, flight, laser beam eyes) to slaughter the family chickens before building up to dispatching anyone who crosses him, starting with the girl’s unpleasant waitress mother and moving on to the husband (Matt Jones) of his school counsellor aunt (Meredith Hagner) and two of the local cops before turning his attention to mom and dad who, by now, have discovered the drawings under his bed. Wearing a sack with peepholes over his head and a scrappy red cape, he also leaves a trademark symbol (his initials) at the scene of his crimes. Mom, meanwhile, remains determined to protect him despite everything.

Directed by David Yarovesky and written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively brother and cousin of producer James Gunn, the super-hero horror concept is promising, but once Brandon embarks on his murder spree, it’s clear none of them have much idea of where to take it other than throwing in more gore and some confused planetary domination babble as he keeps repeating ‘Take the world’.

Niceties such as character development, satirical wit and depth of narrative don’t get a look in, but you do get to see a sliver a glass in someone’s eyeball and a rather grisly severed jaw and admire how the cast can keep a straight face while delivering lines like “He’s not our son! He’s something we found in the woods!” While agreeably unpleasant in a B-movie manner, without even attempting to offer any explanation or motivation to Brandon’s actions (he protests to mom, “I want to be good” but shows no evidence of any inner struggle), this is ultimately more silly than scary, a sort of Drab Phoenix. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

ALSO PLAYING

Child’s Play (15)

A different kind of toy story, this reboots the Chucky franchise, a sort of older male cousin to Annabelle. In the original, it was Good Guy doll which became possessed by the spirit of a dead serial killer seeking a human body to inhabit, here it’s a Buddi doll who, voiced by Mark Hamill, becomes a murder machine after its AI is sabotaged in the production plant. The remake follows the same basic set up  in that the doll’s bought by busy single mom Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) as a companion for her adolescent (and, here, deaf) son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and subsequently takes on a life if its own, getting a taste for butchery after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, and murdering the babysitter, for which Andy gets the blame and put in a psychiatric hospital. Variations this time around include a bunch of neighbourhood kids straight out of Stranger Things who team up to defeat the doll, mom’s  jerk boyfriend and  a creepy handyman with Mike Norris (Bryan Tyree Henry), the detective on the case, being the son of a neighbour. There are, naturally, plenty of grisly deaths (including by lawnmower), stupid decisions and some woolly cautionary messages about technology out of control and the toxic influence of mankind, but nothing to warrant resurrecting a franchise that had worn out its invention and welcome long before it got the axe.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Halston (12A)

Documentary about top 70s fashion designer and socialite Roy Halston Frowick whose style was taken up by such names as Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor, charting his rise from rural Iowa to become the king of Studio 54 and ruler of a fashion empire before and addiction to  sex and drugs led to a spectacular downfall and the loss of everything. Archive footage and insider interviews  include Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel Schumacher and Pat Cleveland. (Until Wed; MAC)

 

 

 

 

NOW SHOWING

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live  action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the palace to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and, in places, given a Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Amazing Grace (U)       

Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, legal and technical issues have long prevented this concert documentary from being made public, not least Aretha Franklin’s own refusal to give permission and the fact that Pollock, unused to music documentaries, filmed it in a way that it was impossible to synch the sound and the pictures. Time and technology, and Franklin’s passing,  have finally solved all that, so here (albeit somewhat truncated) is the late Queen of Soul, then 29, recording her new live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, including Wholly Holy and a barnstorming version of the title song. (Sat/Sun, Tue. Thu:Electric)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s biggest film, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Diego Maradona (12A)

“A bit of cheating and a lot of genius”, someone says in summing up Argentinian football megastar Diego Maradona whose ‘Hand of God’ moment in the quarter final against England sealed the 1986 World Cup as Argentina went on to defeat West Germany 3-2. Directed by Asif Kapadia, but largely using existing TV footage alongside some modern day reminiscences from its subject, the two-hour plus documentary traces Maradona’s life and career from the slums of Buenos Aires through a less than glorious 80s stint at Barcelona to Naples and subsequent superstar status, the disastrous fall out of the Argentina vs. Italy clash in the 1990 World Cup  and a crash back down through  assorted extramarital affairs, pregnancy controversies, cocaine habit, mobster associations, weight gain, media ostracisation, drugs bust and despair.

Very much one for soccer enthusiasts, but even less than casual viewers are likely to be impressed by footage of the man in action; however, it’s the story away from the pitch, one fuelled by a toxic cocktail of fierce determination to win and rampant hubris that makes this, as one historian puts it, “tremendous and terrible” story worth going well into extra time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways. Solihull; Electric; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

 

Gloria Bell (15)

A virtual note for note English language remake of his own A Fantastic Woman (minus the political undertones), Chile’s Sebastian Lelio now gets to direct Julianne Moore as fifty-something, independent but lonely divorcee Gloria who goes to yoga classes, has a dull but steady job, loves to sing along, out of tune, to soft rock classics as she drives and regularly goes dancing in a 70s-themed singles bar. It’s here she meets and starts an affair with slick fellow divorcee Arnold (John Turturro,), a former Navy officer who now runs a paintball park, a romance that proves misguided and upsets her hitherto stable work-life balance and her admittedly arm’s length relationship with her mother (Holland Taylor) and children, new father Peter (Michael Cera) and hippie daughter Anne (Caren Pistorius) whose fiancée is a Swedish extreme surfer. Complicating a life in which, until then, her biggest problem was keeping her mentally unstable upstairs neighbour’s hairless cat out of her apartment, now she has to deal with the fact that Arnold has a needy ex-wife and daughters who now how to yank the lead and that, while she’s introduced him to her offspring, he won’t mention her to his.

A family dinner – that includes Gloria’s ex-husband (Brad Garrett) and his new wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) – leads to a break-up, but then they get back together, though it’s clear by now this isn’t going to last as the heady rush of new love and energetic sex gives way to noticing the flaws and cracks in the reality  as a Vegas vacation to get away from Arnold’s problems goes pear-shaped and; faced with his unreliability and emotional con games,  Gloria slowly realises the cost of being together on her own life.

Featuring a supporting cast that also includes Rita Wilson, Barbara Sukowa and Sean Astin and, like the original, bookended with dance floor scenes, the end credits again featuring Laura Branigan’s disco pop classic, not a great deal happens, although there is an amusing third act moment involving a paintball gun, and it rather overdoes the ironic soundtrack with such numbers as Alone Again Naturally, All By Myself, Total Eclipse of the Heart and No More Lonely Nights. However, featuring in virtually every scene, Moore’s consummate, emotionally grounded performance, rather feistier than the original, and Turturro’s always slightly edgy nature keep you engaged as the narrative takes its inevitable bittersweet course. (MAC)

 

Godzilla: King Of Monsters (12A)

At 132 minutes, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot is around 90% special effects action and 10% plot, but then who goes to a movie about a radiation-breathing giant lizard for the subtleties of the script! Picking things up five years on from the end of the previous film, having lost their son in Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage, scientists Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) are now divorced, she still working for Monarch with teenage daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), he out in the frozen wilds studying wolves. Together they invented the Orca, a device that can synthesise the cries of the assorted titans to communicate with – and importantly calm – them, but as she’s testing it out on Mothra, the facility’s invaded by British Army colonel turned eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) and she and Madison taken captive. Naturally, Mark is pulled back in to help rescue them before Alan can use the Orca to awaken the other titans (17 of them apparently, though we only see a few, including a glimpse of Kong) in his deranged quest to restore balance to Earth by basically giving it back to its original rulers (apparently nature blossoms in their wake) and wiping out most of humanity. The early twist is that a misguided obsessional Emma is in on the Thanos kick too, resurrecting Monster Zero, aka  King Ghidorah, the three-headed, winged hydra-like serpent and Godzilla’s big rival for the titan throne.

From which the film descends into a series of peril-fraught visits to various holding facilities dotted around the planet (China, Colorado, Bermuda, Mexico, Antarctica), the cast list dwindling as it goes (Sally Hawkins’ scientist an early casualty), as Mark, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford) and assorted colleagues and military types basically try and figure out if they want to kill Godzilla or recruit him to take Ghidorah who, it turns out is not of this world and has an agenda rather different to Emma’s on the others, and is trying to bring the other titans, among them the original angry bird, Rodin, under his control.

Scattered among the spectacular (albeit at times rather murky) destruction set pieces as assorted monsters go head to heads or wings to tails, trashing cities wholesale in their path, there’s a smattering of human stories designed to ground the emotions, including a couple of sacrifices to save the planet, but these are essentially just window dressing to the main event as it builds to its mega-sized nuclear bomb kick-start climax at Boston’s Fenway Park and the end-titled set up next year’s sequel Godzilla vs. Kong. Big and loud does it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Late Night (15)

The first woman to ever do so, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), an icy Englishwoman married to the older Walter Lovell (John Lithgow), a former celebrated pianist now suffering from Parkinson’s, has been hosting her own late-night talk show for 30 years, winning a truckload of Emmys. But, of late, set in her ways, the formula has become stale, the ratings slipping while brasher names like stand-up Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) and vacuous YouTuber Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford) are hoovering up audiences. Informed by the network head (Amy Ryan) that this is her last season, it seems the only chance of  jump-starting her show and hanging on to her career might be new addition to the writing team, huge fan Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a former chemical factory troubleshooter with no TV experience who only got the job in the writers’ room as a diversity hire to rebuff claims that the self-absorbed and supposedly feminist Newbury (dubbed by the media at one point the nation’s least favourite aunt) doesn’t hate women. A fish out of water, naturally, she’s not welcomed with open arms by her all white male colleagues, especially not monologue head Tom (Reid Scott), not of whom have ever actually interacted with Newbury who, when she attends a meeting, gives them all numbers rather than bothering to remember their names. Molly is eight.

Reuniting Kaling with her The Mindy Project director Nisha Ganatra, it’s a fairly formulaic mainstream comedy as the two women impact on each other’s lives, but it’s lifted to a higher level by both a narrative that addresses the problems faced by women in the entertainment industry (especially, as a Newbury stand up skit observes, when they reach a certain age) and the workplace in general, and twin terrific serio-comic turns by Thompson and Kaling, not to mention the barbed banter that spikes the latter’s screenplay

Inevitably, it raises 30 Rock comparisons, but muddled in its attempts to reinvent Newbury’s persona, introducing a romantic subplot that simply fizzles out and resolved all too neatly, it ultimately falls short of Tina Fey’s razor sharp classic, but there’s enough laughs and talking points to make it worth staying up for. (Vue Star City)

 

 

Ma (15)

An assistant to acerbic vet Alison Janney (great in her few scenes), thereby offering convenient  access to all sorts of tranquilisers,  Sue Ann (Spencer) is a smalltown Ohio loner with a traumatic past who, one day, is approached by Maggie (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers), who’s just moved into town with her cocktail waitress mom (Juliette Lewis, very good), to buy booze for her and her new friends, among them bad girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and romantic interest Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the son of sleazeball Ben (Luke Evans) who’s dating sharp-tongued town lush Mercedes (Missi Pyle). A lonely misfit, Sue Ann seizes on this as a chance to make some new friends of her own (one of them dubs her Ma), inviting them to come party in her basement, the only rules being no swearing, someone stays sober and nobody goes upstairs. Naturally, someone does and that’s when it hits the fan as Ma’s growing obsession shifts from hospitality to horror as she proceeds to exact revenge for a high school humiliation.

There’s some serious holes in the logic, for a start Ma has a daughter she keeps home claiming illness but the school don’t seem bothered, and things get more than a little ludicrous as it heads towards the climax,  but while Spencer, who won as Oscar for The Help (also directed by Tate Taylor) may be slumming it what is a fairly predictable Blumhouse B movie, she does so with enthusiasm, whether dancing creepily with the teens or giving that menacing glare, bringing an extra veneer of class as she’s pushed over the edge. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Men In Black International (12A)

Seven years on from the third and final instalment starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (who get a tip of the hat in a painting, and almost 22 since the MiB started protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe, director F Gary Gray reboots the franchise, reuniting Thor and Valkyrie, okay Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, for a more globe-spanning outing that take sin Paris, London, Naples and Marrakesh.

It opens with Agent H (Hemsworth) and Agent High T (Liam Neeson), the boss of the London bureau atop the Eiffel Tower, saving the world from The Hive, an alien race bent on galactic-scale destruction, “with nothing but their wits and series-70 atomizers.” Flashback twenty years with Molly witnessing her parents being neurolised by two MiB and helping a fluffball alien to escape, an incident that sparks a deep obsession that will, in the present, lead to her tracking down the MiB New York HQ and convincing station boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) to take her on as a probationer as Agent M complete with trademark Paul Smith suit, white shirt and skinny black tie.

To which end, she’s despatched to London and assigned to work with Agent H, who, as everyone observes, hasn’t been the same since Paris, generally assumed to be the result of breaking up with arms dealer Riza (Rebecca Ferguson). Given the job of babysitting visiting royalty, Vungus the Ugly, an old alien friend of H, things go pear-shaped when he’s murdered by two lookalike alien trackers (Larry Bouregois) who can absorb the appearance of those they have killed, but not before he passes on a purple crystal device to M, the only one he can trust.

This, it turns out, is some sort of superweapon involving a compressed star that could potentially obliterate the planet and needleless to say, the two aliens aren’t the only ones who want to get their hands on it, plus there’s suggestions that the London office has been compromised, while priggish Agent C (Rafe Spall) seeks to put his oar into the mission and it all winds up back in Paris with a not too hard to see coming twist, albeit with a twist inside itself.

Visually, it sometimes falls short and Gray never quite manages to successfully integrate the live action with the action-heavy effects. But this is more than compensated by the hugely enjoyable screwball comedy interplay and banter between Hemsworth, in typical laconic mode, and Thompson as the eager to impress Agent M, boosted in the latter half by the amusing addition of Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a sort of living green alien chess piece in a red uniform that resembles an acorn pod, who adopts M as his new Queen.  Ultimately, it’s not all it might have been, but there’s more than enough fun and chemistry (as well as some unresolved plot lines) here to make you hope they’re back in black again in the not too distant future.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman, who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former  scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves a hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sometimes Always Never (15)

Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed in stylised fashion by Carl Hunter who, channelling Wes Anderson, evokes a 70s kitsch sensibility with his use of bright colours (mainly orange and green) and frequent shots through doorways or reflections in mirrors, this rather mannered but ultimately involving road trip tale unfolds the father-son relationship between Alan (Bill Nighy), an emotionally distant widowed Liverpudlian tailor, and his estranged grown younger son Peter (Sam Riley) who paints and makes jingles for ice-cream vans. They meet up for the first time in ages in Merseyside to view a body that may or may not be that of Peter’s brother, Michael, who walked out of the house one day many years back following an argument over using the word Zo in a game of Scrabble (or rather, as Peter reminds him, a knock off cardboard version since his dad always did things on the cheap) and never came back. Alan’s been trying to find him ever since while Peter feels he can never compete with the memory of his vanished sibling.

Alan’s the Scrabble obsessive (good with words but useless at communicating), indeed, when he and Peter meet another couple (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny) staying at the same B&B who have also come to identify the body as potentially their own missing son, Alan hustles the husband out of £200, much to Peter’s embarrassment.

Back home, Alan foists himself upon Peter’s family, sharing the bunk bed in their teenage son Jack’s (Louis Healy) room and taking over his computer to play online Scrabble, gradually convinced that his unknown opponent is actually Michael.  Playing alongside this is Peter’s emotional distance from Jack, who reaps the benefits of his grandfather’s dress sense, and how his wife (Alice Lowe, a low-key delight) helps engineer shy Jack’s romance with the girl at the bus stop.

Essentially a film that treats on loss, reconnecting and making the best of what remains behind, it draws excellent performances from Nighy and Riley (and an odd cameo from Alexei Sayle) and build to an understated emotional punch without resorting to sentimentality. You also get to learn why you can’t buy Marmite in Canada. The film’s title is apparently a reference to how the three descending buttons on a suit’s jacket should be fastened, though quite what it has to do with the narrative remains a puzzle. Alan would probably have a word for it. (Electric)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)

Set in 1992, ten years after the events of Apocalypse (and serving as a prequel to 2006’s The Last Stand), the X-Men are now national heroes, called on by the President in times of need. Such as when something goes wrong with a space shuttle mission and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), already disillusioned with the direction things are going, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) are despatched by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to save them. Arriving at the shuttle, they find it in the grip of a powerful cosmic energy force that’s tearing it apart and, using their teleporting and super speed powers, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver rescue the astronauts, only to find one’s still onboard. Nightcrawler returns, this time with Jean who uses her mental powers to keep the craft together. However, before she can return to the X-craft, the force engulfs the ship, flooding her with its energy. It should have killed her, but she somehow survives and is returned to Earth where a medical shows her to be perfectly fine. In fact, rather more than fine.

It would seem that the force she’s absorbed has interacted with her own powers, enhancing them to the extent that she’s now the most powerful being on the planet, her skin glowing with cracks revealing the pulsating inner light. Unfortunately, she’s not in control of them and the psychic walls Xavier put in place to protect her when he took her in after she was orphaned in a car crash as a child are starting to collapse, flooding her with suppressed memories. Worse, she likes the feeling she gets when she exercises the power. On top of which a shape-shifting alien race known as the D’Bari and led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain channelling Tilda Swinton) are on Earth to drain the power inside Jean so they can take Earth for themselves.

Turning her back on the X-Men after learning what a well-intentioned but misguided Xavier did to her as a child and in the wake of a tragedy caused by the inner Phoenix taking her over, a traumatised and increasingly out of control Jean initially seeks help from Magneto (Michael Fassbender), culminating in him joining forces with the Beast, who feels betrayed by Xavier (who seems to be on a  bit of PR ego trip),  in a revenge-driven attempt to kill her while the other X-Men seek to reach out to the inner Jean and the Vuk marshal their forces for first a tumultuous New York-set show down followed by the climax aboard a speeding train.

The culmination of the franchise, it’s dark affair that sees the death of two major characters and a change in the X-Men leadership but, it never quite has the same emotional punch as Wolverine’s send-off in Logan, Writer and first time director  Simon Kinberg (who also co-wrote The Last Stand), handles things well enough, welding the somewhat functional  narrative and dazzling effects together and lacing things with a vein of gender politics about powerful women, but somehow the film never really soars as it should. It may be the end, but it’s no Endgame.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

Big love for Fullee Love

Fullee Love, aka Soup (credit Elmar Rubio)

As a member of LA’s Jurassic 5, Soup toured the world, defining a new positive hip hop sound for the late-90s/ early-00s.

But when the band split in 2007, Soup (aka Zaakir) soon found himself homeless and then working the night shift in a Santa Monica clothing store to make ends meet.

“I needed a job, because the money that I had saved up ran out,” he says. “And I was sitting around there, wishful thinking, thinking that something may transpire, maybe with J5, that’d get me outta that boat.

“Then I came to the realisation that no-body’s gonna let me swim but me. So I got a job.

“But I’ve always been a person that had a job before doing music. I didn’t like it. You have to be humble, very humble, at the experience, but you live and you learn.”

Reflecting on the period he says: “I think it was a beautiful experience because it’s got me to this point.”

‘This point’ is a total reinvention for the rapper who, rather than simply follow the easy option of continuing with J5-like material, delved back to his soul, funk and disco roots. Donning a loud yet sharp suit and exercising his vocal chops, he’s been reborn as Fullee Love.

Overcoming his personal demons and fears, Soup’s dramatic change of mindset, his visual and vocal transformation, his new understanding, has done him a world of good! And he feels blessed.

“I didn’t see this coming,” he says of the positive reaction Fullee Love has bought him so far. “I’m not as bitter anymore. I used to be bitter, very bitter; I used to spit all kinds of venom at some of the members of J5, because I felt that they didn’t react the way I thought they should react. And that’s not for me to say. I was wrong for that. I had to look in the mirror and see all my faults and shortcomings and except those. The minute I did that … that’s the minute things started to turn around for me. While I was talking crazy about them…? Getting mad at them…? Nothing’s happening for me. But the minute I stopped, the minute I thought, look, it’s your fault, that’s when things started happening.”

In the wake of J5’s fleeting 2013/ 2014 reunion, Soup’s slowly established his Fullee Love identity. Working with producer Nicholas Eaholtz (aka Nick Green of The Internet), 2018’s Free, White And 21 was a revelation, with soulful waves and clipped Chic grooves. And now Soup’s spending most of 2019 in the UK working with his new live band of Brits, and sharpening his skills.

It’s been an emotional journey, and one he’s thankful for the opportunity to simply try it out.

“It’s emotional for me because … I didn’t think I could do it, I didn’t think I could do this. I beat myself for years, I really did. To get this opportunity is mindboggling for me. I want to enjoy it, I want to be around people who enjoy, I don’t want the world … I don’t want the world. I just want to do what I like doing. If it’s big, it’s big; if it’s not, it’s not, but just please let me be who I want to be.”

But the response so far has been nothing but positive, as The Fullee Love Collective win over audiences at both major and minor festivals, while Fullee/ Soup finds himself increasingly in demand as a guest artist, collaborating with such acts as Glasgow’s Shaaka Loves You, whose Boogie (featuring Fullee Love) recently piqued Craig Charles’ interest.

The Glaswegians – who’d previously collaborated with J5’s Chali 2na – reached out to Soup over social media, and sent him Boogie, expecting a rap in return.

“I knew they wanted rapping on it, they wanted a rapper, I knew that. But I was like, no, they’re going to get Fullee Love on it,” says the singer. “To be honest, I was going to give them what I want, not what they want … you’re going to get what you’re given! And if they don’t like it, that’s fine, it’s their project…”

Thankfully, the Scots “loved it” and more collaborations are already in discussion.

“They just contacted me again and they were like ‘we’re working on something new, do you wanna be a part of it again?’ I know what I give them they’ll take because they know I’m Fullee Love now, I’m not Soup from J5. I can do Fullee Love stuff and they have confidence that I can get it done as Fullee Love.

“That’s what’s beautiful. That’s why I get emotional. Because I wish I’d have known this stuff a few years ago … ”

* Jurassic 5’s Soup presents The Fullee Love Collective appear at Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival on Friday 12 July 2019 along with The Jacksons, Ibibio Sound Machine, Renegade Brass Band and Young Pilgrims.

Other acts appearing over the weekend include The Brand New Heavies, Craig Charles, Brian Jackson, Smoove and Turrell and Rosie Tee (Sat 13 Jul); and Burt Bacharach, Khruangbin, Oscar Jerome and Ishmael Ensemble (Sun 14 Jul).

For tickets and more information, see: mostlyjazz.co.uk

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jun 14-Thu Jun 20

 

NEW RELEASES

Men In Black International (12A)

Seven years on from the third and final instalment starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (who get a tip of the hat in a painting) and almost 22 since the MiB started protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe, director F Gary Gray reboots the franchise, reuniting Thor and Valkyrie, okay Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, for a more globe-spanning outing that takes in Paris, London, Naples and Marrakesh.

It opens with Agent H (Hemsworth) and Agent High T (Liam Neeson), the boss of the London bureau atop the Eiffel Tower, saving the world from The Hive, an alien race bent on galactic-scale destruction, “with nothing but their wits and series-70 atomizers.” Flashback twenty years with Molly witnessing her parents being neuralysed by two MiB and helping a fluffball alien to escape, an incident that sparks a deep obsession that will, in the present, lead to her tracking down the MiB New York HQ and convincing station boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) to take her on as a probationer as Agent M complete with trademark Paul Smith suit, white shirt and skinny black tie.

To which end, she’s despatched to London and assigned to work with Agent H, who, as everyone observes, hasn’t been the same since Paris, generally assumed to be the result of breaking up with arms dealer Riza (Rebecca Ferguson). Given the job of babysitting visiting royalty, Vungus the Ugly, an old alien friend of H, things go pear-shaped when he’s murdered by two lookalike alien trackers (Larry Bouregois) who can absorb the appearance of those they have killed, but not before he passes on a purple crystal device to M, the only one he can trust.

This, it turns out, is some sort of superweapon involving a compressed star that could potentially obliterate the planet and needleless to say, the two aliens aren’t the only ones who want to get their hands on it, plus there’s suggestions that the London office has been compromised, while priggish Agent C (Rafe Spall) seeks to put his oar into the mission and it all winds up back in Paris with a not too hard to see coming twist, albeit with a twist inside itself.

Visually, it sometimes falls short and Gray never quite manages to successfully integrate the live action with the action-heavy effects. But this is more than compensated by the hugely enjoyable screwball comedy interplay and banter between Hemsworth, in typical laconic mode, and Thompson as the eager to impress Agent M, boosted in the latter half by the amusing addition of Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a sort of living green alien chess piece in a red uniform that resembles an acorn pod, who adopts M as his new Queen.  Ultimately, it’s not all it might have been, but there’s more than enough fun and chemistry (as well as some unresolved plot lines) here to make you hope they’re back in black again in the not too distant future.  Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Birds of Passage (12A)     

Unfolding in five chapters or songs and spanning the 1960s to the mid 1970s, Embrace of the Serpent directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s epic tragedy chart the real-life rise and fall of indigenous rival Wayuu clans in northern Colombia in a compelling and at times almost Godfather-like take on the cartel genre. When Rapayet (José Acosta), the nephew of the tribe’s sunglasses-sporting ‘word messenger’ (José Vicente Cotes), sees Zaida (Natalia Reyes) dance at her ritual “coming out” ceremony, he’s instantly smitten and determines to make her his.

However, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), her mother and the tribe’s matriarch seer, demands a huge dowry of cows, goats and necklaces, one which he sets about securing by going into business with his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez), an alijuna or outsider, by supplying gringo hippie Peace Corps volunteers with marijuana. To get this, they strike a deal Rapayet’s older cousin, Aníbal (Juan Martínez), who heads up a different clan who just happens to grow the wacky baccy.

As the money rolls in, Moisés’ greed, ego and arrogance run out of control, Zaida’s younger brother Leonidis (Greyder Meza) grows up to become a dangerous psychopath brat and rivalries flare, it all eventually turns into a bloody drug war in which traditions are trampled underfoot and family murders family.

The time span and extended narrative inevitably means some characters are underdeveloped and lose focus, Zaida unfortunately being one of them,  but what it loses in these details it makes up for in the more expansive widescreen textures and subtle touches, such as the way the weaponry grows ever more powerful, mules give way to trucks and planes, the archaic ceremonies, the foreboding dreams and the imagery of the symbolic birds and crickets that populate the film as it builds to its bloody Scarface climax while simultaneously offering implicit commentary on the changing face of Colombia itself over the timespan involved.  (MAC)

 

Sometimes Always Never (15)

Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed in stylised fashion by Carl Hunter who, channelling Wes Anderson, evokes a 70s kitsch sensibility with his use of bright colours (mainly orange and green) and frequent shots through doorways or reflections in mirrors, this rather mannered but ultimately involving road trip tale unfolds the father-son relationship between Alan (Bill Nighy), an emotionally distant widowed Liverpudlian tailor, and his estranged grown younger son Peter (Sam Riley) who paints and makes jingles for ice-cream vans. They meet up for the first time in ages in Merseysideto view a body that may or may not be that of Peter’s brother, Michael, who walked out of the house one day many years back following an argument over using the word Zo in a game of Scrabble (or rather, as Peter reminds him, a knock off cardboard version since his dad always did things on the cheap) and never came back. Alan’s been trying to find him ever since while Peter feels he can never compete with the memory of his vanished sibling.

Alan’s the Scrabble obsessive (good with words but useless at communicating), indeed, when he and Peter meet another couple (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny) staying at the same B&B who have also come to identify the body as potentially their own missing son, Alan hustles the husband out of £200, much to Peter’s embarrassment.

Back home, Alan foists himself upon Peter’s family, sharing the bunk bed in their teenage son Jack’s (Louis Healy) room and taking over his computer to play online Scrabble, gradually convinced that his unknown opponent is actually Michael.  Playing alongside this is Peter’s emotional distance from Jack, who reaps the benefits of his grandfather’s dress sense, and how his wife (Alice Lowe, a low-key delight) helps engineer shy Jack’s romance with the girl at the bus stop.

Essentially a film that treats on loss, reconnecting and making the best of what remains behind, it draws excellent performances from Nighy and Riley (and an odd cameo from Alexei Sayle) and build to an understated emotional punch without resorting to sentimentality. You also get to learn why you can’t buy Marmite in Canada. The film’s title is apparently a reference to how the three descending buttons on a suit’s jacket should be fastened, though quite what it has to do with the narrative remains a puzzle. Alan would probably have a word for it. (Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

 

ALSO PLAYING

Dead Good (PG)

After-death care documentary about a group of women in Brighton who have been ‘giving death back to people’ over the past twenty years.  Opposed to the secrecy and expense of the traditional funeral industry, they help the bereaved to be involved with the preparation of their loved one’s body and create bespoke funeral arrangements that are meaningful and personal to the deceased. A sensitive, moving perspective on matters of life and death. (Wed:MAC)

 

Diego Maradona (12A)

“A bit of cheating and a lot of genius”, someone says in summing up Argentinian football megastar Diego Maradona whose ‘Hand of God’ moment in the quarter final against England sealed the 1986 World Cup as Argentina went on to defeat West Germany 3-2. Directed by Asif Kapadia, but largely using existing TV footage alongside some modern day reminiscences from its subject, the two-hour plus documentary traces Maradona’s life and career from the slums of Buenos Aires through a less than glorious 80s stint at Barcelona to Naples and subsequent superstar status, the disastrous fall out of the Argentina vs. Italy clash in the 1990 World Cup  and a crash back down through  assorted extramarital affairs, pregnancy controversies, cocaine habit, mobster associations, weight gain, media ostracisation, drugs bust and despair.

Very much one for soccer enthusiasts, but even less than casual viewers are likely to be impressed by footage of the man in action; however, it’s the story away from the pitch, one fuelled by a toxic cocktail of fierce determination to win and rampant hubris that makes this, as one historian puts it, “tremendous and terrible” story worth going well into extra time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

 

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Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the palace to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and, in places, given a Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Godzilla: King Of Monsters (12A)

At 132 minutes, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot is around 90% special effects action and 10% plot, but then who goes to a movie about a radiation-breathing giant lizard for the subtleties of the script! Picking things up five years on from the end of the previous film, having lost their son in Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage, scientists Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) are now divorced, she still working for Monarch with teenage daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), he out in the frozen wilds studying wolves. Together they invented the Orca, a device that can synthesise the cries of the assorted titans to communicate with – and importantly calm – them, but as she’s testing it out on Mothra, the facility’s invaded by British Army colonel turned eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) and she and Madison taken captive. Naturally, Mark is pulled back in to help rescue them before Alan can use the Orca to awaken the other titans (17 of them apparently, though we only see a few, including a glimpse of Kong) in his deranged quest to restore balance to Earth by basically giving it back to its original rulers (apparently nature blossoms in their wake) and wiping out most of humanity. The early twist is that a misguided obsessional Emma is in on the Thanos kick too, resurrecting Monster Zero, aka  King Ghidorah, the three-headed, winged hydra-like serpent and Godzilla’s big rival for the titan throne.

From which the film descends into a series of peril-fraught visits to various holding facilities dotted around the planet (China, Colorado, Bermuda, Mexico, Antarctica), the cast list dwindling as it goes (Sally Hawkins’ scientist an early casualty), as Mark, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford) and assorted colleagues and military types basically try and figure out if they want to kill Godzilla or recruit him to take Ghidorah who, it turns out is not of this world and has an agenda rather different to Emma’s on the others, and is trying to bring the other titans, among them the original angry bird, Rodin, under his control.

Scattered among the spectacular (albeit at times rather murky) destruction set pieces as assorted monsters go head to heads or wings to tails, trashing cities wholesale in their path, there’s a smattering of human stories designed to ground the emotions, including a couple of sacrifices to save the planet, but these are essentially just window dressing to the main event as it builds to its mega-sized nuclear bomb kick-start climax at Boston’s Fenway Park and the end-titled set up next year’s sequel Godzilla vs. Kong. Big and loud does it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Late Night (15)

The first woman to ever do so, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), an icy Englishwoman married to the older Walter Lovell (John Lithgow), a former celebrated pianist now suffering from Parkinson’s, has been hosting her own late-night talk show for 30 years, winning a truckload of Emmys. But, of late, set in her ways, the formula has become stale, the ratings slipping while brasher names like stand-up Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) and vacuous YouTuber Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford) are hoovering up audiences. Informed by the network head (Amy Ryan) that this is her last season, it seems the only chance of  jump-starting her show and hanging on to her career might be new addition to the writing team, huge fan Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a former chemical factory troubleshooter with no TV experience who only got the job in the writers’ room as a diversity hire to rebuff claims that the self-absorbed and supposedly feminist Newbury (dubbed by the media at one point the nation’s least favourite aunt) doesn’t hate women. A fish out of water, naturally, she’s not welcomed with open arms by her all white male colleagues, especially not monologue head Tom (Reid Scott), not of whom have ever actually interacted with Newbury who, when she attends a meeting, gives them all numbers rather than bothering to remember their names. Molly is eight.

Reuniting Kaling with her The Mindy Project director Nisha Ganatra, it’s a fairly formulaic mainstream comedy as the two women impact on each other’s lives, but it’s lifted to a higher level by both a narrative that addresses the problems faced by women in the entertainment industry (especially, as a Newbury stand up skit observes, when they reach a certain age) and the workplace in general, and twin terrific serio-comic turns by Thompson and Kaling, not to mention the barbed banter that spikes the latter’s screenplay

Inevitably, it raises 30 Rock comparisons, but muddled in its attempts to reinvent Newbury’s persona, introducing a romantic subplot that simply fizzles out and resolved all too neatly, it ultimately falls short of Tina Fey’s razor sharp classic, but there’s enough laughs and talking points to make it worth staying up for. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Liam: As It Was (15)

Documentary following Gallagher’s journey from Oasis frontman through a musical wilderness of boredom, booze and bitter legal battles to a comeback as a solo star. Covering writing his solo debut and playing it live in Manchester, it features interviews with collaborators and friends, long estranged brother Noel conspicuously absent. (Electric)

 

Ma (15)

An assistant to acerbic vet Alison Janney (great in her few scenes), thereby offering convenient  access to all sorts of tranquilisers,  Sue Ann (Spencer) is a smalltown Ohio loner with a traumatic past who, one day, is approached by Maggie (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers), who’s just moved into town with her cocktail waitress mom (Juliette Lewis, very good), to buy booze for her and her new friends, among them bad girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and romantic interest Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the son of sleazeball Ben (Luke Evans) who’s dating sharp-tongued town lush Mercedes (Missi Pyle). A lonely misfit, Sue Ann seizes on this as a chance to make some new friends of her own (one of them dubs her Ma), inviting them to come party in her basement, the only rules being no swearing, someone stays sober and nobody goes upstairs. Naturally, someone does and that’s when it hits the fan as Ma’s growing obsession shifts from hospitality to horror as she proceeds to exact revenge for a high school humiliation.

There’s some serious holes in the logic, for a start Ma has a daughter she keeps home claiming illness but the school don’t seem bothered, and things get more than a little ludicrous as it heads towards the climax,  but while Spencer, who won as Oscar for The Help (also directed by Tate Taylor) may be slumming it what is a fairly predictable Blumhouse B movie, she does so with enthusiasm, whether dancing creepily with the teens or giving that menacing glare, bringing an extra veneer of class as she’s pushed over the edge. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves a hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Thunder Road (15)      

Opening with cop Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) giving an emotional, long, cringeworthy, rambling and often embarrassingly free associating confessional eulogy that veers between tears and nervous laughter at his mother’s funeral, at which he can’t get the titular Springsteen song to work on the cassette player and resorts to a  theatrical performance in front of a dumbfounded congregation that goes viral on the Internet, this is very much a Marmite movie. If you don’t buy into that monologue, then the rest of the film, which follows Jim, who insists on reporting for work despite being clearly disturbed, as he gradually unravels under the weight of grief, humiliation, the fact his estranged wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) is divorcing him and he’s caught in a custody battle for his indifferent young daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), is going to be  painful watch. In fact, it is regardless.

His daughter shows him no affection even though he stays up nights learning the games she likes to play and, normally an efficient if overzealous patrol cop, he’s patently losing it, an argument with his African-American partner and best friend Nate (Nican Robinson) seeing him suspended from duty. Added to which, he physically threatens Crystal’s teacher (Macon Blair) he tells him she’s an acting-out problem child.

Basically, Jim’s life is a mess largely down to the fact he always outs his own need before anyone else’s, family included and refuses to see that things aren’t fine. However, an accident offers him an unexpected chance to mend his relationship with his daughter. He just need to work out what he has to do to become the best dad ever.

Cummings, who also wrote and directed (the film’s an expanded version of a short he made in 2016), immerses himself totally in the tragicomedy, his screenplay piling on the pathos alongside the palpable repressed rage so that you never quite know how to react as he exposes every raw nerve or in scenes such as the one where, his over-protective father instincts kicking in, he intervenes in what he sees as two boys coming on to a teenage girl in a parking lot.

Essentially a film about the damage repressed anger and self-loathing can do until life forces you to grow up, it strikes clear chords with the despair in America’s heartland as everything falls apart. It will irritate many, others it will tear to shreds. (Mockingbird)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)

Set in 1992, ten years after the events of Apocalypse (and serving as a prequel to 2006’s The Last Stand), the X-Men are now national heroes, called on by the President in times of need. Such as when something goes wrong with a space shuttle mission and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), already disillusioned with the direction things are going, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) are despatched by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to save them. Arriving at the shuttle, they find it in the grip of a powerful cosmic energy force that’s tearing it apart and, using their teleporting and super speed powers, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver rescue the astronauts, only to find one’s still onboard. Nightcrawler returns, this time with Jean who uses her mental powers to keep the craft together. However, before she can return to the X-craft, the force engulfs the ship, flooding her with its energy. It should have killed her, but she somehow survives and is returned to Earth where a medical shows her to be perfectly fine. In fact, rather more than fine.

It would seem that the force she’s absorbed has interacted with her own powers, enhancing them to the extent that she’s now the most powerful being on the planet, her skin glowing with cracks revealing the pulsating inner light. Unfortunately, she’s not in control of them and the psychic walls Xavier put in place to protect her when he took her in after she was orphaned in a car crash as a child are starting to collapse, flooding her with suppressed memories. Worse, she likes the feeling she gets when she exercises the power. On top of which a shape-shifting alien race known as the D’Bari and led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain channelling Tilda Swinton) are on Earth to drain the power inside Jean so they can take Earth for themselves.

Turning her back on the X-Men after learning what a well-intentioned but misguided Xavier did to her as a child and in the wake of a tragedy caused by the inner Phoenix taking her over, a traumatised and increasingly out of control Jean initially seeks help from Magneto (Michael Fassbender), culminating in him joining forces with the Beast, who feels betrayed by Xavier (who seems to be on a  bit of PR ego trip),  in a revenge-driven attempt to kill her while the other X-Men seek to reach out to the inner Jean and the Vuk marshal their forces for first a tumultuous New York-set show down followed by the climax aboard a speeding train.

The culmination of the franchise, it’s dark affair that sees the death of two major characters and a change in the X-Men leadership but, it never quite has the same emotional punch as Wolverine’s send-off in Logan, Writer and first time director  Simon Kinberg (who also co-wrote The Last Stand), handles things well enough, welding the somewhat functional  narrative and dazzling effects together and lacing things with a vein of gender politics about powerful women, but somehow the film never really soars as it should. It may be the end, but it’s no Endgame.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Jun 7-Thu Jun 13

 

 

NEW RELEASES

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)

Set in 1992, ten years after the events of Apocalypse (and serving as a prequel to 2006’s The Last Stand), the X-Men are now national heroes, called on by the President in times of need. Such as when something goes wrong with a space shuttle mission and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), already disillusioned with the direction things are going, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) are despatched by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to save them. Arriving at the shuttle, they find it in the grip of a powerful cosmic energy force that’s tearing it apart and, using their teleporting and super speed powers, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver rescue the astronauts, only to find one’s still onboard. Nightcrawler returns, this time with Jean who uses her mental powers to keep the craft together. However, before she can return to the X-craft, the force engulfs the ship, flooding her with its energy. It should have killed her, but she somehow survives and is returned to Earth where a medical shows her to be perfectly fine. In fact, rather more than fine.

It would seem that the force she’s absorbed has interacted with her own powers, enhancing them to the extent that she’s now the most powerful being on the planet, her skin glowing with cracks revealing the pulsating inner light. Unfortunately, she’s not in control of them and the psychic walls Xavier put in place to protect her when he took her in after she was orphaned in a car crash as a child are starting to collapse, flooding her with suppressed memories. Worse, she likes the feeling she gets when she exercises the power. On top of which a shape-shifting alien race known as the D’Bari and led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain channelling Tilda Swinton) are on Earth to drain the power inside Jean so they can take Earth for themselves.

Turning her back on the X-Men after learning what a well-intentioned but misguided Xavier did to her as a child and in the wake of a tragedy caused by the inner Phoenix taking her over, a traumatised and increasingly out of control Jean initially seeks help from Magneto (Michael Fassbender), culminating in him joining forces with the Beast, who feels betrayed by Xavier (who seems to be on a  bit of PR ego trip),  in a revenge-driven attempt to kill her while the other X-Men seek to reach out to the inner Jean and the Vuk marshal their forces for first a tumultuous New York-set show down followed by the climax aboard a speeding train.

The culmination of the franchise, it’s dark affair that sees the death of two major characters and a change in the X-Men leadership, but it never quite has the same emotional punch as Wolverine’s send-off in Logan. Writer and first time director  Simon Kinberg (who also co-wrote The Last Stand), handles things well enough, welding the somewhat functional  narrative and dazzling effects together and lacing things with a vein of gender politics about powerful women, but somehow the film never really soars as it should. It may be the end, but it’s no Endgame.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gloria Bell (15)

A virtual note for note English language remake of his own A Fantastic Woman (minus the political undertones), Chile’s Sebastian Lelio now gets to direct Julianne Moore as fifty-something, independent but lonely divorcee Gloria who goes to yoga classes, has a dull but steady job, loves to sing along, out of tune, to soft rock classics as she drives and regularly goes dancing in a 70s-themed singles bar. It’s here she meets and starts an affair with slick fellow divorcee Arnold (John Turturro,), a former Navy officer who now runs a paintball park, a romance that proves misguided and upsets her hitherto stable work-life balance and her admittedly arm’s length relationship with her mother (Holland Taylor) and children, new father Peter (Michael Cera) and hippie daughter Anne (Caren Pistorius) whose fiancée is a Swedish extreme surfer. Complicating a life in which, until then, her biggest problem was keeping her mentally unstable upstairs neighbour’s hairless cat out of her apartment, now she has to deal with the fact that Arnold has a needy ex-wife and daughters who now how to yank the lead and that, while she’s introduced him to her offspring, he won’t mention her to his.

A family dinner – that includes Gloria’s ex-husband (Brad Garrett) and his new wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) – leads to a break-up, but then they get back together, though it’s clear by now this isn’t going to last as the heady rush of new love and energetic sex gives way to noticing the flaws and cracks in the reality  as a Vegas vacation to get away from Arnold’s problems goes pear-shaped and; faced with his unreliability and emotional con games,  Gloria slowly realises the cost of being together on her own life.

Featuring a supporting cast that also includes Rita Wilson, Barbara Sukowa and Sean Astin and, like the original, bookended with dance floor scenes, the end credits again featuring Laura Branigan’s disco pop classic, not a great deal happens, although there is an amusing third act moment involving a paintball gun, and it rather overdoes the ironic soundtrack with such numbers as Alone Again Naturally, All By Myself, Total Eclipse of the Heart and No More Lonely Nights. However, featuring in virtually every scene, Moore’s consummate, emotionally grounded performance, rather feistier than the original, and Turturro’s always slightly edgy nature keep you engaged as the narrative takes its inevitable bittersweet course. (Electric)

Late Night (15)

The first woman to ever do so, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), an icy Englishwoman married to the older Walter Lovell (John Lithgow), a former celebrated pianist now suffering from Parkinson’s, has been hosting her own late-night talk show for 30 years, winning a truckload of Emmys. But, of late, set in her ways, the formula has become stale, the ratings slipping while brasher names like stand-up Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) and vacuous YouTuber Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford) are hoovering up audiences. Informed by the network head (Amy Ryan) that this is her last season, it seems the only chance of  jump-starting her show and hanging on to her career might be new addition to the writing team, huge fan Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a former chemical factory troubleshooter with no TV experience who only got the job in the writers’ room as a diversity hire to rebuff claims that the self-absorbed and supposedly feminist Newbury (dubbed by the media at one point the nation’s least favourite aunt) doesn’t hate women. A fish out of water, naturally, she’s not welcomed with open arms by her all white male colleagues, especially not monologue head Tom (Reid Scott), not of whom have ever actually interacted with Newbury who, when she attends a meeting, gives them all numbers rather than bothering to remember their names. Molly is eight.

Reuniting Kaling with her The Mindy Project director Nisha Ganatra, it’s a fairly formulaic mainstream comedy as the two women impact on each other’s lives, but it’s lifted to a higher level by both a narrative that addresses the problems faced by women in the entertainment industry (especially, as a Newbury stand up skit observes, when they reach a certain age) and the workplace in general, and twin terrific serio-comic turns by Thompson and Kaling, not to mention the barbed banter that spikes the latter’s screenplay

Inevitably, it raises 30 Rock comparisons, but muddled in its attempts to reinvent Newbury’s persona, introducing a romantic subplot that simply fizzles out and resolved all too neatly, it ultimately falls short of Tina Fey’s razor sharp classic, but there’s enough laughs and talking points to make it worth staying up for. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall)

 

 

ALSO PLAYING

Liam: As It Was (15)

Documentary following Gallagher’s journey from Oasis frontman through a musical wilderness of boredom, booze and bitter legal battles to a comeback as a solo star. Covering writing his solo debut and playing it live in Manchester, it features interviews with collaborators and friends, though whether that includes Noel remains to be seen. (Mockingbird)

 

NOW SHOWING

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the palace to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and, in places, given a Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Amazing Grace (U)

Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, legal and technical issues have long prevented this concert documentary from being made public, not least Aretha Franklin’s own refusal to give permission and the fact that Pollock, unused to music documentaries, filmed it in a way that it was impossible to synch the sound and the pictures. Time and technology, and Franklin’s passing,  have finally solved all that, so here (albeit somewhat truncated) is the late Queen of Soul, then 29, recording her new live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, including Wholly Holy and a barnstorming version of the title song.  (Mon: Everyman; Sat-Thu:MAC)

 

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Timely arriving mid the GCSE season, boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Godzilla: King Of Monsters (12A)

At 132 minutes, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot is around 90% special effects action and 10% plot, but then who goes to a movie about a radiation-breathing giant lizard for the subtleties of the script! Picking things up five years on from the end of the previous film, having lost their son in Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage, scientists Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) are now divorced, she still working for Monarch with teenage daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), he out in the frozen wilds studying wolves. Together they invented the Orca, a device that can synthesise the cries of the assorted titans to communicate with – and importantly calm – them, but as she’s testing it out on Mothra, the facility’s invaded by British Army colonel turned eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) and she and Madison taken captive. Naturally, Mark is pulled back in to help rescue them before Alan can use the Orca to awaken the other titans (17 of them apparently, though we only see a few, including a glimpse of Kong) in his deranged quest to restore balance to Earth by basically giving it back to its original rulers (apparently nature blossoms in their wake) and wiping out most of humanity. The early twist is that a misguided obsessional Emma is in on the Thanos kick too, resurrecting Monster Zero, aka  King Ghidorah, the three-headed, winged hydra-like serpent and Godzilla’s big rival for the titan throne.

From which the film descends into a series of peril-fraught visits to various holding facilities dotted around the planet (China, Colorado, Bermuda, Mexico, Antarctica), the cast list dwindling as it goes (Sally Hawkins’ scientist an early casualty), as Mark, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford) and assorted colleagues and military types basically try and figure out if they want to kill Godzilla or recruit him to take Ghidorah who, it turns out is not of this world and has an agenda rather different to Emma’s on the others, and is trying to bring the other titans, among them the original angry bird, Rodin, under his control.

Scattered among the spectacular (albeit at times rather murky) destruction set pieces as assorted monsters go head to heads or wings to tails, trashing cities wholesale in their path, there’s a smattering of human stories designed to ground the emotions, including a couple of sacrifices to save the planet, but these are essentially just window dressing to the main event as it builds to its mega-sized nuclear bomb kick-start climax at Boston’s Fenway Park and the end-titled set up next year’s sequel Godzilla vs. Kong. Big and loud does it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Sat/Sun: Electric)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ma (15)

An assistant to acerbic vet Alison Janney (great in her few scenes), thereby offering convenient  access to all sorts of tranquilisers,  Sue Ann (Spencer) is a smalltown Ohio loner with a traumatic past who, one day, is approached by Maggie (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers), who’s just moved into town with her cocktail waitress mom (Juliette Lewis, very good), to buy booze for her and her new friends, among them bad girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and romantic interest Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the son of sleazeball Ben (Luke Evans) who’s dating sharp-tongued town lush Mercedes (Missi Pyle). A lonely misfit, Sue Ann seizes on this as a chance to make some new friends of her own (one of them dubs her Ma), inviting them to come party in her basement, the only rules being no swearing, someone stays sober and nobody goes upstairs. Naturally, someone does and that’s when it hits the fan as Ma’s growing obsession shifts from hospitality to horror as she proceeds to exact revenge for a high school humiliation.

There’s some serious holes in the logic, for a start Ma has a daughter she keeps home claiming illness but the school don’t seem bothered, and things get more than a little ludicrous as it heads towards the climax,  but while Spencer, who won as Oscar for The Help (also directed by Tate Taylor) may be slumming it what is a fairly predictable Blumhouse B movie, she does so with enthusiasm, whether dancing creepily with the teens or giving that menacing glare, bringing an extra veneer of class as she pushed over the edge. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves a hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Woman At War (12A)

Directed and co-written by Iceland’s Olafur Egilsson, there’s whimsical echoes of Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki in the way that three male musicians (piano, accordion, trumpet, tuba and drum) and three Ukranian female singers (in traditional dress) regularly appear in key scenes to provide the accompanying sound track  as both bystanders and commentators. They afford just one of the many delights in this enviro-protest themed comedy in which Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a Reykjavik choir director, conducts an anonymous one-woman eco activist crusade against the energy corporations which she believes are  affecting the climate  and the countryside, using a bow and arrow to bring down power lines. Dubbed Mountain Woman by the local press, she’s particularly keen to scupper a possible deal with the Chinese to build a power plant. The only one who what she’s up to is Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), one of the  choir and a ministry official, but now he’s getting nervous about the government backlash  and her increasingly dramatic actions. She’s also given a hand to evade the police by Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson), a gruff but kindly sheep farmer who might possibly be a cousin.

As Halla’s campaign heads to a climax, she gets a letter telling her that her long forgotten application to adopt (reinforcing the mother/caretaker theme) has been approved and there’s a young Ukrainian orphan girl waiting for her. Not of course that that’s going to happen if she’s nabbed by the authorities. At which point, it should be mentioned that Halla has an identical equally idealistic twin sister,  Ása (Geirharðsdóttir), a meditation and yoga teacher who’s about to take off to an ashram in India for two years. It’s not hard to see how this gimmick will play out, but that doesn’t detract from the gleeful manner in which the plot unfurls or the pleasure to be had in Geirharðsdóttir’s twin performances while Juan Camillo Roman Estrada puts in an amusing running joke as a luckless Spanish tourist who keeps getting arrested for Halla’s deeds. A deadpan joy. (Until Wed: MAC)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 31-Thu Jun 6

 

 

NEW RELEASES

Godzilla: King Of Monsters (12A)

At 132 minutes, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot is around 90% special effects action and 10% plot, but then who goes to a movie about a radiation-breathing giant lizard for the subtleties of the script! Picking things up five years on from the end of the previous film, having lost their son in Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage, scientists Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) are now divorced, she still working for Monarch with teenage daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), he out in the frozen wilds studying wolves. Together they invented the Orca, a device that can synthesise the cries of the assorted titans to communicate with – and importantly calm – them, but as she’s testing it out on Mothra, the facility’s invaded by British Army colonel turned eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) and she and Madison taken captive. Naturally, Mark is pulled back in to help rescue them before Alan can use the Orca to awaken the other titans (17 of them apparently, though we only see a few, including a glimpse of Kong) in his deranged quest to restore balance to Earth by basically giving it back to its original rulers (apparently nature blossoms in their wake) and wiping out most of humanity. The early twist is that a misguided obsessional Emma is in on the Thanos kick too, resurrecting Monster Zero, aka  King Ghidorah, the three-headed, winged hydra-like serpent and Godzilla’s big rival for the titan throne.

From which the film descends into a series of peril-fraught visits to various holding facilities dotted around the planet (China, Colorado, Bermuda, Mexico, Antarctica), the cast list dwindling as it goes (Sally Hawkins’ scientist an early casualty), as Mark, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford) and assorted colleagues and military types basically try and figure out if they want to kill Godzilla or recruit him to take Ghidorah who, it turns out is not of this world and has an agenda rather different to Emma’s on the others, and is trying to bring the other titans, among them the original angry bird, Rodin, under his control.

Scattered among the spectacular (albeit at times rather murky) destruction set pieces as assorted monsters go head to heads or wings to tails, trashing cities wholesale in their path, there’s a smattering of human stories designed to ground the emotions, including a couple of sacrifices to save the planet, but these are essentially just window dressing to the main event as it builds to its mega-sized nuclear bomb kick-start climax at Boston’s Fenway Park and the end-titled set up next year’s sequel Godzilla vs. Kong. Big and loud does it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

High Life (18)

An airless science-fiction dystopian drama that evokes comparisons to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and not in a good way, French filmmaker Claire Denis’s English-language debut stars future Batman Robert Pattinson in a monotone role as Monte, one of a crew of prisoners aboard a shipping container-like vessel, named 7, travelling through deep space towards the nearest black hole and headed up by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), herself a convict, who’s conducting a procreation experiment in which the men (Andre Benjamin, Lars Eidinger and Ewan Mitchell), other than the celibate Monte, have to donate their sperm in return for sleeping pills to impregnate the women (Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo),whose offspring are then taken away to grow in an incubator.

The film opening with Monte caring for a young baby and sending the lifeless bodies of the other prisoners into space, all this unfolds in non-linear flashbacks (including to Monte’s childhood) as Denis traces the dynamic and conflicts between the condemned criminals as violence inevitably erupts.

With scenes that include one of the women covered in useless breast milk, an impregnating rape and Binoche’s character thrashing about in the ‘fuckbox’ masturbation chamber astride a silver dildo, it’s resolutely provocative, dark and violent. Unfortunately, while visually intoxicating, it’s also drawn out, chilly and rather tedious and torpid, a film that invites you to appreciate its technical design and thematic but which is singularly impossible to enjoy.  (Until Wed: MAC)

 

The Last Witness (15)

In April and May 1940, Soviet Union forces executed some  22,000 Polish soldiers and civilians, members of the intelligentsia, the massacre being named after the mass graves found in the forest at Katyn in Poland. Russia, however, declared that the killings had been carried out in 1941 by the Nazis, a story upheld by both America and the UK, both countries at pains not to upset or alienate Stalin. After the war, Stalin’s secret police proceeded to eliminate any witnesses. It was not until 1990 that Russian acknowledged what had happened, events confirmed by the USA. It was not until 2003 that British government conceded its role in the cover-up. It has never been recognised as a war crime.

This serves as the basis for director Piotr Szkopiak’s film, adapted from a stage play by Paul Szambowski, a fictionalised account in which, in post-war England, a dogged West Country journalist, Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer), starts digging deeper into a spate of the supposed suicides by  Polish soldiers which are being ascribed to trauma. Naturally, his editor (Michael Gambon) put under pressure, he’s fired from his paper and his theories rejected as an overactive imagination. But then, with the help of  officer lover Jeanette (Talulah Riley) and Polish Colonel Januzs Pietrowski (Will Thorp), he tracks down Michael Loboda (Robert Wieckiewicz), the real life last surviving witness.

It’s clearly a  story that needs telling, so it’s a pity that Szkopiak’s thriller, dedicated to his grandfather, one of the victims, is such a humdrum affair, stodgily directed, clunkily written and, for the most, flatly acted with a script that never really makes characters’ motivations clear while the chemistry between Pettyfer and Riley is virtually non-existent. The screening will be followed by a live Q&A with the director, producer and cinematographer. (Sat:MAC)

 

Styx (12A)

Although it’s not initially clear, the responder we see treating a car crash victim at the start of the film (the scene has nothing to do with what follows) is Rike (Susanne Wolff),a  German doctor who, when we next see her, is setting off on in her yacht, Asa-Gray, a one-woman  sailing holiday from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the Atlantic. It’s 20 minutes in before there’s any audible dialogue, even longer 15 before the film’s central thrust kicks in when, the morning after a  storm, she comes across a damaged fishing trawler packed with refugees. Her yacht too small to accommodate everyone, she radios it in and the coastguard say they’ll send help. Hours pass and nothing happens. She gets closer and throws some water bottles into the sea. Seeing her, several jump into the ocean, but only one makes it to her boat, a young African teenager who calls himself Kingsley (Gedion Oduor) who she pulls from the water barely alive and nurse shim back to consciousness. He says his sister is on the boat and asks her to go back. He coastguard tell her in no uncertain terms to do no such thing. She hails another ship who refuse to help because it would go against company policy. Meanwhile, the trawler is in danger of sinking. Eventually she has to make a decision.

Directed in quasi documentary style by Wolfgang Fischer from a screenplay he wrote with Ika Kuenzel based on a true story, it’s a claustrophobically filmed affair, the title referring to the mythical river from this world to the next. As such, between her sense of an ethical obligation and the refusal of others to get involved or the lack of urgency in doing so, it addresses themes of racism, empathy and common humanity with a  backdrop of Western indifference towards refugees to compelling effect.  (Mon-Wed:MAC)

 

Thunder Road (15)      

Opening with cop Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) giving an emotional, long, cringeworthy, rambling and often embarrassingly free associating confessional eulogy that veers between tears and nervous laughter at his mother’s funeral, at which he can’t get the titular Springsteen song to work on the cassette player and resorts to a  theatrical performance in front of a dumbfounded congregation that goes viral on the Internet, this is very much a Marmite movie. If you don’t buy into that monologue, then the rest of the film, which follows Jim, who insists on reporting for work despite being clearly disturbed, as he gradually unravels under the weight of grief, humiliation, the fact his estranged wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) is divorcing him and he’s caught in a custody battle for his indifferent young daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), is going to be  painful watch. In fact, it is regardless.

His daughter shows him no affection even though he stays up nights learning the games she likes to play and, normally an efficient if overzealous patrol cop, he’s patently losing it, an argument with his African-American partner and best friend Nate (Nican Robinson) seeing him suspended from duty. Added to which, he physically threatens Crystal’s teacher (Macon Blair) he tells him she’s an acting-out problem child.

Basically, Jim’s life is a mess largely down to the fact he always outs his own need before anyone else’s, family included and refuses to see that things aren’t fine. However, an accident offers him an unexpected chance to mend his relationship with his daughter. He just need to work out what he has to do to become the best dad ever.

Cummings, who also wrote and directed (the film’s an expanded version of a short he made in 2016), immerses himself totally in the tragicomedy, his screenplay piling on the pathos alongside the palpable repressed rage so that you never quite know how to react as he exposes every raw nerve or in scenes such as the one where, his over-protective father instincts kicking in, he intervenes in what he sees as two boys coming on to a teenage girl in a parking lot.

Essentially a film about the damage repressed anger and self-loathing can do until life forces you to grow up, it strikes clear chords with the despair in America’s heartland as everything falls apart. It will irritate many, others it will tear to shreds. (Electric)

ALSO PLAYING

Ma (15)

Screening times meant there was no way to review this Octavia Spencer starring horror, but you can pretty much know what to expect from the trailer. An assistant to Alison Janney’s vet (and hence having access to all sorts of drugs),  Sue Ann (Spencer) is a smalltown Ohio loner with a traumatic past who, one day, is approached by Maggie (Diana Silvers), who’s just moved into town with her cocktail waitress mom (Juliette Lewis), to buy booze for her and her friends. She seizes on this as a chance to make some new friends of her own (one of them dubs her Ma), inviting them to come party in her basement, the only rules being no swearing, someone stays sober and nobody goes upstairs. Naturally, someone does and that’s when it hits the fan as Ma’s growing obsession  shifts from hospitality to horror with a narrative that can’t help but recall Misery and other such vengeful stalker fare. Spencer, who won as Oscar for The Help (also directed by Tate Taylor) may be slumming it in a predictable Blumhouse B movie in which a bunch of disrespectful teens get what’s coming to them, but there’s no denying the class she brings. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the palace to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and, in places, given a Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Amazing Grace (U)

Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, legal and technical issues have long prevented this concert documentary from being made public, not least Aretha Franklin’s own refusal to give permission and the fact that Pollock, unused to music documentaries, filmed it in a way that it was impossible to synch the sound and the pictures. Time and technology, and Franklin’s passing,  have finally solved all that, so here (albeit somewhat truncated) is the late Queen of Soul, then 29, recording her new live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, including Wholly Holy and a barnstorming version of the title song.  (Mockingbird; Mon: Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

 

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

The year’s most eagerly anticipated film, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Timely arriving mid the GCSE season, boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Greta (15)

 It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner. Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work. An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company. (MAC) 

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves a hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien. (Electric)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Fim Releases, Fri May 24-Thu May 30

 

NEW RELEASES

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former  scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live  action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the place to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith, who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to take replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and . in places given a  Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets  a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Timely arriving mid the GCSE season, boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves an hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please.

(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

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A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwritinghttps://www.folkradio.co.uk/2019/05/the-maes-the-maes/ dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (15)

Hailing from Sale in Chesire, not far from Timperley, as frontman with late 70s pop outfit The Freshies, Chris Sievey had a minor hit with I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk (it would have been bigger had BBC crews not gone on strike the week it was due on Top of the Pops) and cult success with I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies by the Teardrop Explodes, but by far his biggest success came when he donned a papier mache head and created the character of Frank Sidebottom, becoming Manchester’s court jester for over 25 years until his death in 2010. The character even inspired Frank, a film starring Michael Fassbender inspired by his alter ego.

He’s also now the subject of this affectionate and illuminating bittersweet documentary by Steve Sullivan that documents his life from childhood, where even at an early age he clearly sought both the limelight and complete control, through his teenage years and Beatles obsession (he and his brother went to Apple looking for a record deal and  briefly met Ringo) and his formative bands, such as the deliberately bad but compelling Oh Blimey Big Band, before hitting on the concept of the Frank Sidebottom (originally called John Smith and created for a fancy dress party), a stalker-like Freshies fan,  who, despite his odd and frankly somewhat creepy nature (he had his own cardboard puppet, Little Frank), became a hit on children’s TV shows, improvising as he went,  and secured his own Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.

With a  day job working as an animator on the likes of Bob The Builder, the success of his character overwhelmed the man behind the mask who became lost, turning to drink and cocaine to numb the alienation he felt from himself.  Decline was inevitable,  Frank ending up playing Manchester clubs leading  karaoke version of Love Will Tear Us Apart and, when he dies, he would have had a pauper’s funeral had not his manager raised £21,000 from fans.

Clearly an eccentric on uncertain mental stability, Sievey was also an innovator, at one point devising a vinyl single that, on the B-side, had digital code to enable you to play a video game on a computer, while, ex-wife Paula reveals that his chat up approach was to push her into the canal.

As well as access to Sievey’s notebooks, videos and recordings, the documentary also features interviews with friends and family, such as his former keyboard player Jon Ronson (who scripted Frank), comedians Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas, his three children (tragically the youngest, Harry, was killed in a motorbike accident not long after filming his contributions), revealing a brilliant but tormented creative genius who could have built himself a career as a visual artist had he not been so obsessed with finding music business success.  In many ways a parallel story to John Otway, who made a success out of being a failure, this doesn’t always dig as deeply as it might, but, for those who never knew about the band inside the head (and Sievey was fanatical about not being photographed without it), it’s a welcome insight into one of the great British eccentrics of our time who, may not have become a pop star but does have a bronze statue of  Frank erected in Timperely in tribute. (Sun-Wed; MAC)

Breakthrough (12A)

In 2015, three Missouri boys fell through ice on a frozen lake, two clambered out but the third, John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) sank to the bottom, spending 15 minutes underwater before firemen pulled him out and he was rushed to hospital. He had no pulse and attempts to revive him failed. But then his devout Christian adoptive mom, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), arrived and prayed to God, and he returned to life, the impossibly smiley Middle America community coming together to pray and he eventually fully recovering with no neurological damage. As directed by Roxann Dawson, this marks another entry into the Christian faith-based  genre, offering an inspirational story even if it never countenances any other possible explanations (such as the intense cold actually stopping him drowning), the soulful fireman  (Mike Colter) coming to re-examine his atheism and the surgeon (Dennis Haysbert) all but declaring it  a miracle. The only suggestion of doubt comes from John’s father, Brian (Josh Lucas), who gets to beat himself up for not having strong enough faith to think even God could pull this one off, but a widowed teacher’s question of why God choses to save some and not others is dismissed almost as soon as it’s raised in much the same way as John’s feelings of being unwanted or Joyce’s own backstory are just cursory narrative asides.

Regardless of whether you buy into the beliefs, there’s no denying the film has inspirational power (as well as paying due respect to the medical teams, although Joyce does berate one doctor for daring to talk negatively in her son’s comatose presence), most notably in a scene as the community and John’s schoolfriends gather outside the hospital to sing for him to wake up, the incident also bringing traditionalist Joyce and their  new progressive pastor (Topher Grace) together after  previously being at loggerheads. Ultimately, it’s preaching to the choir, but some of the notes have resonance beyond the church doors. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City; Mon-Fri:MAC)

 

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Approaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Mockingbird)

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as  Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and Trevor  are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien. (Electric; MAC)

Vox Lux (15)

Written and directed by Brady Corbet, part-narrated by Willem Dafoe, this opens in 1999 with a Staten Island high school classroom shooting of which only 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. Following convalescence for her spinal injury, she performs a song co-written with her more musically talented older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) in commemoration of the victims that, with a lyrical shift from I to we, turns her almost overnight into a superstar, picking up a never named sleazy cynical manager (Jude Law) and a major record deal brokered by high-powered publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), flying out to record an album and having a hedonistic Super 8 hitting the town montage in Stockholm, heading to L.A for a video shoot and losing her virginity to an angsty British goth musician who, as she observes, makes “the sort of music the boy who attacked me used to listen to.”

Genesis closing in the aftermath of 9/11, the second act fast forwards 18 years with Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become something of a diva, and is attempting to make a comeback with a hometown stadium show after her career nosedived in a cocktail of scandals. She also now has a teenage daughter (Cassidy), who is closer to Eleanor, a not entirely suitable guardian, from whom Celeste is increasingly estranged.

Ironically, on the morning of the show, a terrorist incident takes place at a Croatian beachside resort, the gunmen mowing down tourists while wearing masks inspired by Celeste’s video, bringing things full circle. This obviously rakes up past painful memories, her tensions compounded by a prickly diner conversation with her daughter,  a meeting with the press and her subsequent getting wasted.

There’s little doubt that Celeste is something of a monster, but the film seeks to explain why she has become what she is (insecurity seems to be another reason given she’s not the world’s best singer and it’s her sister who writes the material), exploring themes of lost innocence and the walls erected to shield yourself that only serve to push others away (“I’m a private girl in a public world” run the lyrics of one of her songs).

Featuring throbbing electro pop by Sia, a jarring score by Scott Walker (his last work) and shot on 35mm in a dizzying style that swings between slo mo and pumped up montages to complement Celeste’s excess and over-the-top appearance, it fires off barbed but often wise lines that stick in the mind as well as the flesh. Portman is outstanding but full marks to Law too, giving one of his best  performances in years and if the climax in a lengthy concert sequence leaves questions unanswered, the paradoxical notions of the often toxic nature of celebrity set against the euphoria it can bring others resonate long after. (MAC)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 17-Thu May 23

NEW RELEASES

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Ash Is Purest White (15)

The title referring to how volcanic ash is supposedly the whitest (a metaphor of purity forged in fire), the latest from Chinese director Jia Zhangke, adopts a jianghu – gangster – setting for a bittersweet melodrama about loyalty, betrayal and friendship that, spanning the first 18 years of the 21stcentury, also serves as a snapshot  of the changing face of China. Not intimated by the male milieu of wannabe tough guys, the sassy streetwise  Qiao (Zhao Tao) is girlfriend to  Bin (Liao Fan) who, after his boss gets bumped off, becomes the de facto leader of the local honourable criminal fraternity in his depressed mining town.  However, the times are changing and such old fashioned notions as honour have been swept aside by the new generation of mobsters, leading to an attack on Bin by  aging of young thugs where Qiao comes to his aid in a way that, by refusing to incriminate Bin who owned the illegal firearm she discharged, will see her end up serving five years in jail, he getting off with a much shorter sentence.

On her release, she expects him to be waiting for her, although the fact he hadn’t visited after his release should have told her something, that and the fact he’s blocked her calls,  and what follows involves her journey to confront him so he can tell her it’s over between them himself.

Along the way, Jia balances images of a vanishing way of life (Three Gorges villages on the Yangtze destined to be flooded for a hydroelectric dam project)  with comedic episodes as, having been robbed of her belongs, Qiao uses her wiles to survive, such as crashing a wedding party and conning likely philanders into coughing up contributions for an supposed elder sister’s  non-existent pregnancy as well as earlier getting down to the Village People’s YMCA. There’s also an eccentric but touching scene involving a  cha cha cha dancing display for someone’s funeral.

The somewhat drawn out third act returns to Shanxi where she now runs her own gambling den and the reappearance of a now greatly debilitated Bin, a stroke survivor, her jianghu code prompting her to care for him while claiming she no longer has feelings.

Liao and Zhao are mesmerising in the dance that unfolds between them across their different journeys and, while the path may sometimes by rather long and winding, travelling with them is never a chore.  (MAC)

Beats (18)

In the Summer of 1994, in response to the  Castlemorton Common Festival two years earlier, New Labour, under Tony Blair, introduced the Criminal Justice and the Public Order Act which made it illegal for a gathering of more than 20 people to assemble in the presence of music ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’ Essentially, it looked to strangle rave culture at birth. Rather inevitably, there was a wave of protests, that saw beat bangers facing off against riot police and the rise of crusty outfits such as Spiral Tribe.

Adapted from a stage play by Kieran Hurly and directed by Brian Welsh, shot in symbolic black and white with just touches of red (save for an extended trance sequence), its setting amid the urban decay of West Lothian might prompt Trainspotting comparisons (not least since it includes Laura Fraser), but this is more of a Scottish Easy Rider, the protagonists here being Johnno (first timer Cristian Ortega), who, sporting a sensible haircut and bemusedly forever looking as if he’s expecting the worst, is best mates with Spanner (Lorn Macdonald, perhaps inevitably calling to mind Ewan Bremner’s Spud), a wiry, hyper-energetic teenager with a sort of pre-Peaky Blinders cut who lives under the shadow and the fist of his criminal hardman brother Fido (Neil Leiper).

The friendship is threatened however by the imminent move by Johnno’s mother (Fraser) and policeman stepfather Robert (Brian Ferguson) with his regulation moustache to a more ‘upmarket’ suburban home, that and the fact mom regards Spanner and his family as scum. In one last hurrah, Spanner persuades Johnno to come with him to an illegal outdoor rave party being organised by an older pirate DJ D Man (Ross Mann) and his female crew (Amy Manson, Rachel Macdonald, Gemma McElhinney) to which the Spanner contributes the wad of drug money notes he’s stolen off Fido, fully aware of the inevitable consequences.

Wall to wall with rave classic from the likes of Leftfield, Orbital. The Prodigy, Plastikman and Joey Beltram, this is clearly targeted at a niche audience, one that can also hopefully understand the sometimes thick Scottish accents and, like its photography, the narrative is also pretty much black and white in drawing its lines between the establishment and rebellious and often disenfranchised youth, adults and their kids. But what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in the visual energy, its themes of tight friendship and the desire, indeed the need, to experience life before the lights go out, and the two terrific central performances by Ortega and MacDonald bonded by a love that has nothing to do with queer readings. The full-colour, psychedelic MDMA trip  may be excessively prolonged, leaving you feeling like you’re trapped in a Prodigy video, but otherwise Beats is slamming.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird)

 

Bel Canto (15)

Adapted from Ann Patchett’s pre 9/11 novel inspired by a 1996 Peru hostage crisis, this unfolds in an unnamed South American country to where Japanese industrialist Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) has been invited to attend a diplomatic dinner intended to butter him up over investing in a new factory, although the real reason he’s accepted is because he persuaded them to book his favourite opera singer, the celebrated Roxanne Cross (Julianne Moore), as the entertainment.

However, she’s barely sung a few notes (dubbed by Renee Fleming) when armed rebels storm in looking for the President. However, he’s opted to stay home and watch his favourite soap, so commandant Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta)  finds himself unexpectedly  landed with a roomful of hostages, among them the French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), a Russian businessman (Olek Krupa), and Hosokawa’s  Japanese translator (Ryo Kase) who gets to serve as the go between in various conversations and also plays crucial role in a Stockholm syndrome romantic subplot involving one of the rebels (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Though  Sebastian Koch as Messer, the Red Cross negotiator, the rebels, with no real idea of what to do, demand the release of their political prisoner colleagues (their cause is seen as a just one even if their methods are not), the women and ill being let go as the drama plays out over and extended but never specified timeframe.  As such, friendships are formed between captors and captives, a fairly inevitable romance blossoms and sympathies are engaged before it predictably ends in  a bloodbath (prior to which only one hostage is accidentally shot). Directed by co-writer Paul Weitz with much of the dialogue subtitled, it offers several very human moments that makes the outcome all the more tragic and bitter. (MAC)

 

Breakthrough (12A)

In 2015, three Missouri boys fell through ice on a frozen lake, two clambered out but the third, John Smith (Marcel Ruiz)  sank to the bottom, spending 15 minutes underwater before firemen pulled him out and he was rushed to hospital. He had no pulse and attempts to revive him failed. But then his devout Christian adoptive mom, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), arrived and prayed to God, and he returned to life, the impossibly smiley Middle America community coming together to pray and he eventually fully recovering with no neurological damage. As directed by Roxann Dawson, this marks another entry into the Christian faith-based  genre, offering an inspirational story even if it never countenances any other possible explanations (such as the intense cold actually stopping him drowning), the soulful fireman  (Mike Colter) coming to re-examine his atheism and the surgeon (Dennis Haysbert) all but declaring it  a miracle. The only suggestion of doubt comes from John’s father, Brian (Josh Lucas), who gets to beat himself up for not having strong enough faith to think even God could pull this one off, but a widowed teacher’s question of why God choses to save some and not others is dismissed almost as soon as it’s raised in much the same way as John’s feelings of being unwanted or Joyce’s own backstory are just cursory narrative asides.

Regardless of whether you buy into the beliefs, there’s no denying the film has inspirational power (as well as paying due respect to the medical teams, although Joyce does berate one doctor for daring to talk negatively in her son’s comatose presence), most notably in a scene as the community and John’s schoolfriends gather outside the hospital to sing for him to wake up, the incident also bringing traditionalist Joyce and their  new progressive pastor (Topher Grace) together after  previously being at loggerheads. Ultimately, it’s preaching to the choir, but some of the notes have resonance beyond the church doors. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Woman At War (12A)

Directed and co-written by Iceland’s Olafur Egilsson, there’s whimsical echoes of Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki in the way that three male musicians (piano, accordion, trumpet, tuba and drum) and three Ukranian female singers (in traditional dress) regularly appear in key scenes to provide the accompanying sound track  as both bystanders and commentators. They afford just one of the many delights in this enviro-protest themed comedy in which Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a Reykjavik choir director, conducts an anonymous one-woman eco activist crusade against the energy corporations which she believes are  affecting the climate  and the countryside, using a bow and arrow to bring down power lines. Dubbed Mountain Woman by the local press, she’s particularly keen to scupper a possible deal with the Chinese to build a power plant. The only one who what she’s up to is Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), one of the  choir and a ministry official, but now he’s getting nervous about the government backlash  and her increasingly dramatic actions. She’s also given a hand to evade the police by Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson), a gruff but kindly sheep farmer who might possibly be a cousin.

As Halla’s campaign heads to a climax, she gets a letter telling her that her long forgotten application to adopt (reinforcing the mother/caretaker theme) has been approved and there’s a young Ukrainian orphan girl waiting for her. Not of course that that’s going to happen if she’s nabbed by the authorities. At which point, it should be mentioned that Halla has an identical equally idealistic twin sister,  Ása (Geirharðsdóttir), a meditation and yoga teacher who’s about to take off to an ashram in India for two years. It’s not hard to see how this gimmick will play out, but that doesn’t detract from the gleeful manner in which the plot unfurls or the pleasure to be had in Geirharðsdóttir’s twin performances while Juan Camillo Roman Estrada puts in an amusing running joke as a luckless Spanish tourist who keeps getting arrested for Halla’s deeds. A deadpan joy. (Electric)

 

ALSO PLAYING

Amazing Grace (U)

 Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, legal and technical issues have long prevented this concert documentary from being made public, not least Aretha Franklin’s own refusal to give permission and the fact that Pollock, unused to music documentaries, filmed it in a way that it was impossible to synch the sound and the pictures. Time and technology, and Franklin’s passing,  have finally solved all that, so here (albeit somewhat truncated) is the late Queen of Soul, then 29, recording her new live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, including Wholly Holy and a barnstorming version of the title song.  (Empire Great Park)

 

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll (12A)

Part documentary on the history of  New Jersey’s Asbury Park itself, the seaside resort’s decline under unemployment and a revival of its fortunes through rock n roll and the Upstage club where Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny Lyon and Bruce Springsteen got their start. Featuring interviews with the musician and never before  seen  performances, this serves as a useful appetite whetter for Springsteen’s upcoming new album. (Wed: Everyman)

 

The Ponds (12A)

A documentary about the three swimming ponds in Hampstead Heath and the people who swim in them all year round, regardless the weather, shot over a year to capture the changing of the seasons. (Sat: MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwritinghttps://www.folkradio.co.uk/2019/05/the-maes-the-maes/ dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

All Is True (12A)

Having taken a comedic approach to Will Shakespeare’s pre-fame days  in the TV sitcom Upstart Crow, Ben Elton  now offers a dramatic look at his little-known last three years when, having co-penned Henry VIII, originally known as All is True, he quit writing in 1613 after The Globe Theatre burned down during an early performance and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and his family. Here directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we find him experiencing delayed mourning his young son, Hamnet, who died from plague 17 years earlier and who had been buried by the time he got home from London. And it’s around the circumstances surrounding boy’s death and the poem’s he written that his father cherished, that the plays event unfold, taking in the uneasy dynamic in the Shakespeare household: his wife, Anne (Judy Dench), resentful at being left alone for so many years, consigning him to the guest bedroom, embittered unmarried daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) who’s consumed by survivor guilt and accuses her father of thinking the wrong twin died, and her elder, literate sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson), trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan clergyman John Hall (Hadley Fraser). At one point the latter’s accused of having an adulterous affair, the trial subsequently amusingly defused by her dad’s striking description of a scene and an actor in Titus Andronicus to her accuser. Will, meanwhile, just wants to tend to the garden he’s trying to cultivate in his son’s memory. “I can’t finish your story”, he tells a young lad at the start of the play, though, of course, that turns out to be exactly what the film does.

A perfectly respectable heritage drama, it’s a touch lifeless in the early going and only really begins to spark when hidden family secrets come to the surface, forcing Shakespeare to re-examine what he’s always assumed to be the facts about Hamnet as well as his relationship with the women in the family. There’s also a sense of Elton parading historical facts and speculations about Stratford’s most famous son, such as why his will bequeathed Anne his second best bed and, in a contrived visit by the Earl of Southampton (a scene stealing Ian McKellen in blonde heavy metal wig), his patron and long assumed to be the mysterious amorous subject of many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His arrival has him dismissing the creeping flattery of the oily Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) while his and Will’s intimate fireside chat, in which the former accuses the latter of leading a life far too ordinary for someone of his genius and concludes with them both reciting Sonnet 29, is unquestionably the film’s strongest sequence, but it also throws into relief the dullness of much that surrounds it.

The performances are, as you would expect, high quality, Dench registering profound emotions in just a facial expression, Branagh, with his trademark conversational delivery, portraying a man ruefully aware of his gifts as a playwright but also his failings as a husband and a father. However, the psychological depth is all on the surface and too often spelled out by Elton’s expository dialogue (Anne reminds him that when Hamnet died, he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor), a screenplay the Bard would surely have given a serious overhaul. (Mon-Wed: MAC)

 

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (15)

Back in 1991, 51-year-old Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was a former celebrated journalist turned down on her luck New York biographer, unable to get her book about 30s stage and screen star Fanny Brice (as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) off the ground and with an agent (Jane Curtin) who never returned her phone calls. She’s confronted with her faded star when, trying to sell some books to pay the rent and the vet bill for her sick cat, the store owner humiliatingly points out the huge mark-down on her latest work.

However, while researching Brice at the library she comes across some letters concealed inside one of the books and, discovering that there’s money to be made from signed letters, typed or handwritten, by dead celebrities, she hits upon the idea of forging them and passing them off as artefacts found among her cousin’s possessions. Some 400 to be exact, purportedly from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, perfectly capturing the tone and style of her subjects, enlisting gadfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and fellow gay alcoholic as her partner-in-crime, their gullible book dealer dupes including a store owner and would be writer (Dolly Wells) who, for a moment, offers the potential for companionship (a  late brief appearance by Israel’s former lover adds resonance) and opportunist blackmailer  (Ben Falcone) upon whom they turn the tables. Meanwhile, the FBI are showing an interest.

Directed by Marielle Heller and scripted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s best-selling memoir, it’s slow to unfold and suffused in a bitter-sweet melancholic ambience as it touches on themes of loneliness, self-loathing, failure and isolation as well as the contemporary desire for celebrity contact by association, while also being frequently wickedly funny.

Playing dowdy, combative, self-destructive and often unlikeable, McCarthy delivers an outstanding and deservedly Oscar nominated performance that eclipses her past comedic work and banishes memory of the atrocity that was  The Happytime Murders as she struggles to keep her world together and is superbly matched and at time outshone – by the equally dominated Grant, clearly channelling large elements of his Withnail character into Hock. It’s slow in places, but there’s more than enough emotional rewards to carry it through such patches to the end credit titles that add even more to Israel’s story. (Sat-Thu: MAC)

Captain Marvel (12A)

Following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (15

Already available on Sky, this biopic of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, a dramatised version of events by director Joe Berlinger who also made the Bundy documentary, Conversations With A Killer, is worth catching on the big screen, if only to fully enjoy a knockout performance from Zac Efron as the psychotic but incredibly charming Bundy (girls swooned over him at his trial) who also had a brilliant legal mind (he conducted his own defence after firing his attorney) in his attempts to persuade the jury – and America -that he as an innocent man fitted up by the police. It’s based on the memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s single mother girlfriend who inadvertently played a significant role in bringing him to justice, with whom he lived a happy family life, even when he was out murdering other young women, while Kaya Scodelarion plays Carole Anne Boone, an old friend and colleague whom he married in court while she was testifying on his behalf. Also featuring  Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker who moves in when Ted’s imprisoned, Jim Parsons as the Florida prosecutor and a deliciously dry  John Malkovich as the murder trial judge, the film manages to be both funny and tender without ever diluting the horror and enormity of the crimes.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

 

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

 

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning them ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as  Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Loro (18)

The title loosely translated as ‘them’, set roughly between 2006 and 2009, director Paolo Sorrentino’s sprawling comedy drama (cut to 150 mins from two 100 mins parts) points the camera at the turmoil of Italian politics as seen through the fictionalised lens of its colourful ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi. Except, as played by Toni Servillo,  he doesn’t even appear until an hour in, the early focus being on Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an ambitious chancer who reckons the way to the top is by providing an endless supply of cocaine and young women to those who call the shots and pull the strings in his efforts to get close to Berlusconi, at present nursing his wounded ego after being ousted in exile in the Sardinian home he shares with his neglected second wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), while he connives to secure a return to power, or at least persuade a rising football star to sign to the team he owns.

Meanwhile, Sergio’s assisted in his scheming by his ruthless wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), who he sends to seduce one of his targets, and high class femme fatale Kira (Kasia Smutniak), Silvio’s mistress, whose idea it is to invest in a rental villa teeming with half-naked, stoned women to get Berlusconi’s attention.

It’s a similar world of excess to that Martin Scorsese portrayed in Wolf of Wall Street, and rivals it for sex and drugs parties, intermittently lapsing into surreal psychedelia such as   scene where a truck crashes and suddenly everyone round a swimming pool is being showered in MDMA.

Then the focus shifts to Berlusconi, who frequently bursts into song,  and with it the tone as it becomes more about smooth-tongued political manipulation, brilliantly encapsulated in an extended scene where he passes himself off as a salesman trying to flog a woman some as yet unbuilt real estate over the phone.

There are some inspired and often very funny moments, but, while a scene where an aspiring actress (Alice Pagani) turns down his advances, saying his  old man’s breath, makes for a change. the constant gratuitous visual assault of compliant naked female flesh, all in thrall to ‘him’, feels a bit uncomfortable in the present climate and it’s not always easy to keep track of the political machinations, not to mention the reason for the dead sheep or the silent game show episodes on the TV screen.  (MAC)

 

 

Vox Lux (15)

Written and directed by Brady Corbet, part-narrated by Willem Dafoe, this opens in 1999 with a Staten Island high school classroom shooting of which only 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. Following convalescence for her spinal injury, she performs a song co-written with her more musically talented older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) in commemoration of the victims that, with a lyrical shift from I to we, turns her almost overnight into a superstar, picking up a never named sleazy cynical manager (Jude Law) and a major record deal brokered by high-powered publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), flying out to record an album and having a hedonistic Super 8 hitting the town montage in Stockholm, heading to L.A for a video shoot and losing her virginity to an angsty British goth musician who, as she observes, makes “the sort of music the boy who attacked me used to listen to.”

Genesis closing in the aftermath of 9/11, the second act fast forwards 18 years with Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become something of a diva, and is attempting to make a comeback with a hometown stadium show after her career nosedived in a cocktail of scandals. She also now has a teenage daughter (Cassidy), who is closer to Eleanor, a not entirely suitable guardian, from whom Celeste is increasingly estranged.

Ironically, on the morning of the show, a terrorist incident takes place at a Croatian beachside resort, the gunmen mowing down tourists while wearing masks inspired by Celeste’s video, bringing things full circle. This obviously rakes up past painful memories, her tensions compounded by a prickly diner conversation with her daughter,  a meeting with the press and her subsequent getting wasted.

There’s little doubt that Celeste is something of a monster, but the film seeks to explain why she has become what she is (insecurity seems to be another reason given she’s not the world’s best singer and it’s her sister who writes the material), exploring themes of lost innocence and the walls erected to shield yourself that only serve to push others away (“I’m a private girl in a public world” run the lyrics of one of her songs).

Featuring throbbing electro pop by Sia, a jarring score by Scott Walker (his last work) and shot on 35mm in a dizzying style that swings between slo mo and pumped up montages to complement Celeste’s excess and over-the-top appearance, it fires off barbed but often wise lines that stick in the mind as well as the flesh. Portman is outstanding but full marks to Law too, giving one of his best  performances in years and if the climax in a lengthy concert sequence leaves questions unanswered, the paradoxical notions of the often toxic nature of celebrity set against the euphoria it can bring others resonate long after. (Electric)

ALSO PLAYING

The Corrupted (15
Set prior the 2012 Olympics and loosely based on real events, Tim Spall stars as Clifford Cullen, a corrupt property dealer whose reach embraces bent coppers in Scotland Yard, such as high ranking Hammond (Hugh Bonneville)  and into whose web falls Liam McDonagh (Sam Claflin), a boxer who, just released after serving a term for armed robbery, wants to reconnect with his young son Archie and his ex. Unfortunately, his brother’s, caught up in Collen’s circle, with no route out. Featuring Noel Clarke as a determined cop, it’s a standard issue Brit crime thriller but at least the trailer promises some decent performances and some hefty violence. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Destination Wedding (15)

Reteaming Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder for the fourth time, but with considerably more shared screen time, writer-director Victor Levin brings them together as misanthropes Frank (Reeves) and Lindsay (Ryder) who, meeting at an airport and taking an instant dislike to one another, find themselves attending the same wedding  and gradually bonding as the realise that their dislike of everyone else outweighs their feelings about one another.

Pretty much a dialogue-heavy two-hander, it’s a familiar romcom set up but one which manages to spin some new angles while firing off one bitchy comment after another with a glee that’s hard to resist. (Showcase Walsall)

 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (15

Already available on Sky, this biopic of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, a dramatised version of events by director Joe Berlinger who also made the Bundy documentary, Conversations With A Killer, is worth catching on the big screen, if only to fully enjoy a knockout performance from Zac Efron as the psychotic but incredibly charming Bundy (girls swooned over him at his trial) who also had a brilliant legal mind (he conducted his own defence after firing his attorney) in his attempts to persuade the jury – and America -that he as an innocent man fitted up by the police. It’s based on the memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s single mother girlfriend who inadvertently played a significant role in bringing him to justice, with whom he lived a happy family life, even when he was out murdering other young women, while Kaya Scodelarion plays Carole Anne Boone, an old friend and colleague whom he married in court while she was testifying on his behalf. Also featuring  Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker who moves in when Ted’s imprisoned, Jim Parsons as the Florida prosecutor and a deliciously dry  John Malkovich as the murder trial judge, the film manages to be both funny and tender without ever diluting the horror and enormity of the crimes.  (Everyman; Showcase Walsall)

 

Irene’s Ghost(PG)

A highly personal documentary from Nuneaton’s Iain Cunningham who sets out to find out more about the mother who died when he was just three, but knows nothing about her or the circumstances. His father’s reluctant to help, but through friends and estranged family members he begins to piece together a picture of the women he never knew and of mental health issues that were kept hidden. Told through interviews, archive material and animation, it features a score by Birmingham-based Nuneaton musician Chris Tye  (Thu: MAC+ Q&A)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwriting dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Captain Marvel (12A)

Following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Electric)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has  her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC)

 

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Sisters Brothers (15)

An art-house Western, the first English language film by French director Jacques Audiard, set in 1850s Oregon it stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the bickering titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of bounty hunters come hitmen for hire who work for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) whose latest assignment is to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has somehow crossed their boss’s path.

They’re not the only ones on Warm’s trail, private investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is after him too, his task being to establish his location and let the brothers know. However, he links up with Warm, who has discovered a chemical formula that will make gold prospecting a lot easier, and is always a few days and at least one town ahead of the pair. On top of which, there’s a bunch of other mercenaries on their tail, unaware that Eli and Charlie despatched their brother-running boss a while back.

Although it climaxes in a brutal dramatic sequence before a low-key coda, getting there is slow-paced journey, punctuated with the more sensitive Eli regularly whingeing about how the louder-mouthed Charlie, who’s forever going on a bender, has been designated the lead killer. Along the way, the film also explains how their family background and abusive father led Charlie to being who and what he is.

There’s some excruciating moments, such as spider crawling up to Eli’s mouth as he sleeps, but also gentle humour such as in Eli, the more aspirational of the two, enthusiastically buying into the new invention of a toothbrush, while Audiard pointedly explores the theme of male loneliness, outsiders, the relationship with the environment and, as in There Will Be Blood, the toxic nature of ambition and obsession. (Until Wed:MAC)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 3-Thu May 9

 

NEW RELEASES

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic  Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwriting dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick.

(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after  Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Until Wed: MAC)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Sat: Electric)

Greta (15)

It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner.  Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant  waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work.

An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

Happy As Lazarro (15)

The third feature from Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, the setting is summer in rural Italy as, on Inviolata, an isolated rural estate, an extended family of tobacco famers work for the domineering Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, blissfully unaware that sharecropping was made illegal in the 80s,a  fact she happily exploits. Among the workers is Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo) a moon-faced otherwordly innocent whose good nature everyone takes advantage of, seding him off to guard the chickens from wolves or pick giant cabbages. When the Marchesa’s spoiled self-absorbed son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), pays a visit with his pet dog in the company of his mother, Lazarro befriends him only to find himself embroiled in a fake kidnapping scam. Tancredi hiding out in the mountains waiting for mom to pay the ransom. Not that, well aware of her son’s nature, she has any intention. At one point, Lazarro has an accident and the film transforms into a magic realism fable as, many years later, Lazarus-like, he reappears from the supposed dead, still as young as he was when he disappeared, reconnecting with Tancredi, who’s fallen on hard times and old now grown friends who operate a series of scams, introducing them to the benefits of wild growing herbs.

Not a great deal of the second half makes much sense as it wanders through the rambling social drama narrative of economic exploitation and social hierarchy in a  dreamlike reverie in which organ music quite literally exits the church follows the group after they’ve been ejected from for crashing a private function. Overlong, it requires a certain patience, but those with time to spare and think will find rewards. (Electric)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has  her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mid90s (15)

Jonah Hill makes his writer-director debut with this (mostly) unsentimental, period-detailed and likely autobiographical but ultimately somewhat underwhelming coming of age story set amid the teenage skater community in a low rent Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Sharing his home with his volatile and messed up elder brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up but whose ‘grown up’ cool he quietly worships,  and their young out of her parenting depth single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterson, pretty much the film’s only adult), dorky 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic looking spookily like the young Corey Feldman) steals money from her to  get an old skateboard and, desperate for friends, starts loitering around Motor Avenue, the local skate shop, looking to get noticed by the emotionally inarticulate slacker misfits who hang there. That’ll be close-cropped incipient sociopath Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most out of it, who genuinely thinks saying ‘thank you’ is a gay thing; a blissed-out surfer-dude bi-racial stoner with a halo of ringlets who goes by the name of Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because of his usual mode of expression; the acne-riddled introverted Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so named on account of his assumed level of intelligence, who spends all his time filming everything on his camcorder on account of; and the ostensible leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a laid-back, kindly African-American who  dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder.

Cocky, enthusiastic and eager to please, Stevie’s taken under their wing (although there’s a subsequent falling out with Ruben), is given a better board, learns to improve his skate moves, give proper conversation, gets drunk and generally tries to join in with their meaningless banter. His impulsive reckless earns him the nickname Sunburn and a reputation of being “crazy as fuck!”

It’s empty braggadocio seeking to impress, but at a house party, while he’s led into a bedroom by a slightly older girl and gets to briefly make out, he’s too scared to go all the way. And that’s pretty much the extent of the narrative. There’s fallings out, moments of reconciliation, emotional catharsis, skating down the L.A. streets, a near tragedy and a soundtrack that includes Dedicated To The One I Love and little known Morrissey track We’ll Let You Know as Hill follows Stevie on the painful path to growing up and perhaps learning a few things about the world.

Shot on 16mm and curiously framed in the middle of the screen and with an almost documentary, improvisational style, you can feel Hill’s empathy for the often annoying but engaging characters (for which full marks to the cast’s naturalism), never judging or condescending to them nor dressing them up in wistful nostalgia. It’s an impressive behind the camera debut for Hill, but it never quite finds its emotional beat in the way that Larry Clark’s similarly themed but more nihilistic Kids, the recent Skate Kitchen or indeed Shane Meadows’s Made In Britain did. (Mockingbird; Mon, Wed/Thu: Electric;)

Out of Blue (15)

British director Carol Morley’s police procedural follow up to the no less enigmatic The Falling may be overambitious not to say often baffling in its pursuit of existentialism and cosmic significance (references to quantum physics thought experiment Schrodinger’s Cat abound) and flirting with magic realism but it’s never boring.

Adapted from Martin Amis novel Night Train and influenced by Nic Roeg (whose son produces), set in New Orleans it stars Patricia Clarkson as Mike Hoolihan, an on the wagon alcoholic looking to solve the death of retro-obsessive Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), an astronomy professor and black holes expert at the local observatory who’s been found dead beside the telescope, the front of her face blown off.  Suspects involve her science lecturer boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), whose sock is found at the scene, and fellow astrophysicist and observer manager Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) who has a swollen jaw.

However, when Hoolihan realises this was suicide not murder, it switches from whodunit to whydunit, a mystery that pokes around dark family secrets involving her sinister Vietnam war hero father (James Caan) who walks with a cane, her oddball mother (Jackie Weaver) and obstructive brothers Walt and Bray, who run the family electronics company, neither of whom seem especially torn up about her death. Has this all got something to with the unsolved case of the .38 calibre killer to which it has many similarities, not least the appearance of the victim?

With Gummer spouting lines like “We are all stardust” to her students on the eve of her death, constant verbal and visual references to masks, Devyn A. Tyler as a fellow alcoholic TV reporter, Stella Honey, who seems to be constantly popping up and is responsible for  giving Mike a crucial file and Hoolihan’s assorted visions/hallucinations, it essentially deals with repressed memory all of which falls into place in the final moments as the clues dotted around the flashbacks and flashforwards finally cohere, albeit in a melodramatic collision. At the end of the day, it’s somewhat messy and abstract, but, atmospheric to a fault, it holds your attention and interest and Clarkson, who at one point drunkenly joins the dancers onstage at a strip club, is mesmerising. It may test your patience, but it also rewards it.  (Sat-Thu: MAC)

 

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Showcase Walsall;Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Tue-Thu:Everyman)

 

Shazam! (12A)

 The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wild Rose (15)

Named one of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits in 2017 and a nominee for BAFTA’s 2019 Rising Star award on the back of her performance in Beast, Jessie Buckley consolidates her growing reputation with a knockout performance as a Glaswegian single mother dreaming of making it in country music.  Unfortunately, Tom Cooper’s film never matches the fire of its star.

Just out of prison for supplying heroin to the inmates, ankle-tag under her white cowboy boots, bolshie Rose-Lynn Harlan returns home to her two young kids and tough-love mother Marion (Julie Walters), looking to reclaim her job singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and still nurturing an ambition to seek fame and fortune in Nashville, despite her mother forever pouring cold water on such ambitions. She gets a cleaning job in an upmarket part of Glasgow, singing as she hoovers away for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who, having been introduced by Rose to the joys of Dolly Parton and the like improbably becomes her fairy godmother, seeking to further her dreams.  This includes sending a demo off to Bob Harris and facilitating meeting at the BBC with him and his producer, Mark Hagen, in quite possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes you’ll see on screen this year. In another cloud of wish-fulfilment, a lawyer also manages to convince a judge to have her ankle tag removed so she can further he singing career and provide for her kids.

Despite blowing a fundraising opportunity thrown by Susannah, Rose, thanks to mom, gets to go to Nashville after all (cue a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Kasey Musgraves) and even sing on the Opry stage before she has yet another epiphany about her parental responsibilities. But, even then, the film still gets to sprinkle fairy dust over things as, Whispering Bob in the audience, she gets to have her cake and eat it by playing one of Scotland’s biggest Americana-based music festivals.

Uncynical and unabashedly feelgood to the point of parody, it almost drowns in clichés about discovering who you are and what truly matters, Walters (clearly there were no actual Scottish actresses available) lays on the Glasgow accent so thickly she’s often impossible to understand and Okenado, a gifted actress, is forced to be so gushy as to make Mary Poppins seem like Nurse Ratched.  The saving grace in all this is Buckley, fiercely playing a character who can be blinkered and self-deluded in the selfish single-minded pursuit of her dream but still has you rooting for her. On top of which, doing her own vocal work (a theatrical background, she first came to notice in the TV auditions for Oliver!), while no Lady GaGa, she also turns out to be a pretty good country singer too, the film’s soundtrack album serving as her own musical debut, including the excellent Cigarette Street (Five O’Clock Freedom) written and sung in the film by The Southern Companion. A star is indeed born.  (Tue: Everyman)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Apr 26-Thu May 2

 

NEW RELEASES

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights being a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

  

3 Faces (15)

When celebrated Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari (herself) somehow or other gets texted an apparent iPhone suicide note from Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezael), a young girl whose family and future in-laws won’t let her, an “empty-headed brat”, go to drama school, showing her hanging herself, she and acclaimed director Jafar Panahi  (himself) take time out from filming and head off to a remote mountain village in northern Iran to find her. As you might surmise, things don’t turn about to be as they appeared.

A meandering road movie that trades in Panahi’s customary misdirection and unfolds in a long sequence of conversations, arguments and invitations to tea and debates on the point of entertainment in an area where it’s hard enough to scrape a living, the three faces belonging to the girl, Jafari and Shahrazade, an aged former star who, though never seen, has come to the area to paint and is equally scorned by the locals who both revere her celebrity but are dismissive of her current status. An attitude that also extends to Jafari and Panahi who may be feted but are of no use in ficing the electricity supply.

A quasi-documentary with an improvisational feel and some disarmingly engaging interludes, it’s both slight in plot but carries with it’s a typical Panahi commentary on the way women are viewed and treated in Iran. Despite ending on an ambiguous note of hope, this is one of his lesser offerings but, even so, it has a beguiling charm. (Sun-Tue:MAC)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Happy As Lazarro (15)

The third feature from Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, the setting is summer in rural Italy as, on Inviolata, an isolated rural estate, an extended family of tobacco famers work for the domineering Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, blissfully unaware that sharecropping was made illegal in the 80s,a  fact she happily exploits. Among the workers is Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo) a moon-faced otherwordly innocent whose good nature everyone takes advantage of, seding him off to guard the chickens from wolves or pick giant cabbages. When the Marchesa’s spoiled self-absorbed son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), pays a visit with his pet dog in the company of his mother, Lazarro befriends him only to find himself embroiled in a fake kidnapping scam. Tancredi hiding out in the mountains waiting for mom to pay the ransom. Not that, well aware of her son’s nature, she has any intention. At one point, Lazarro has an accident and the film transforms into a magic realism fable as, many years later, Lazarus-like, he reappears from the supposed dead, still as young as he was when he disappeared, reconnecting with Tancredi, who’s fallen on hard times and old now grown friends who operate a series of scams, introducing them to the benefits of wild growing herbs.

Not a great deal of the second half makes much sense as it wanders through the rambling social drama narrative of economic exploitation and social hierarchy in a  dreamlike reverie in which organ music quite literally exits the church follows the group after they’ve been ejected from for crashing a private function. Overlong, it requires a certain patience, but those with time to spare and think will find rewards. (Fri-Wed:MAC)

 

Last Breath (15)

In September 2012, working as a deep-sea saturation diver for the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea, 33-year-old Chris Lemons was underwater along with two colleagues, his mentor Duncan Allcock and the more experienced Dave Yuasa, who remained in the diving bell, carrying out routine maintenance. They were unaware that a computer error on the boat had caused their positional system to failed and that it was drifting out of control, dragging everything with it. On attempting to return to the bell, Chris’s ‘umbilical’ became caught, leaving him trapped in the darkness with his oxygen and heat running out and prompting a race against the clock – just five minutes – to try and save him.

Directed by Richard da Costa and Alex Parkinson, the documentary reconstructs events  and often jocular interviews those involved, which, since they include Chris, does somewhat dissipate the will he/won’t he tension. That said, there’s still a calustrophobic edge-of-the-seat quality as the film unfolds as it gives an insight into what life is like for the men who work such dangerous conditions.  (Sat – Mon: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

At Eternity’s Gate (12A)

First portrayed on screen in 1948 in an Oscar-winning French short by Alain Resnais, followed in 1956 by Vincent Minelli’s Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas, there’s since been a further five films about the life of Vincent Van Gogh (as well as an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams with Martin Scorsese), the most recent being 2017’s painted animated biography Loving Vincent.

Now Willem Dafoe gets to take on the mantle, earning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination, for Julian Schnabel’s latest foray into the world of tormented, troubled artists, an inevitably often impressionistic and experimental affair in which he explores Van Gogh’s fascination with and attempt to capture the nature of light and its ecstatic holiness effect on the things it touches.

 

Although opening in Paris, where, after a failed one-man exhibition in a local café, Vincent meets Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), it’s mostly set in the small Provençal town of Arles where, in his final days, he produced some 75 paintings, before dying in Auvers-sur-Oise of a gunshot wounded, inflicted, as also claimed in Loving Vincent, by a local boy, though Van Gogh refused to identify him. There’s also a couple of scenes in the local asylum to which he was committed for his madness, not least cutting off his ear and having it sent to Gaugin (he’s questioned by a doctor with Dafoe made up with the bandage exactly as in the famous self-portrait), where, in an inspired sequence he’s questioned about his art, beliefs and motivations by a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who, Pilate to Vincent’s Christ, dismisses his paintings as ugly and worthless while Vincent suggests he was made by God to paint for people who have not yet been born.

The visual style can be irksome, several scenes involving the camera pointed at Vincent’s feet as he scurries through fields, but it also seeks to capture the essence of his paintings and the way in which he saw the world, the most striking moment being as he wanders through a field of dead sunflowers, calling to mind the vibrancy with which he captured them in his famous painting.

The vision of Van Gogh as some sort of proto-flower child hippy, suffused with happiness, high on painting while also a depressive estranged from and trying to make sense of the world around him (as Dafoe puts it, “When facing a landscape I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one to see it?”), captures the agony and the ecstasy of his life, even if it is a tad romanticised, but there’s no denying the impact of the final scenes of his body laid out in an open coffin surrounded by his paintings, still unenthusiastically dismissed by the few mourners. Not one for those who prefer more traditional biopics, but the textures here still have a mesmerising impact. (Fri-Mon:MAC)

 

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Greta (15)

It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner.  Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant  waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work.

An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hellboy (15) 

A reboot of the Mike Mignola comics-based franchise originally brought to the screen by writer/director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman, Neil Marshall’s version doesn’t take itself seriously. Unfortunately, borderline ludicrous and with some howlingly bad dialogue and third-rate CGI, no one else is likely to either.

For late arrivals, Hellboy is a red, buffed demon summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists in a  last ditch attempt to win WWII, but who’s scheme was thwarted byvigilante The Lobster (Thomas Haden Church) and Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane, clearly immune to embarrassment), the latter taking the baby demon under his wing and,  his horns filed off, rearing him as his adopted son to work for mankind as, armed with great strength and his ‘Right Hand of Doom’, part of  the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. All of this is variously revisited in assorted flashbacks, but the film actually opens with some excruciatingly bad voiceover narrating how, in a radical departure from her usual embodiment of the Lady of the Lake, the evil sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich), aka the Blood Queen, is prevented from destroying mankind by King Arthur who chops her into pieces with the enchanted Excalibur and has the body parts buried in various hidden locations. Things don’t much improve.

Fast forward to the present day where, after an irrelevant second prologue as Hellboy’s mission to bring back a missing agent ends badly, he’s sent off to England by dad to link up with a bizarre secret society who are battling three giants, only to discover the monster they really want to kill is him. It’s all down to some prophecy about him bringing about the apocalypse, which is why a badly rendered, cartoon-accented demonic pig is going about recovering Nimue’s body parts to put her back together so he can get revenge on Hellboy for an incident many years earlier. For reasons that are never particularly well-articulated, he’s pared with the dead-channelling psychic Alice (American Honey star Sasha Lane), who he saved when she was kidnapped by fairies as a baby, and scarred primly Brit-accented M11 agent Daimo (Daniel Dae Kim) who has a secret of his own. Nimue, meanwhile, is determined to get Hellboy to become her consort as their destined are entwined.

Marshall lurches through the plot, tossing plot points aside in abandon but earning the higher certificate with numerous scenes of gratuitous extreme violence and copious bloodshed in some generic, dull and clunky action sequences as Nimue’s demons graphically tear bodies in half. Playing Hellboy as a demon with his own inner demon, Harbour’s saddled with badly written attempts at Perlman’s hardboiled, seen it all sarcasm and is just prosthetic and posture with none of the charisma or wit, while the rest of the cast appear to be trying to make sense of a convoluted over-the-top plot that’s linked together only by the editing as they go, although Jovovich, casting subtlety to the wind, does at least give some decent bitch witch. And then just when you mercifully think it’s all over, there’s a some months later coda with the surviving trio on another mission to set up a sequel introducing one of the more poignant characters from the original films. Hell will have to freeze over first. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and Trevor  are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mid90s (15)

Jonah Hill makes his writer-director debut with this (mostly) unsentimental, period-detailed and likely autobiographical but ultimately somewhat underwhelming coming of age story set amid the teenage skater community in a low rent Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Sharing his home with his volatile and messed up elder brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up but whose ‘grown up’ cool he quietly worships,  and their young out of her parenting depth single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterson, pretty much the film’s only adult), dorky 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic looking spookily like the young Corey Feldman) steals money from her to  get an old skateboard and, desperate for friends, starts loitering around Motor Avenue, the local skate shop, looking to get noticed by the emotionally inarticulate slacker misfits who hang there. That’ll be close-cropped incipient sociopath Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most out of it, who genuinely thinks saying ‘thank you’ is a gay thing; a blissed-out surfer-dude bi-racial stoner with a halo of ringlets who goes by the name of Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because of his usual mode of expression; the acne-riddled introverted Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so named on account of his assumed level of intelligence, who spends all his time filming everything on his camcorder on account of; and the ostensible leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a laid-back, kindly African-American who  dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder.

Cocky, enthusiastic and eager to please, Stevie’s taken under their wing (although there’s a subsequent falling out with Ruben), is given a better board, learns to improve his skate moves, give proper conversation, gets drunk and generally tries to join in with their meaningless banter. His impulsive reckless earns him the nickname Sunburn and a reputation of being “crazy as fuck!”

It’s empty braggadocio seeking to impress, but at a house party, while he’s led into a bedroom by a slightly older girl and gets to briefly make out, he’s too scared to go all the way. And that’s pretty much the extent of the narrative. There’s fallings out, moments of reconciliation, emotional catharsis, skating down the L.A. streets, a near tragedy and a soundtrack that includes Dedicated To The One I Love and little known Morrissey track We’ll Let You Know as Hill follows Stevie on the painful path to growing up and perhaps learning a few things about the world.

Shot on 16mm and curiously framed in the middle of the screen and with an almost documentary, improvisational style, you can feel Hill’s empathy for the often annoying but engaging characters (for which full marks to the cast’s naturalism), never judging or condescending to them nor dressing them up in wistful nostalgia. It’s an impressive behind the camera debut for Hill, but it never quite finds its emotional beat in the way that Larry Clark’s similarly themed but more nihilistic Kids, the recent Skate Kitchen or indeed Shane Meadows’s Made In Britain did. (Electric)

Missing Link (PG)

The latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and Kubo & The Two Strings is a much more lighthearted affair, even it does come with some heavy duty messages.

Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, a self-absorbed English Victorian explorer who’s desperate to become part of an exclusive adventurer’s club of  ‘great men’ which, headed up by pompous braggart Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), treats his wild exploits to prove the existence of mythological creatures with disdain.

However, when, following his latest  failure, he receives a letter offering to lead him to the fabled Sasquatch, he strikes a deal that, if he can provide proof, and as such validate Darwin’s theory of evolution, Piggot-Dunceby will let him join and duly sets of to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest where he does indeed meet up with the titular missing link (Zach Galifianakis). To his surprise, the hairy creature, is a charmingly affable fellow who speaks excellent English, even if he takes things overly literally, who, rather than wanting  Frost to reveal his existence, wants him to help find his Asian cousins, the Yetis, as, one of his kind, he’s rather lonely.

Frost, reckoning he can prove two creatures at one go, agrees and, after some amusing plot padding concerning map to the hidden city of Shangri La in the Himalayas, sets off with Mr. Link (who later decides to name himself Susan) and Adelina Fortlight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his late partner and, apparently, an old flame.

However, Piggot-Dunceby is taking no chances on having to eat humble pie and has despatched moustachioed varmint Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), an infamous hunter of rare animals, to ensure he never returns.

Taking the form of a road movie involving various modes of transport, countries and run-ins with Stenk, it winds up in the Himalayas where the trio finally come face-to-face with the snow white Yetis, led by the long-haired matriachial Elder (Emma Thompson), only to find, in a comment about isolationism, that  not all dreams have happy endings before a literal cliffhanger as their enemies close in.

The backdrops adopt a fairly realistic look while the human characters are all highly stylised with big bellies, long spindly legs, angular features and either pointed or blobby pink glowing noses while Susan is covered in rust-coloured fur that looks like he’s been stitched with rubbery filaments, accentuating the sense of cartoonish fun. Written and directed by Chris Butler, who made ParaNorman, it deals with such familiar concerns as family, belonging, rejecting bigotry,  and doing the right thing as Frost offers up his own instance of evolution into a better person.

With David Walliams and Matt Lucas also adding their voices, the emphasis very much on colourful fun with physical comedy blending with fish out of water gags and jokes about wordplay and language, it wisely downplays the romantic interest angle the younger audience might find too soppy, but unerringly hits all the emotional notes. It ends back in London with  the promise of future adventures from this unlikely duo, a sort of adventurer version of Holmes and Watson. Get Linked in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall;Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Shazam! (12A)

 The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an over-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wild Rose (15)

Named one of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits in 2017 and a nominee for BAFTA’s 2019 Rising Star award on the back of her performance in Beast, Jessie Buckley consolidates her growing reputation with a knockout performance as a Glaswegian single mother dreaming of making it in country music.  Unfortunately, Tom Cooper’s film never matches the fire of its star.

Just out of prison for supplying heroin to the inmates, ankle-tag under her white cowboy boots, bolshie Rose-Lynn Harlan returns home to her two young kids and tough-love mother Marion (Julie Walters), looking to reclaim her job singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and still nurturing an ambition to seek fame and fortune in Nashville, despite her mother forever pouring cold water on such ambitions. She gets a cleaning job in an upmarket part of Glasgow, singing as she hoovers away for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who, having been introduced by Rose to the joys of Dolly Parton and the like improbably becomes her fairy godmother, seeking to further her dreams.  This includes sending a demo off to Bob Harris and facilitating meeting at the BBC with him and his producer, Mark Hagen, in quite possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes you’ll see on screen this year. In another cloud of wish-fulfilment, a lawyer also manages to convince a judge to have her ankle tag removed so she can further he singing career and provide for her kids.

Despite blowing a fundraising opportunity thrown by Susannah, Rose, thanks to mom, gets to go to Nashville after all (cue a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Kasey Musgraves) and even sing on the Opry stage before she has yet another epiphany about her parental responsibilities. But, even then, the film still gets to sprinkle fairy dust over things as, Whispering Bob in the audience, she gets to have her cake and eat it by playing one of Scotland’s biggest Americana-based music festivals.

Uncynical and unabashedly feelgood to the point of parody, it almost drowns in clichés about discovering who you are and what truly matters, Walters (clearly there were no actual Scottish actresses available) lays on the Glasgow accent so thickly she’s often impossible to understand and Okenado, a gifted actress, is forced to be so gushy as to make Mary Poppins seem like Nurse Ratched.  The saving grace in all this is Buckley, fiercely playing a character who can be blinkered and self-deluded in the selfish single-minded pursuit of her dream but still has you rooting for her. On top of which, doing her own vocal work (a theatrical background, she first came to notice in the TV auditions for Oliver!), while no Lady GaGa, she also turns out to be a pretty good country singer too, the film’s soundtrack album serving as her own musical debut, including the excellent Cigarette Street (Five O’Clock Freedom) written and sung in the film by The Southern Companion. A star is indeed born.  (Cineworld Solihull; Everyman; Mockingbird)

Wonder Park (PG)

From an early age, June (Brianna Denski) and her mom (Jennifer Garner) made up stories together about Wonderland (it’s  never referred to as Wonder Park), a theme park packed with wild rides and run by talking animals, bear greeter Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), hyper beaver twins Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), Steve (John Oliver), a neurotic but highly educated (parents should be prepared to explain existentialism to the kids)  porcupine who’s lovesick for Greta (Mila Kunis) the warthog who’s de facto in charge  and Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the chimp who magically creates the rides when June whispers into the ear of his cuddly toy counterpart.

From bedtime tales, Wonderland grows into a model made  up of, among other things, cardboard and drinking straws that takes over those house, June even builds a ramshackle thrill ride for real, causing chaos in her neighbourhood.

But then, suddenly, mom gets sick and disappears from the film, leaving an increasingly disconsolate June with her bumbling dad (Matthew Broderick) who, when she packs up her model, puts the toys in a box and burns the lay out plan decides the best thing is to pack her off to a math camp, Camp Awe+Sum (the film’s best gag), for the summer.  She never gets there. Instead, abandoning the bus, she heads into the wood planning to return home but a fragment of the burnt map lures her further on where she discovers the park of her imagination, except it’s fallen into disrepair and the animals are being besieged by toy monkeys that have  turned into Chimpan-Zombies and are tearing the place apart and feeding it into ‘the darkness’, a huge black cloud hovering over the park, Peanut having hidden himself away since he stopped getting those messages.

Suffice to say, June, realising she’s the source of the darkness in her anger and worry over mom’s illness,  decides to fix things and restore Wonderland to its former glory, and, just in case you miss the message, healing herself in the process. But the sentiment is tepid, the laughs few and the emotion never comes near the depth of either A Monster Calls or Inside Out, both of which are obvious touchstones. It’s thrillingly animated and the physical action and animal antics  may engage a younger audience, but, despite the worthy idea about dealing with your feelings when someone you care for is ill, the execution is a confused jumble that never coherently hangs together, likely to leave older children and adults  wondering what it was all about. Despite the title, this is more a case of bemusement park. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – 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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