Home Blog

Preview: Nils Frahm, O2 Academy Birmingham

Nils Frahm by Manuel Wagner - July 2018

Piano virtuoso and electronic experimentalist Nils Frahm plays Birmingham’s 02 Academy on Wednesday 20th February as part of his Worldwide ‘All Melody’ tour, with the help of city promoters Leftfoot & This Is Tmrw.

The show will see Nils, a maverick of the modern classical world whose unconventional style has amassed an unlikely global demographic, bring his contemplative and intimate playing style to a West Midlands audience for the very first time.

Alongside collaborations with respected contemporaries Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds, and Anne Müller, Frahm’s experimentation with both organic and electronic sounds has made him one of the most accessible contemporary composers of our time. 

Outside of the usual circles Frahm has performed live on Boiler Room, perhaps the most significant platforms in underground dance music streaming. 

In wake of his latest EP release ‘Encores 2’ – the spiritual side project to ‘All Melody’ – the performance promises an atmospheric fusion of neo-classical, jazz, ambient and IDM movements.

To look over the total work of Nils Frahm is to truly come to terms with the breadth of his artistry. From lonely harmonium melodies and creeping ambient soundscapes, to staggering orchestral verses and layered synthesisers, all thread seamlessly into his conceptual oeuvre.   

Other key releases include ‘Wintermusik’, ‘Spaces’, and last year’s ‘Encores 1’. In 2015 he curated his own ‘Late Night Tales’ compilation and soundtracked film-short ‘Ellis’ in the following year. 

Tickets for Nils Frahm at Birmingham O2 Academy on Wednesday 29th February 2019 are available to buy online here.

Words: Kristian Birch-Hirst

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 15-Thu Feb 21

NEW RELEASES

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a  plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window.  So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns.Here, however,  reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat  to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.

Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate,  Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19  to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks,  Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and  Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it.  Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad  there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow  sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).

To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power  and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back, the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.

Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre,  recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch.  The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Burning (15)

The first film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong  in eight years, inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, sharing its Barn Burning titled with one by William Faulkner. Lee, this is slowly gathering psychological drama built around a romantic triangle infused with envy, jealousy, lies, longing and alienation.

Set in contemporary Seoul, Jongsoo is a working class aspiring writer (Faulkner is his favourite author) living on a run down one-cow farm near the North Korea border with an absent  father whose anger regularly seems him up in court and in jail for assault. In town, he meets Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who’s doing a store raffle promotion, who reminds him that they knew each other back in school and that he once rescued her from a  dry well and asks if he can look after her cat while she’s away volunteering in Kenya. Going back to her flat, there’s no sign of the cat but, reminding him he once called her ugly (she’s had plastic surgery since), she seduces him.

He dutifully visits the flat to feed the never seen cat and, while there, regularly masturbates while staring out of her window. Picking up from the airport on her return, he finds she’s hooked up with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy bored yuppie who lives in a  plush apartment, drives a Porsche and confesses to Jongsoo that he regularly burns down the abandoned greenhouses littering the countryside, and intends the next to be one near the farm. Although there’s no indication that’s true, while Jongsoo himself is drawn to do the same. Throwing in another literary reference Ben’s likened to The Great Gatsby, reinforcing the film’s themes of class, economic and romantic conflict.

The three of them hang out and get high, Jongsoo increasingly feeling like , but then Haemi disappears from the scene and, thinking Ben is involved, he starts following him, building to the film’s titular cathartic but shocking climax.  Heavy with never explained mysteries and with scenes that involve a meeting between Jongsoo and the mother who abandoned him and a stoned Haemi dancing topless to the strains of Miles Davis as the sun sets behind the farm, it suggests rather than states as Jongsoo,summed by a sense of inferiority, tries to bring a sense of order and meaning to a life spinning out of control, to distinguish between truth and lies. He never finds answers, and the film never offers viewers any either, but the questions linger long. (Sat-Wed:MAC)

 

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a  jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Marindale as Pete’s goodhearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (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 Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders  (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird,  gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a  drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Private War (15)

An award-winning war correspondent for the  Sunday Times, feisty American-born journalist Marie Colvin made her name covering such conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, where she promoted the exhumation of a mass grave of Kuwaiti POWs and Sri Lanka where, embedded with the Tamil Tigers, she lost an eye when fired upon by the military, subsequently sporting  a distinctive pirate-like black patch, before being killed during the bombing of Homs in Syria in 2012.

Directed in the same fashion he brought to his Syrian documentary, City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman and starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin, the film details her crusading, passionate, driven determination to report the truth of what was happening to both her readers back home and the world at large, forcing  them not to look the other way. Opening with the Homs bombing where she exposed how Assad was targeting innocent women and children, it flashes back to Sri Lanka, counting down the ten years running up to her death as she covered some of the most world’s most dangerous conflict zones and even famously secured a face-to-face interview with Gadaffi shortly before his overthrow.

In Iraq, she teams up with freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dorman) who would accompany her on her subsequent assignments, putting the graphic images to her uncompromising words, Pike portraying Colvin as a no-nonsense, stubborn, plain-speaking woman, tormented by a fear of growing old while dreading dying young, more at home under fire than back in the safety and comforts of London life or the awards ceremonies in her honour.  Haunted by the image of a dead girl on her bed, the film seeks to explore how such traumas are processed and the effects it can have on those enduring them, especially when drinking and chainsmoking no longer numb the  pain, Colvin essentially a PTSD addict.

With Tom Hollander as her editor, Sean Ryan, and Stanley Tucci as her wealthy businessman  lover, Tony Shaw, the film is at its best on the various battlefronts, the energy and power dissipating when not under fire, but, at a time when fake news is the watchword, Colvin’s story is raw truth. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

ALSO PLAYING

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (15)

An intimate portrait of a place and its people, the directorial debut of award-winning photographer and director RaMell Ross follows Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, two young African American men from rural Hale County, Alabama, over five years as Collins attends college and Bryant becomes a father. Documenting the experiences that shape their lives, both big and small, from church services to basketball games to family gatherings , the film explores themes of race, the region’s social and cultural past, and the complex and problematic legacy of the African American community’s collective image in the American imagination. (Tue: MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of  Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova; unfortunately, given predictions that the film is poised to become a monumental box office flop, that and all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up in the planned sequel, seem to be heading, if not for the scrapheap, then a wait that will make the time between Avatars seem like the blink of an eye. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park)

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own  solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and, even then, the action is dizzyingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the  heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers burst in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of  the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately, it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Beautiful Boy (15)

Based on the twin, complementary memoirs of author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth-addicted son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), directed  by Felix Van Groeningen this true-life drug addiction drama charts the struggle by the former to help the latter overcome is habit.

It opens with Sheff Sr interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) for a proposed article on  drug addiction that quickly is made apparent to be have a more personal angle, asking how he can help, and flashes back and forth to show how Nic’s addiction was first discovered, his attempt to go clean, the failed rehab, a doomed romantic relationship (Kaitlyn Dever) on San Francisco’s seedy side, David’s journalistic investigations into addiction and the several acrimonious blame-apportioning confrontations between father and son before the ever-patient and supportive David, driven to the brink one time too many, adopted his eventual chosen path.

A bright, intelligent teen, Nic experiments with crystal methamphetamine and gets hooked. College goes out of the window and he’s enlisted in 26-week in a detox programme, moves to a halfway house, and then disappears. Somewhat unhelpfully, a counsellor tells David that relapse is part of the recovery.

There’s no real attempt to explore what led Nic into addiction, although a troubled childhood that’s aw his parents divorcing is unlikely to have helped. David now lives with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) in Marin County and has a younger daughter. He has frequent phone conversations with his ex, Vicki (Amy Ryan), which inevitably quickly descend into bitter accusations and counter-accusations of blame. Perhaps that residue of toxicity led Nic to seek some sort of escape, the film never offers an opinion.

Both parents try to help their son, who swings between reaching out and self-destruction, lashing out by blaming his often overbearing father for trying to control him. It should be an emotional roller-coaster, but, despite the top notch Oscar-bait lead performances, frequently shot in close-up, Carrell all confused concern,  Chalamet channelling self-loathing in introspective  funks and angry flare-ups, it somehow never engages, leaving the audience distanced spectators rather than involved in the drama, Nic often proving very hard to sympathise with.

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes. (Mockingbird)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With BAFTE winner Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Boy Erased (15)

A gender switch companion piece to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Joel Edgerton’s second film as director, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, also turns its focus on the controversial subject if conversion therapy whereby members of the gay community are subjected to ‘healing’ in the name of God.

Shot in a non-linear fashion that juxtaposes flashbacks with present day events, it follows the ordeals of Jared Eamons (Lukas Hedges) who, having been forcibly outed to his devout Christian parents by the fellow college student (Joe Alwyn) who raped him, Arkansas Baptist pastor and car dealer father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser mother Nancy (the presently ubiquitous Nicole Kidman), is carted off to the Love in Action conversion centre run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton), mom moving into a nearby motel during his 12-day stay.

Here Sykes tells his ‘patients’, that their sexual proclivities are the result of poor parenting rather than genetic and requires them to draw up “moral inventories” of themselves and their families, demanding that what happens in the centre stays within the centre. Alongside Jared, others there to be ‘cured’ include Jon (Xavier Dolan) who is fanatically dedicated to conversion and Troy (Theodore Pellerin), who confides that he’s just playing the part so he can get out, while, the therapy group leaders also include the abusive Brandon (Flea). Things come to a head when one of the attendees, Cameron (Britton Sear) is not only humiliated and intimidated by Sykes but also, at his behest, beaten with bibles by both the therapists and his own family.

The film pulls no punches in showing the harsh treatment meted out and the bigoted nature of those in charge, supposedly doing the Lord’s work, nor does it pull back from its criticism of Jared’s parents, his intransigent father in particular, yet, at the same time, it never suggests that they don’t love their son, but rather that such love is misguided. Equally, there are moments of tenderness amid the abusiveness at the centre, and it’s fairly obvious that Sykes has issues of his own.

Edgerton and Hedges provide the solid foundation on which the film is built, but the performances throughout are strong and truthful, Kidman especially moving as she ultimately breaks away from the patriarchal oppression of her community and heartachingly confesses and apologises to her son for her complicity in his sufferings. On the downside, the pace drags somewhat, the dialogue is often uneven and the emotional ride too marked by peaks and troughs to fully engage as it intends, but, even so, as a parent-child drama, this is vastly superior to the overrated Beautiful Boy. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channelling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron  (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing  mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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. (Electric)

A Dog’s Way Home (PG)

A companion rather than sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, also adapted from a book by W. Bruce Cameron but with the spirit of Disney’s classic The Incredible Journey hovering in the wings, this is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, designed to have not just dog lovers but animal buddies in general welling up every few minutes.

Bella (played by Shelby with Bryce Dallas Howard in voiceover) is a stray pup raised by ‘mother cat’ in a derelict suburban Denver building after her mother is taken to the pound and subsequently taken in and named by med school student  Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who, along with fellow student romantic interest  Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), also volunteers for animals in need. Bella immediately becomes Lucas’s dog and he her person, learning to play games like ‘stay’, ‘sit and ‘fetch’. Bella’s also embraced by his depressed mom Terri (Ashley Judd) and her fellow war veterans down the  local VA here she helps lift their spirits.

Rather less keen on Bella and her new family is property developer Gunter (Brian Markinson), whose plans for the site are been constantly thwarted by Lucas, who lives opposite, in his animal protection capacity. Consequently, he reports them to  Chuck (John Cassini), an obnoxious animal control officer who, declaring Bella to be a pit bull (basically any dog without a defined breed or, as Olivia puts it, racism for dogs) and, as such, dangerous and banned under city laws, threatens to  impound her if he finds her on the street. So, Bella learns a new game, ‘Go Home’. However, when, Chuck seizes his opportunity, Olivia arranges for Bella to temporarily go and live with relatives in New Mexico. Unfortunately, hearing the words ‘go home’ naturally triggers her instinctive response and she sets off to return to Lucas.

It’s a 400-mile journey that will take two and a half years and involve her in rescuing a mean dog owner (Chris Bauer) from an avalanche, learning to hunt by hanging out with a pack of foraging mutts, being  taken in by first a gay couple and then a homeless vet (Edward James Olmos),who chains her to his belt and promptly dies and, most significantly, becoming ‘mother cat’ to an orphaned  (and impressively CGI-rendered) baby cougar, who she calls Big Kitten and who becomes her road buddy.

Throwing in a last reel cameo by West Studi as the deux ex machina in another standoff with the authorities, it often stretches credibility and overeggs the syrupy pudding on its emotional rollercoaster, but set amid breathtaking  landscapes and mixing together themes of cross-species friendship with anti-hunting and environmental messages, it’s heart and soul are undeniably in the right place, that lump in the throat genuinely earned.   (Vue Star City)

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a  room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end.  The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a  scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an  inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, Oscar nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this hasproven prove an art house break-out success with all the awards (7 BAFTAs) that ensue, the only remaining question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding Academy Best Actress to her BAFTA triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Wed/Thu:Electric)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

An inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship, this is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and BAFTA winner Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, it unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the multi-nominated film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Electric; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett),  bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

If Beale Street Could Talk (15)

Give he’s acclaimed as one of American’s greatest black authors, with five novels and two plays to his name, this is actually the first of James Baldwin’s works, written in 1974 as a metaphor for any black community, to be adapted for the screen. Director Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, it’s an earnest but uneven exploration of lover, family and racism in which its fragmented storylines often undermine rather than enhance the film’s overall thematic and narrative design (underscored by its voiceover commentary) about the harshness and injustices of African-American life, both then and now.

Set in 70s Harlem, childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her  22-year-old aspirant wood sculptor boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) are planning on getting wed.  But then he’s arrested and charged with raping a Puerto Rican woman. He’s clearly innocent, but there’s no way to prove it, since her evidence is inadmissible and the only other alibi, the three of them being together at the time, is his cynical best friend (Brian Tyree Henry),  who, just out of jail on a trumped up charge (for car theft, even though he can’t drive), is regarded as unreliable testimony.  In addition, the woman identified him in a line up, although she was told to pick him out by the bigoted arresting officer (Ed Skrein) who, it is revealed, wrongly tried to arrest Fonny some days earlier after he defended Tish against some local thug.

On top of which, Tish learns that she’s pregnant and the film variously follows her visits to the jail while he’s awaiting trial and the efforts to track down the alleged victim and persuade her to tell the truth, something which involves both hiring a white lawyer and Tish’s mother Regina King) travelling to Puerto Rico to plead her and her future son-in-law’s case. By parental contrast, Fonny’s own fundamentalist Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and his two prissy sisters are condemnatory of both him and Tish, who they regard as an unsuitable match, an antagonism that affords one the film’s strongest and hardest-hitting scenes.

Such friction and spark is, however, in distinct contrast to the soft focus and intense close up fuzziness of the burnished romantic scenes between the two lovers (softened and glossed up from the flawed versions in the novel) and Jenkins often seems too wrapped up in textural atmospherics than an involving plot, that and the all too leisurely pace allowing the audience to drift away and then trying to pull them back in.

The two leads give solid, warmly engaging performances, but it’s among the supporting cast where the film shines brightest, most notably King and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s plain-speaking sibling Ernestine whose rousing “Unbow your head, sister” sounds the film’s loudest inspirational note.

It doesn’t wrap up with a fairytale ending where justice prevails, but, refusing to give in to pessimism, it does celebrate the power of true love to help people face and to accept difficult circumstances. It’s just unfortunate that getting to that epiphany feels like an endless journey.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by  his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine, with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the  leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Showcase Walsall)

The Mule (15)

Potentially Clint Eastwood’s swansong as both actor and director, this is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a   World War II veteran and horticulturist who, when his business  fell foul of online commerce, was recruited by the Sinaloa cartel as a drugs runner, working on the premise that the cops were less likely to stop an octogenarian white man in his truck than a Mexican. Sharp  transported millions of dollars of cocaine into Detroit and other cities,  earning round $100,000 a drop and was only ever arrested once, serving just one year.

Here, as scripted by Nick Schenk, who wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, he becomes Earl Stone (Eastwood), a cantankerous, casually racist old coot who, having been more concerned about his work than his family, has ended up divorced from long-suffering wife Mary (Dianne Weist) and  estranged from his daughter, Iris (tellingly played by Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison), whose wedding he missed on account of a floral engagement. The only member of the family with whom he has any positive contact is his granddaughter,  Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). It’s at her engagement party, after a flare up, that he’s approached by a cartel associate with the prospect of some lucrative work. Intrigued, Earl turns up and, told not to look inside, is given a package to deliver, for which he’ll get paid at the other end. Initially, he sees it as a one-off, but, faced with foreclosure, he’s soon making regular runs,  using the money to pay off the bank, refurbish the local veterans’ hall and  buy the drinks at Ginny’s wedding, presumably as some attempt at atonement.

Along the way, he attracts the attention of the cartel boss, Laton (Andy Garcia), who takes a shine to him and invites him to a party where, in a scene that makes Woody Allen’s onscreen attempt to boost his sexual persona seem tame, he has a threesome (in fact Earl has a couple of threesomes). However, his handlers are becoming concerned about Earl’s blasé attitude, especially when  his dips out of a  run to visit his bed-ridden ex. Meanwhile the DEA, in the form of local boss  Laurence Fishburne and one-dimensional agents Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, are looking to make some busts.

All of this unfolds in a series of ploddingly flat scenes laden with heavy-handed dialogue before its painfully sentimental scene in which Earl finally puts family first. However, while this may be Eastwood working out some of his personal issues, it makes for a frankly rather dull movie, added to which it’s difficult to know how we’re supposed to respond to Earl’s politically incorrect attitudes, such as calling a couple of Mexicans ‘beaners’ or telling the  black couple whose flat tyre he fixes that he “likes to help negroes’. Are we supposed to be shocked, or find him wryly amusing, in the same way that he grumbles about everyone’s reliance on the internet? Especially when the film goes to some lengths to point out racial profiling  when an innocent Hispanic is pulled over by the agents simply for who he is.

Eastwood still has charisma, but, thinly written, poorly plotted, slack in tension and with no moral stance taken as regard Earl’s drug running, he himself never questions his involvement, The Mule ends his screen career as a bit of an ass. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Vue Star City)

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod),  the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief)  and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of  Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20th Century Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945, they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe ; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual shtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Vice (15)

Everything The Front Runner was not, Adam McKay’s Oscar nominated political satire strikes similar notes to The Thick Of It as it charts the quietly Machiavellian rise to power of Dick Cheney, who, as, the film argues, America’s most influential and dangerous Vice President, became the power behind George W Bush’s throne and the instigator of the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq on the fake grounds of weapons of mass destruction.

Morphing from a thin screw-up 22-year-old Wyoming drunk, shamed into changing his ways by his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and a Yale dropout into a blobby arch strategist assuming control in the wake of 9/11, tearing up the rules of combat and torture in the process, Christian Bale, following in Gary Oldman’s prosthetic footsteps (and potentially his Oscar triumph), gives arguably the best performance of his career, delivering a brilliantly acerbic performance as, over the decades, Cheney shrewdly plays his cards and manoeuvres those around him, among them sometimes Nixon associate Donald Rumsfeld (a fine Steve Carell), to secure his own agenda, his quiet (“We have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us”) but sure  rise to power accompanied by that of the equally ambitious Lynne.

Like Armando Iannucci’s series, it addresses serious political issues through razor sharp comedy, adopting a documentary-like flow across the different administrations in which Cheney served, following his various rises (including Chief of Staff to Ford) and falls  as the Presidency changed hands and parties (a position in Congress when Carter took power), his various heart attacks (he had five and a transplant), his move from politics into the private sector as CEO of oil giant Halliburton (cue further controversy involving Iraq’s oil fields)  following Clinton’s victory and his brilliantly engineered return to power under Bush (a terrific Sam Rockwell). Alongside this, the film takes in family matters involving choosing to support and protect his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill), splitting with other Republicans over his liberal attitudes to gay marriage, although when his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), develops political ambitions, this is tacitly withdrawn, opening up a major rift. And, behind all these machinations, it’s Lynne who is Cheney’s co-conspirator (at one point the film fantasises them in bed delivering Shakespearean dialogue) and arguably the power behind his throne.

Along with voiceovers  and to camera moments breaking the fourth wall involving a character (Jesse Plemons) whose purpose is withheld until the third act crucial twist and  metaphorical fly-fishing sequences, McKay pulls another audacious stunt in the Gore/Bush campaign, adopting the premise that the former actually won the election (as many claimed) and playing the end credits midway in complete with captions as to what happened to the central players, before, in the light of the shock result, snapping back to reality.

Featuring support turns and cameos by Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressured into endorsing the WMD claim, an uncredited Naomi Watts as a reporter, Alfred Molina in an inspired a surreal scene  as a maitre’d explaining the dishes of the day to his assembled Bush administration power players, among them Guantanamo Bay and “a fresh war powers interpretation”  as well as archive footage of Blair delivering his Iraq invasion speech, it’s a brilliantly executed and revelatory account of how this, to a large extent, private background figure in the White House corridors, changed the political landscape of America and  the world to the mess it is today. (Mockingbird)

 

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 Feb 8-Thu Feb 14

NEW RELEASES

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of  Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova; unfortunately, given predictions that the film is poised to become a monumental box office flop, that and all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up in the planned sequel, seem to be heading, if not for the scrapheap, then a wait that will make the time between Avatars seem like the blink of an eye. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Boy Erased (15)

A gender switch companion piece to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Joel Edgerton’s second film as director, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, also turns its focus on the controversial subject if conversion therapy whereby members of the gay community are subjected to ‘healing’ in the name of God.

Shot in a non-linear fashion that juxtaposes flashbacks with present day events, it follows the ordeals of Jared Eamons (Lukas Hedges) who, having been forcibly outed to his devout Christian parents by the fellow college student (Joe Alwyn) who raped him, Arkansas Baptist pastor and car dealer father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser mother Nancy (the presently ubiquitous Nicole Kidman), is carted off to the Love in Action conversion centre run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton), mom moving into a nearby motel during his 12-day stay.

Here Sykes tells his ‘patients’, that their sexual proclivities are the result of poor parenting rather than genetic and requires them to draw up “moral inventories” of themselves and their families, demanding that what happens in the centre stays within the centre. Alongside Jared, others there to be ‘cured’ include Jon (Xavier Dolan) who is fanatically dedicated to conversion and Troy (Theodore Pellerin), who confides that he’s just playing the part so he can get out, while, the therapy group leaders also include the abusive Brandon (Flea). Things come to a head when one of the attendees, Cameron (Britton Sear) is not only humiliated and intimidated by Sykes but also, at his behest, beaten with bibles by both the therapists and his own family.

The film pulls no punches in showing the harsh treatment meted out and the bigoted nature of those in charge, supposedly doing the Lord’s work, nor does it pull back from its criticism of Jared’s parents, his intransigent father in particular, yet, at the same time, it never suggests that they don’t love their son, but rather that such love is misguided. Equally, there are moments of tenderness amid the abusiveness at the centre, and it’s fairly obvious that Sykes has issues of his own.

Edgerton and Hedges provide the solid foundation on which the film is built, but the performances throughout are strong and truthful, Kidman especially moving as she ultimately breaks away from the patriarchal oppression of her community and heartachingly confesses and apologises to her son for her complicity in his sufferings. On the downside, the pace drags somewhat, the dialogue is often uneven and the emotional ride too marked by peaks and troughs to fully engage as it intends, but, even so, as a parent-child drama, this is vastly superior to the overrated Beautiful Boy. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park)

 

If Beale Street Could Talk (15)

Give he’s acclaimed as American’s greatest black authors, with five novels and two plays to his name, this is actually the first of James Baldwin’s works, written in 1974 as a metaphor for any black community, to be adapted for the screen. Director Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, it’s an earnest but uneven exploration of lover, family and racism in which its fragmented storylines often undermine rather than enhance the film’s overall thematic and narrative design (underscored by its voiceover commentary) about the harshness and injustices of African-American life, both then and now.

Set in 70s Harlem, childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her  22-year-old aspirant wood sculptor boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) are planning on getting wed.  But then he’s arrested and charged with raping a Puerto Rican woman. He’s clearly innocent, but there’s no way to prove it, since her evidence is inadmissible and the only other alibi, the three of them being together at the time, is his cynical best friend (Brian Tyree Henry),  who, just out of jail on a trumped up charge (for car theft, even though he can’t drive), is regarded as unreliable testimony. In addition, the woman identified him in a line up, although she was told to pick him out by the bigoted arresting officer (Ed Skrein) who, it is revealed, wrongly tried to arrest Fonny some days earlier after he defended Tish against some local thug.

On top of which, Tish learns that she’s pregnant and the film variously follows her visits to the jail while he’s awaiting trial and the efforts to track down the alleged victim and persuade her to tell the truth, something which involves both hiring a white lawyer and Tish’s mother Regina King) travelling to Puerto Rico to plead her and her future son-in-law’s case. By parental contrast, Fonny’s own fundamentalist Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and his two prissy sisters are condemnatory of both him and Tish, who they regard as an unsuitable match, an antagonism that affords one the film’s strongest and hardest-hitting scenes.

Such friction and spark is, however, in distinct contrast to the soft focus and intense close up fuzziness of the burnished romantic scenes between the two lovers (softened and glossed up from the flawed versions in the novel) and Jenkins often seems too wrapped up in textural atmospherics than an involving plot, that and the all too leisurely pace allowing the audience to drift away and then trying to pull them back in.

The two leads give solid, warmly engaging performances, but it’s among the supporting cast where the film shines brightest, most notably King and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s plain-speaking sibling Ernestine whose rousing “Unbow your head, sister” sounds the film’s loudest inspirational note.

It doesn’t wrap up with a fairytale ending where justice prevails, but, refusing to give in to pessimism, it does celebrate the power of true love to help people face and to accept difficult circumstances. It’s just unfortunate that getting to that epiphany feels like an endless journey.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine) were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by  his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Monsters and Men (15)

Shoehorning three New York stories into an interconnected narrative linked to the police shooting of an unarmed black man, making his full-length debut writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green never fully does justice to any of them, but at least makes a valiant attempt in exploring the complexities of the situation.

The first story involves Manny (Anthony Ramos), who films the shooting of his friend,  Big D, by a cop and who subsequently is overwhelmed with paranoia about the cops trying to obtain the evidence on his phone, especially when his apartment’s broken into.  Posting the footage on YouTube, he sparks a media storm and is soon hauled up on false charges and thrown into jail, bail set at an exorbitant level, leaving his pregnant girlfriend  (Jasmine Cephas Jones) to cope alone. You keep waiting for a resolution, but it never comes.

Instead, Green switches focus to Dennis Williams (John David Washington), an African-American police officer seen at the start of the film  being pulled over for no reason by a fellow white cop. As he tells his new partner later, it’s a frequent off-duty experience.  The cops responsible for the shooting is from his precinct have a track record of excessive force towards African-Americans and Dennis finds himself conflicted between his badge and his colour, especially when it seems he might have to take the stand in upcoming trial, in which two of his fellow friends and cops are charged, thereby endangering his family.

At which point, the film switches to Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.),  a high school baseball scholarship student who is himself stopped and frisked by the same cops  and who,  troubled over Manny’s footage, becomes a political activist, taking part in sometimes violent protests, forcing him to choose between his educational future and his activism.

Shot on handheld camera for immediacy, it’s clear that the introspective and unresolved La Ronde-style storylines throw the debate over to the audience, prompting them to consider all  sides and ask what they would do in such circumstances, but, while police brutality is patently unacceptable,  the sometimes fuzzy nature of events and the lack of in-depth character development makes it a frustratingly difficult question to answer.  (Until Tue:MAC)

ALSO PLAYING

Bergman: A Year In A Life (15)

Jane Magnusson’s documentary marks the centenary of  the legendary and influential Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman, focusing on 1957, the year in which he produced The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries but also became entangled in a messy domestic life  and wound up in hospital.  Using archive footage and anecdotes from those who knew him as well as his own testimony, touching on his life from childhood to old age, it offers insights into his creative genius as a filmmaker, but also  his strengths and failings as a man that informed his art derived from his life. (Tue-Thu: MAC)

 

An Impossible Love (12A)

Written and directed by Catherine Corsini, this French period romantic drama is set at the end of the 1950s in a provincial town, where  young office clerk Rachel (Virginie Efira) meets Philippe (Niels Schneider), a well-educated man from a wealthy family. Their intense but brief romance ends when he refuses to marry below his class and she’s left to raise their daughter, Chantal (Jehnny Bethe in her adult years) and, set over 50 years, the film charts the devoted relationship  between mother and daughter and the lengthy struggle to get Philippe to legally acknowledge his daughter, and her feelings about an absent, abusive father. (Until Wed: MAC)

 

The Raft (12A)

In 1973, as a social experiment and scientific study of violence, aggression, sex and group behaviour, five men and six women sailed across the Atlantic on a raft, their journey and experiences filmed and documented in a diary. Some 40 years later, this documentary by Swedish filmmaker Marcus Lindeen reunites the crew for the first time, on a faithful reconstruction of the raft in a film studio, to look back at the three  months they spent together, isolated and without privacy. (Sat-Tue: MAC)

NOW SHOWING

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and, even then, the action is dizzyingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the  heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers burst in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately, it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Cineworld NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue Star City)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Oscar nominee Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channelling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron  (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman)

A Dog’s Way Home (PG)

A companion rather than sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, also adapted from a book by W. Bruce Cameron but with the spirit of Disney’s classic The Incredible Journey hovering in the wings, this is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, designed to have not just dog lovers but animal buddies in general welling up every few minutes.

Bella (played by Shelby with Bryce Dallas Howard in voiceover) is a stray pup raised by ‘mother cat’ in a derelict suburban Denver building after her mother is taken to the pound and subsequently taken in and named by med school student  Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who, along with fellow student romantic interest  Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), also volunteers for animals in need. Bella immediately becomes Lucas’s dog and he her person, learning to play games like ‘stay’, ‘sit and ‘fetch’. Bella’s also embraced by his depressed mom Terri (Ashley Judd) and her fellow war veterans down the  local VA here she helps lift their spirits.

Rather less keen on Bella and her new family is property developer Gunter (Brian Markinson), whose plans for the site are been constantly thwarted by Lucas, who lives opposite, in his animal protection capacity. Consequently, he reports them to  Chuck (John Cassini), an obnoxious animal control officer who, declaring Bella to be a pit bull (basically any dog without a defined breed or, as Olivia puts it, racism for dogs) and, as such, dangerous and banned under city laws, threatens to  impound her if he finds her on the street. So, Bella learns a new game, ‘Go Home’. However, when, Chuck seizes his opportunity, Olivia arranges for Bella to temporarily go and live with relatives in New Mexico. Unfortunately, hearing the words ‘go home’ naturally triggers her instinctive response and she sets off to return to Lucas.

It’s a 400-mile journey that will take two and a half years and involve her in rescuing a mean dog owner (Chris Bauer) from an avalanche, learning to hunt by hanging out with a pack of foraging mutts, being  taken in by first a gay couple and then a homeless vet (Edward James Olmos),who chains her to his belt and promptly dies and, most significantly, becoming ‘mother cat’ to an orphaned  (and impressively CGI-rendered) baby cougar, who she calls Big Kitten and who becomes her road buddy.

Throwing in a last reel cameo by West Studi as the deux ex machina in another standoff with the authorities, it often stretches credibility and overeggs the syrupy pudding on its emotional rollercoaster, but set amid breathtaking  landscapes and mixing together themes of cross-species friendship with anti-hunting and environmental messages, it’s heart and soul are undeniably in the right place, that lump in the throat genuinely earned.   (Reel; Vue Star City)

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end.  The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a  scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an  inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, Oscar nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes, not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding BAFTA and Academy Best Actress to her Golden Globes triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat ant-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

An inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship, this is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, it unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the multi-nominated film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett),  bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine, with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; MAC; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage withJames Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

The Mule (15)

Potentially Clint Eastwood’s swansong as both actor and director, this is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a   World War II veteran and horticulturist who, when his business  fell foul of online commerce, was recruited by the Sinaloa cartel as a drugs runner, working on the premise that the cops were less likely to stop an octogenarian white man in his truck than a Mexican. Sharp  transported millions of dollars of cocaine into Detroit and other cities, earning round $100,000 a drop and was only ever arrested once, serving just one year.

Here, as scripted by Nick Schenk, who wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, he becomes Earl Stone (Eastwood), a cantankerous, casually racist old coot who, having been more concerned about his work than his family, has ended up divorced from long-suffering wife Mary (Dianne Weist) and estranged from his daughter, Iris (tellingly played by Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison), whose wedding he missed on account of a floral engagement. The only member of the family with whom he has any positive contact is his granddaughter,  Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). It’s at her engagement party, after a flare up, that he’s approached by a cartel associate with the prospect of some lucrative work. Intrigued, Earl turns up and, told not to look inside, is given a package to deliver, for which he’ll get paid at the other end. Initially, he sees it as a one-off, but, faced with foreclosure, he’s soon making regular runs, using the money to pay off the bank, refurbish the local veterans’ hall and  buy the drinks at Ginny’s wedding, presumably as some attempt at atonement.

Along the way, he attracts the attention of the cartel boss,Laton (Andy Garcia), who takes a shine to him and invites him to a party where, in a scene that makes Woody Allen’s onscreen attempt to boost his sexual persona seem tame, he has a threesome (in fact Earl has a couple of threesomes). However, his handlers are becoming concerned about Earl’s blasé attitude, especially when  his dips out of a  run to visit his bed-ridden ex. Meanwhile the DEA, in the form of local boss  Laurence Fishburne and one-dimensional agents Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, are looking to make some busts.

All of this unfolds in a series of ploddingly flat scenes laden with heavy-handed dialogue before its painfully sentimental scene in which Earl finally puts family first. However, while this may be Eastwood working out some of his personal issues, it makes for a frankly rather dull movie, added to which it’s difficult to know how we’re supposed to respond to Earl’s politically incorrect attitudes, such as calling a couple of Mexicans ‘beaners’ or telling the  black couple whose flat tyre he fixes that he “likes to help negroes’. Are we supposed to be shocked, or find him wryly amusing, in the same way that he grumbles about everyone’s reliance on the internet? Especially when the film goes to some lengths to point out racial profiling  when an innocent Hispanic is pulled over by the agents simply for who he is.

Eastwood still has charisma, but, thinly written, poorly plotted, slack in tension and with no moral stance taken as regard Earl’s drug running, he himself never questions his involvement, The Mule ends his screen career as a bit of an ass. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Vue Star City)

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod), the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief) and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Cineworld NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However, in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20thCentury Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945, they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

BAFTA nominee Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual shtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Vice (15)

Everything The Front Runner was not, Adam McKay’s Oscar nominated political satire strikes similar notes to The Thick Of It as it charts the quietly Machiavellian rise to power of Dick Cheney, who, as, the film argues, America’s most influential and dangerous Vice President, became the power behind George W Bush’s throne and the instigator of the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq on the fake grounds of weapons of mass destruction.

Morphing from a thin screw-up 22-year-old Wyoming drunk, shamed into changing his ways by his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and a Yale dropout into a blobby arch strategist assuming control in the wake of 9/11, tearing up the rules of combat and torture in the process, Christian Bale, following in Gary Oldman’s prosthetic footsteps (and potentially his Oscar triumph), gives arguably the best performance of his career, delivering a brilliantly acerbic performance as, over the decades, Cheney shrewdly plays his cards and manoeuvres those around him, among them sometimes Nixon associate Donald Rumsfeld (a fine Steve Carell), to secure his own agenda, his quiet (“We have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us”) but sure rise to power accompanied by that of the equally ambitious Lynne.

Like Armando Iannucci’s series, it addresses serious political issues through razor sharp comedy, adopting a documentary-like flow across the different administrations in which Cheney served, following his various rises (including Chief of Staff to Ford) and falls  as the Presidency changed hands and parties (a position in Congress when Carter took power), his various heart attacks (he had five and a transplant), his move from politics into the private sector as CEO of oil giant Halliburton (cue further controversy involving Iraq’s oil fields)  following Clinton’s victory and his brilliantly engineered return to power under Bush (a terrific Sam Rockwell). Alongside this, the film takes in family matters involving choosing to support and protect his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill), splitting with other Republicans over his liberal attitudes to gay marriage, although when his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), develops political ambitions, this is tacitly withdrawn, opening up a major rift. And, behind all these machinations, it’s Lynne who is Cheney’s co-conspirator (at one point the film fantasises them in bed delivering Shakespearean dialogue) and arguably the power behind his throne.

Along with voiceovers  and to camera moments breaking the fourth wall involving a character (Jesse Plemons) whose purpose is withheld until the third act crucial twist and metaphorical fly-fishing sequences, McKay pulls another audacious stunt in the Gore/Bush campaign, adopting the premise that the former actually won the election (as many claimed) and playing the end credits midway in complete with captions as to what happened to the central players, before, in the light of the shock result, snapping back to reality.

Featuring support turns and cameos by Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressured into endorsing the WMD claim, an uncredited Naomi Watts as a reporter, Alfred Molina in an inspired a surreal scene  as a maitre’d explaining the dishes of the day to his assembled Bush administration power players, among them Guantanamo Bay and “a fresh war powers interpretation” as well as archive footage of Blair delivering his Iraq invasion speech, it’s a brilliantly executed and revelatory account of how this, to a large extent, private background figure in the White House corridors, changed the political landscape of America and  the world to the mess it is today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Electric; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 Solihull – 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

 

Beautiful Boy (15)

Based on the twin, complementary memoirs of author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth-addicted son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), directed  by Felix Van Groeningen this true-life drug addiction drama charts the struggle by the former to help the latter overcome is habit.

It opens with Sheff Sr interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) for a proposed article on drug addiction that quickly is made apparent to be have a more personal angle, asking how he can help, and flashes back and forth to show how Nic’s addiction was first discovered, his attempt to go clean, the failed rehab, a doomed romantic relationship (Kaitlyn Dever) on San Francisco’s seedy side, David’s journalistic investigations into addiction and the several acrimonious blame-apportioning confrontations between father and son before the ever-patient and supportive David, driven to the brink one time too many, adopted his eventual chosen path.

A bright, intelligent teen, Nic experiments with crystal methamphetamine and gets hooked. College goes out of the window and he’s enlisted in 26-week in a detox programme, moves to a halfway house, and then disappears. Somewhat unhelpfully, a counsellor tells David that relapse is part of the recovery.

There’s no real attempt to explore what led Nic into addiction, although a troubled childhood that’s aw his parents divorcing is unlikely to have helped. David now lives with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) in Marin County and has a younger daughter. He has frequent phone conversations with his ex, Vicki (Amy Ryan), which inevitably quickly descend into bitter accusations and counter-accusations of blame. Perhaps that residue of toxicity led Nic to seek some sort of escape, the film never offers an opinion.

Both parents try to help their son, who swings between reaching out and self-destruction, lashing out by blaming his often overbearing father for trying to control him. It should be an emotional roller-coaster, but, despite the top notch Oscar-bait lead performances, frequently shot in close-up, Carrell all confused concern,  Chalamet channelling self-loathing in introspective  funks and angry flare-ups, it somehow never engages, leaving the audience distanced spectators rather than involved in the drama, Nic often proving very hard to sympathise with.

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes.

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 1-Thu Feb 7

NEW RELEASES

Green Book (12A)

An inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship, this is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, it unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the multi-nominated film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman)

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a  room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end. The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an  inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his late father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett),  bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-pieces and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and, even then, the action is dizzyingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers burst in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately, it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Beautiful Boy (15)

Based on the twin, complementary memoirs of author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth-addicted son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), directed  by Felix Van Groeningen this true-life drug addiction drama charts the struggle by the former to help the latter overcome is habit.

It opens with Sheff Sr interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) for a proposed article on  drug addiction that quickly is made apparent to be have a more personal angle, asking how he can help, and flashes back and forth to show how Nic’s addiction was first discovered, his attempt to go clean, the failed rehab, a doomed romantic relationship (Kaitlyn Dever) on San Francisco’s seedy side, David’s journalistic investigations into addiction and the several acrimonious blame-apportioning confrontations between father and son before the ever-patient and supportive David, driven to the brink one time too many, adopted his eventual chosen path.

A bright, intelligent teen, Nic experiments with crystal methamphetamine and gets hooked. College goes out of the window and he’s enlisted in 26-week in a detox programme, moves to a halfway house, and then disappears. Somewhat unhelpfully, a counsellor tells David that relapse is part of the recovery.

There’s no real attempt to explore what led Nic into addiction, although a troubled childhood that’s aw his parents divorcing is unlikely to have helped. David now lives with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) in Marin County and has a younger daughter. He has frequent phone conversations with his ex, Vicki (Amy Ryan), which inevitably quickly descend into bitter accusations and counter-accusations of blame. Perhaps that residue of toxicity led Nic to seek some sort of escape, the film never offers an opinion.

Both parents try to help their son, who swings between reaching out and self-destruction, lashing out by blaming his often overbearing father for trying to control him. It should be an emotional roller-coaster, but, despite the top notch Oscar-bait lead performances, frequently shot in close-up, Carrell all confused concern,  Chalamet channelling self-loathing in introspective funks and angry flare-ups, it somehow never engages, leaving the audience distanced spectators rather than involved in the drama, Nic often proving very hard to sympathise with.

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes. (Cineworld Solihull; Electric; MAC)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Oscar nominee Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channelling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” These are the opening lines to Claudine at School, which, in 1900, took France by storm and, along with three sequels, elevated its self-promoting author, Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West), from being a relatively  successful music critic and literary “entrepreneur”  to being a publishing phenomenon. Except, he didn’t write them.

Indeed, through his workshops, Willy employed a series of ghostwriters who, while never receiving recognition, were guaranteed a wide readership and decent income, would put shape to his ideas which he would then edit. The Claudine novels were, however, the work of his much younger wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the provincial daughter of an old army colleague whom he married in 1893 and whisked off to Paris with its giddy world of literary salons.

However, as director Wash Westmoreland’s film soon makes it clear, while their love for one another may have been strong,  as his new wife soon learns, Willy’s libertine nature was not so easily tamed, with a string of affairs digging into the monthly income. Accepting this as what men do, but demanding he at least be honest about it, her schoolgirl recollections (spiced up by Willy)  came at a most opportune moment for their fortunes and, Collette, as she later decides to call herself as a mark of growing independence,  also found extra-marital distractions, although hers too were of the female variety. At one point, however, she discovers that the bored, married bored Louisiana millionaire Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) with whom Willy has tacitly sanctioned an affair, is sleeping with him too!

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs(Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), culminating in her love affair with transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom, in  a play Willy produced at the Moulin Rouge in 1907,  she shared Paris’ first  same-sex kiss on stage, causing uproar, his bankruptcy and prompted her new career as a  vaudevillian.

Whether as period pieces or of a more contemporary bent, films depicting gender inequality in the creative arts  and the fight for female empowerment aren’t exactly new, indeed Collete’s story was told to rather lesser effect by Danny Huston back in 1991 with Becoming Collette, Where this benefits is in the strength of its two leading stars, West giving one his finest performances, somehow managing to make Willy charmingly engaging even at his cruellest and most self-regarding, and, as his sexual prowess starts to flag, unexpectedly pitiful, while (despite a wincing line about her perfect teeth) Knightley, back in corsets again, is on peak form, smart, witty, sexy and strikingly charismatic.

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on  to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories waiting to be told. (Until Wed:MAC)

A Dog’s Way Home (PG)

A companion rather than sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, also adapted from a book by W. Bruce Cameron but with the spirit of Disney’s classic The Incredible Journey hovering in the wings, this is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, designed to have not just dog lovers but animal buddies in general welling up every few minutes.

Bella (played by Shelby with Bryce Dallas Howard in voiceover) is a stray pup raised by ‘mother cat’ in a derelict suburban Denver building after her mother is taken to the pound and subsequently taken in and named by med school student  Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who, along with fellow student romantic interest  Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), also volunteers for animals in need. Bella immediately becomes Lucas’s dog and he her person, learning to play games like ‘stay’, ‘sit and ‘fetch’. Bella’s also embraced by his depressed mom Terri (Ashley Judd) and her fellow war veterans down the  local VA here she helps lift their spirits.

Rather less keen on Bella and her new family is property developer Gunter (Brian Markinson), whose plans for the site are been constantly thwarted by Lucas, who lives opposite, in his animal protection capacity. Consequently, he reports them to  Chuck (John Cassini), an obnoxious animal control officer who, declaring Bella to be a pit bull (basically any dog without a defined breed or, as Olivia puts it, racism for dogs) and, as such, dangerous and banned under city laws, threatens to  impound her if he finds her on the street. So, Bella learns a new game, ‘Go Home’. However, when, Chuck seizes his opportunity, Olivia arranges for Bella to temporarily go and live with relatives in New Mexico. Unfortunately, hearing the words ‘go home’ naturally triggers her instinctive response and she sets off to return to Lucas.

It’s a 400-mile journey that will take two and a half years and involve her in rescuing a mean dog owner (Chris Bauer) from an avalanche, learning to hunt by hanging out with a pack of foraging mutts, being  taken in by first a gay couple and then a homeless vet (Edward James Olmos),who chains her to his belt and promptly dies and, most significantly, becoming ‘mother cat’ to an orphaned  (and impressively CGI-rendered) baby cougar, who she calls Big Kitten and who becomes her road buddy.

Throwing in a last reel cameo by West Studi as the deux ex machina in another standoff with the authorities, it often stretches credibility and overeggs the syrupy pudding on its emotional rollercoaster, but set amid breathtaking  landscapes and mixing together themes of cross-species friendship with anti-hunting and environmental messages, it’s heart and soul are undeniably in the right place, that lump in the throat genuinely earned.   (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, Oscar nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding BAFTA and Academy Best Actress to her Golden Globes triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Front Runner (15)

For a brief moment in 1988, it seemed that Democratic senator Gary Hart was a shoo-in to replace Reagan as America’s President. Then, over the course of three weeks, everything went pear-shaped as the Miami Herald ran an article implying he had been involved in an extra-marital affair, articulating long held rumours among the Washington press corps as to his infidelities,  and everything snowballed out of control as the other papers, the Washginton Post among them, were forced to become part of the tabloid journalism witch-hunt into Hart’s private life and, therefore, his moral fitness to hold office.

Based on Matt Bai’s novel All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, who serves as co-writer alongside political consultant Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman, it inevitably juggles fact and fiction for dramatic effect, but the essence of the story holds true.

Unfortunately, opening with Hart’s earlier campaign against Walter Mondale to win the Democratic nomination, the hubbub of the newsreel footage and the busy camera work weaving in and around the campaign workers, makes it almost impossible to make out what’s going on and, while it eventually settles down, the chance to hook the audience has been squandered.

Hugh Jackman is very good as the good-looking, personable and passionately idealistic Hart whose policy focused on improving the lives of working-class Americans, but whose ‘it’s none of your business’ response to allegations that he was cheating on his wife with local model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton, not given sufficient backstory), whom he met aboard the unfortunately named yacht Monkey Business,  merely served to fan the media flames, even though public opinion believed that he was being treated unfairly.

Reitman crafts a solid film around the attempts at damage limitation by Hart team, fronted by J.K. Simmons as his beleaguered campaign manager, Bill Dixon, and the increasingly intrusive probing by the press, adopting National Enquirer  tactics,  the Miami Herald, largely embodied by  in over his head reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), pretty much forcing the other papers into pursuing the story. In both major and minor roles, the performances throughout are strong, Vera Farmiga as Hart’s supportive rock wife (from whom he had been briefly separated) heading up a cast list that includes  Alfred Molina as the editor of the Post, Molly Ephraim as one of Hart’s team sympathetic towards the fallout experienced by Rice and her subsequent treatment by Hart, and Mamoudou Athie as fictional Post reporter A.J. Parker.

The pursuit of Hart over his private life, ultimately putting an end to his presidential ambitions, marked a turning point in terms of American politics and the media and, while earlier, the press had, for example,  turned a blind eye to the shenanigans of the Kennedys, from this point anyone running for office was seen as fair game and opened the floodgates to today’s tabloid journalism. It’s unfortunate that the performances and the subject matter are wrapped up in a film that too often falls stylistically and dramatically flat, even if it leaves you wondering how  Hart’s sexual indiscretions cost him the presidency, while, three decades later, Trump rode into the White House on a rollercoaster  of sleaze and chauvinism allegations. (Mockingbird)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat ant-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine, with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage withJames Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

The Mule (15)

Potentially Clint Eastwood’s swansong as both actor and director, this is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a   World War II veteran and horticulturist who, when his business  fell foul of online commerce, was recruited by the Sinaloa cartel as a drugs runner, working on the premise that the cops were less likely to stop an octogenarian white man in his truck than a Mexican. Sharp  transported millions of dollars of cocaine into Detroit and other cities, earning round $100,000 a drop and was only ever arrested once, serving just one year.

Here, as scripted by Nick Schenk, who wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, he becomes Earl Stone (Eastwood), a cantankerous, casually racist old coot who, having been more concerned about his work than his family, has ended up divorced from long-suffering wife Mary (Dianne Weist) and estranged from his daughter, Iris (tellingly played by Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison), whose wedding he missed on account of a floral engagement. The only member of the family with whom he has any positive contact is his granddaughter,  Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). It’s at her engagement party, after a flare up, that he’s approached by a cartel associate with the prospect of some lucrative work. Intrigued, Earl turns up and, told not to look inside, is given a package to deliver, for which he’ll get paid at the other end. Initially, he sees it as a one-off, but, faced with foreclosure, he’s soon making regular runs,  using the money to pay off the bank, refurbish the local veterans’ hall and  buy the drinks at Ginny’s wedding, presumably as some attempt at atonement.

Along the way, he attracts the attention of the cartel boss,Laton (Andy Garcia), who takes a shine to him and invites him to a party where, in a scene that makes Woody Allen’s onscreen attempt to boost his sexual persona seem tame, he has a threesome (in fact Earl has a couple of threesomes). However, his handlers are becoming concerned about Earl’s blasé attitude, especially when  his dips out of a  run to visit his bed-ridden ex. Meanwhile the DEA, in the form of local boss  Laurence Fishburne and one-dimensional agents Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, are looking to make some busts.

All of this unfolds in a series of ploddingly flat scenes laden with heavy-handed dialogue before its painfully sentimental scene in which Earl finally puts family first. However, while this may be Eastwood working out some of his personal issues, it makes for a frankly rather dull movie, added to which it’s difficult to know how we’re supposed to respond to Earl’s politically incorrect attitudes, such as calling a couple of Mexicans ‘beaners’ or telling the  black couple whose flat tyre he fixes that he “likes to help negroes’. Are we supposed to be shocked, or find him wryly amusing, in the same way that he grumbles about everyone’s reliance on the internet? Especially when the film goes to some lengths to point out racial profiling  when an innocent Hispanic is pulled over by the agents simply for who he is.

Eastwood still has charisma, but, thinly written, poorly plotted, slack in tension and with no moral stance taken as regard Earl’s drug running, he himself never questions his involvement, The Mule ends his screen career as a bit of an ass. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod), the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief) and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of the new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20thCentury Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945, they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

BAFTA nominee Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual shtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Vice (15)

Everything The Front Runner was not, Adam McKay’s Oscar nominated political satire strikes similar notes to The Thick Of It as it charts the quietly Machiavellian rise to power of Dick Cheney, who, as, the film argues, America’s most influential and dangerous Vice President, became the power behind George W Bush’s throne and the instigator of the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq on the fake grounds of weapons of mass destruction.

Morphing from a thin screw-up 22-year-old Wyoming drunk, shamed into changing his ways by his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and a Yale dropout into a blobby arch strategist assuming control in the wake of 9/11, tearing up the rules of combat and torture in the process, Christian Bale, following in Gary Oldman’s prosthetic footsteps (and potentially his Oscar triumph), gives arguably the best performance of his career, delivering a brilliantly acerbic performance as, over the decades, Cheney shrewdly plays his cards and manoeuvres those around him, among them sometimes Nixon associate Donald Rumsfeld (a fine Steve Carell), to secure his own agenda, his quiet (“We have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us”) but sure rise to power accompanied by that of the equally ambitious Lynne.

Like Armando Iannucci’s series, it addresses serious political issues through razor sharp comedy, adopting a documentary-like flow across the different administrations in which Cheney served, following his various rises (including Chief of Staff to Ford) and falls  as the Presidency changed hands and parties (a position in Congress when Carter took power), his various heart attacks (he had five and a transplant), his move from politics into the private sector as CEO of oil giant Halliburton (cue further controversy involving Iraq’s oil fields) following Clinton’s victory and his brilliantly engineered return to power under Bush (a terrific Sam Rockwell). Alongside this, the film takes in family matters involving choosing to support and protect his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill), splitting with other Republicans over his liberal attitudes to gay marriage, although when his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), develops political ambitions, this is tacitly withdrawn, opening up a major rift. And, behind all these machinations, it’s Lynne who is Cheney’s co-conspirator (at one point the film fantasises them in bed delivering Shakespearean dialogue) and arguably the power behind his throne.

Along with voiceovers  and to camera moments breaking the fourth wall involving a character (Jesse Plemons) whose purpose is withheld until the third act crucial twist and metaphorical fly-fishing sequences, McKay pulls another audacious stunt in the Gore/Bush campaign, adopting the premise that the former actually won the election (as many claimed) and playing the end credits midway in complete with captions as to what happened to the central players, before, in the light of the shock result, snapping back to reality.

Featuring support turns and cameos by Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressured into endorsing the WMD claim, an uncredited Naomi Watts as a reporter, Alfred Molina in an inspired a surreal scene  as a maitre’d explaining the dishes of the day to his assembled Bush administration power players, among them Guantanamo Bay and “a fresh war powers interpretation” as well as archive footage of Blair delivering his Iraq invasion speech, it’s a brilliantly executed and revelatory account of how this, to a large extent, private background figure in the White House corridors, changed the political landscape of America and  the world to the mess it is today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 Solihull – 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 Jan 25-Thu Jan 31

01MK3638.RAF

 

NEW RELEASES

Vice (15)

Everything The Front Runner was not, Adam McKay’s Oscar nominated political satire strikes similar notes to The Thick Of It as it charts the quietly Machiavellian rise to power of Dick Cheney, who, as, the film argues, America’s most influential and dangerous Vice President, became the power behind George W Bush’s throne and the instigator of the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq on the fake grounds of weapons of mass destruction.

Morphing from a thin screw-up 22-year-old Wyoming drunk, shamed into changing his ways by his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and a Yale dropout into a blobby arch strategist assuming control in the wake of 9/11, tearing up the rules of combat and torture in the process, Christian Bale, following in Gary Oldman’s prosthetic footsteps (and potentially his Oscar triumph), gives arguably the best performance of his career, delivering a brilliantly acerbic performance as, over the decades, Cheney shrewdly plays his cards and manoeuvres those around him, among them sometimes Nixon associate Donald Rumsfeld (a fine Steve Carell), to secure his own agenda, his quiet (“We have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us”) but sure  rise to power accompanied by that of the equally ambitious Lynne.

Like Armando Iannucci’s series, it addresses serious political issues through razor sharp comedy, adopting a documentary-like flow across the different administrations in which Cheney served, following his various rises (including Chief of Staff to Ford) and falls  as the Presidency changed hands and parties (a position in Congress when Carter took power), his various heart attacks (he had five and a transplant), his move from politics into the private sector as CEO of oil giant Halliburton (cue further controversy involving Iraq’s oil fields)  following Clinton’s victory and his brilliantly engineered return to power under Bush (a terrific Sam Rockwell). Alongside this, the film takes in family matters involving choosing to support and protect his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill), splitting with other Republicans over his liberal attitudes to gay marriage, although when his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), develops political ambitions, this is tacitly withdrawn, opening up a major rift. And, behind all these machinations, it’s Lynne who is Cheney’s co-conspirator (at one point the film fantasises them in bed delivering Shakespearean dialogue) and arguably the power behind his throne.

Along with voiceovers  and to camera moments breaking the fourth wall involving a character (Jesse Plemons) whose purpose is withheld until the third act crucial twist) and  metaphorical fly-fishing sequences, McKay pulls another audacious stunt in the Gore/Bush campaign, adopting the premise that the former actually won the election (as many claimed) and playing the end credits midway in complete with captions as to what happened to the central players, before, in the light of the shock result, snapping back to reality.

Featuring support turns and cameos by Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressured into endorsing the WMD claim, an uncredited Naomi Watts as a reporter, Alfred Molina in an inspired a surreal scene  as a maitre’d explaining the dishes of the day to his assembled Bush administration power players, among them Guantanamo Bay and “a fresh war powers interpretation”  as well as archive footage of Blair delivering his Iraq invasion speech, it’s a brilliantly executed and revelatory account of how this, to a large extent, private background figure in the White House corridors, changed the political landscape of America and  the world to the mess it is today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Dog’s Way Home (PG)

A companion rather than sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, also adapted from a book by W. Bruce Cameron but with the spirit of Disney’s classic The Incredible Journey hovering in the wings, this is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, designed to have not just dog lovers but animal buddies in general welling up every few minutes.

Bella (played by Shelby with Bryce Dallas Howard in voiceover) is a stray pup raised by ‘mother cat’ in a derelict suburban Denver building after her mother is taken to the pound and subsequently taken in and named by med school student  Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who, along with fellow student romantic interest  Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), also volunteers for animals in need. Bella immediately becomes Lucas’s dog and he her person, learning to play games like ‘stay’, ‘sit and ‘fetch’. Bella’s also embraced by his depressed mom Terri (Ashley Judd) and her fellow war veterans down the  local VA where she helps lift their spirits.

Rather less keen on Bella and her new family is property developer Gunter (Brian Markinson), whose plans for the site are been constantly thwarted by Lucas, who lives opposite, in his animal protection capacity. Consequently, he reports them to  Chuck (John Cassini), an obnoxious animal control officer who, declaring Bella to be a pit bull (basically any dog without a defined breed or, as Olivia puts it, racism for dogs) and, as such, dangerous and banned under city laws, threatens to  impound her if he finds her on the street. So, Bella learns a new game, ‘Go Home’. However, when, Chuck seizes his opportunity, Olivia arranges for Bella to temporarily go and live with relatives in New Mexico. Unfortunately, hearing the words ‘go home’ naturally triggers her instinctive response and she sets off to return to Lucas.

It’s a 400-mile journey that will take two and a half years and involve her in rescuing a mean dog owner (Chris Bauer) from an avalanche, learning to hunt by hanging out with a pack of foraging mutts, being  taken in by first a gay couple and then a homeless vet (Edward James Olmos),who chains her to his belt and promptly dies and, most significantly, becoming ‘mother cat’ to an orphaned  (and impressively CGI-rendered) baby cougar, who she calls Big Kitten and who becomes her road buddy.

Throwing in a last reel cameo by West Studi as the deux ex machina in another standoff with the authorities, it often stretches credibility and overeggs the syrupy pudding on its emotional rollercoaster, but set amid breathtaking  landscapes and mixing together themes of cross-species friendship with anti-hunting and environmental messages, it’s heart and soul are undeniably in the right place, that lump in the throat genuinely earned.   (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe. West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Destroyer (15)

Spending most of the film looking haggard, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes that seem like portals into the abyss, this is Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her, up there with her finest work alongside To Die For and Rabbit Hole. Directed by Karyn Kasuma (who, like Kidman, deserved an Oscar nomination), working from a  script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, she plays Erin Bell, a burned-out LAPD detective still carrying the emotional and psychological scars from an undercover operation fifteen years earlier that cost the life of her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) and left her with a broken nose, a drink problem and a now 15-year-old toxically estranged wild child daughter ((Jade Pettyjohn) who is in the custody of her father, Ethan (Scoot McNary) and in thrall to a twenty-something deadbeat (Beau Knapp). It opens with the discovery of a bullet-riddled body sporting a signature tattoo on his beck, a wobbling, hungover Bell turning up, much to the annoyance of her fellow cops, and declaring she knows who killed him. Receiving a purple stained $100 bill from a fateful bank robbery, it would seem that the volatile gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has resurfaced, setting Bell on a determined quest for both revenge and atonement, one that involves her going all Dirty Harry and tracking down some of the other former gang members, among them Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’s ex-girlfriend, who may well know his whereabouts.

Framed in a loop that works its way back to the start with an unexpected reveal, the narrative shifts between Bell’s present day search for Silas and flashbacks to her training with Chris and their time in the gang, earning Silas’s trust, culminating in a bank robbery that goes pear-shaped. Steeped in noir atmospherics and themes of warped justice, it’s a riveting piece of work that finds a deeply committed Kidman, sporting black to match her state of mind, gradually revealing more about her morally complex character, climaxing in a wrenching confessional diner scene with her daughter, and what led to that fateful moment that changed her life. A little slow-paced at times, perhaps, but it holds you right to the final redemptive frame and the fact that it’s only playing a handful of screens, none in the city centre, is unforgivable.  (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Mule (15)

Potentially Clint Eastwood’s swansong as both actor and director, this is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a   World War II veteran and horticulturist who, when his business  fell foul of online commerce, was recruited by the Sinaloa cartel as a drugs runner, working on the premise that the cops were less likely to stop an octogenarian white man in his truck than a Mexican. Sharp  transported millions of dollars of cocaine into Detroit and other cities,  earning round $100,000 a drop and was only ever arrested once, serving just one year.

Here, as scripted by Nick Schenk, who wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, he becomes Earl Stone (Eastwood), a cantankerous, casually racist old coot who, having been more concerned about his work than his family, has ended up divorced from long-suffering wife Mary (Dianne Weist) and  estranged from his daughter, Iris (tellingly played by Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison), whose wedding he missed on account of a floral engagement. The only member of the family with whom he has any positive contact is his granddaughter,  Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). It’s at her engagement party, after a flare up, that he’s approached by a cartel associate with the prospect of some lucrative work. Intrigued, Earl turns up and, told not to look inside, is given a package to deliver, for which he’ll get paid at the other end. Initially, he sees it as a one-off, but, faced with foreclosure, he’s soon making regular runs,  using the money to pay off the bank, refurbish the local veterans hall and  buy the drinks at Ginny’s wedding, presumably as some attempt at atonement.

Along the way, he attracts the attention of the cartel boss, Laton (Andy Garcia), who takes a shine to him and invites him to a party where, in a scene that makes Woody Allen’s onscreen attempt to boost his sexual persona seem tame, he has a threesome (in fact Earl has a couple of threesomes). However, his handlers are becoming concerned about Earl’s blasé attitude, especially when  his dips out of a  run to visit his bed-ridden ex. Meanwhile the DEA, in the form of local boss  Laurence Fishburne and one-dimensional agents Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, are looking to make some busts.

All of this unfolds in a series of ploddingly flat scenes laden with heavy-handed dialogue before its painfully sentimental scene in which Earl finally puts family first. However, while this may be Eastwood working out some of his personal issues, it makes for a frankly rather dull movie, added to which it’s difficult to know how we’re supposed to respond to Earl’s politically incorrect attitudes, such as calling a couple of Mexicans ‘beaners’ or telling the  black couple whose flat tyre he fixes that he “likes to help negroes’. Are we supposed to be shocked, or find him wryly amusing, in the same way that he grumbles about everyone’s reliance on the internet? Especially when the film goes to some lengths to point out racial profiling  when an innocent Hispanic is pulled over by the agents simply for who he is.

Eastwood still has charisma, but, thinly written, poorly plotted, slack in tension and with no moral stance taken as regard Earl’s drug running, he himself never questions his involvement, The Mules ends his screen career as a bit of an ass. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod),  the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her asssistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief)  and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

 

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own  solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and even then the action is dizzingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the  heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers bursts in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of  the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Beautiful Boy (15)

Based on the twin, complementary memoirs of author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth-addicted son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), directed  by Felix Van Groeningen this true-life drug addiction drama charts the struggle by the former to help the latter overcome is habit.

It opens with Sheff Sr interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) for a proposed article on  drug addiction that quickly is made apparent to be have a more personal angle, asking how he can help, and flashes back and forth to show how Nic’s addiction was first discovered, his attempt to go clean, the failed rehab, a doomed romantic relationship (Kaitlyn Dever) on San Francisco’s seedy side, David’s journalistic investigations into addiction and the several acrimonious blame-apportioning confrontations between father and son before the ever-patient and supportive David, driven to the brink one time too many, adopted his eventual chosen path.

A bright, intelligent teen, Nic experiments with crystal methamphetamine and gets hooked. College goes out of the window and he’s enlisted in 26-week in a detox programme, moves to a halfway house, and then disappears. Somewhat unhelpfully, a counsellor tells David that relapse is part of the recovery.

There’s no real attempt to explore what led Nic into addiction, although a troubled childhood that’s aw his parents divorcing is unlikely to have helped. David now lives with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) in Marin County and has a younger daughter. He has frequent phone conversations with his ex, Vicki (Amy Ryan), which inevitably quickly descend into bitter accusations and counter-accusations of blame. Perhaps that residue of toxicity led Nic to seek some sort of escape, the film never offers an opinion.

Both parents try to help their son, who swings between reaching out and self-destruction, lashing out by blaming his often overbearing father for trying to control him. It should be an emotional roller-coaster, but, despite the top notch Oscar-bait lead performances, frequently shot in close-up, Carrell all confused concern,  Chalamet channelling self-loathing in introspective  funks and angry flare-ups, it somehow never engages, leaving the audience distanced spectators rather than involved in the drama, Nic often proving very hard to sympathise with.

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With BAFTA nominee Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channeling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron  (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing  mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (the The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” These are the opening lines to Claudine at School, which, in 1900, took France by storm and, along with three sequels, elevated its self-promoting author, Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West), from being a relatively  successful music critic and literary “entrepreneur”  to being a publishing phenomenon. Except, he didn’t write them.

Indeed, through his workshops, Willy employed a series of ghostwriters who, while never receiving recognition, were guaranteed a wide readership and decent income, would put shape to his ideas which he would then edit. The Claudine novels were, however, the work of his much younger wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the provincial daughter of an old army colleague whom he married in 1893 and whisked off to Paris with its giddy world of literary salons.

However, as director Wash Westmoreland’s film soon makes it clear, while their love for one another may have been strong,  as his new wife soon learns, Willy’s libertine nature was not so easily tamed, with a string of affairs digging into the monthly income. Accepting this as what men do, but demanding he at least be honest about it, her schoolgirl recollections (spiced up by Willy)  came at a most opportune moment for their fortunes and, Collette, as she later decides to call herself as a mark of growing independence,  also found extra-marital distractions, although hers too were of the female variety. At one point, however, she discovers that the bored, married bored Louisiana millionaire Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) with whom Willy has tacitly sanctioned an affair, is sleeping with him too!

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs (Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), cuminating in her love affair with transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom, in  a play Willy produced at the Moulin Rouge in 1907,  she shared  Paris’ first  same-sex kiss on stage, causing uproar, his bankruptcy and prompted her new career as a  vaudevillian.

Whether as period pieces or of a more contemporary bent, films depicting gender inequality in the creative arts  and the fight for female empowerment aren’t exactly new, indeed Collete’s story was told to rather lesser effect by Danny Huston back in 1991 with Becoming Collette, Where this benefits is in the strength of its two leading stars, West giving one his finest performances, somehow managing to make Willy charmingly engaging even at his cruellest and most self-regarding, and, as his sexual prowess starts to flag, unexpectedly pitiful, while (despite a wincing line about her perfect teeth) Knightley, back in corsets again, is on peak form, smart, witty, sexy and strikingly charismatic.

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on  to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories  waiting to be told. (Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

A sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky reboot was inevitable and, as such, it seems logical that in doing so it would revisit 1985’s  Rocky IV, the film in which Apollo Creed died in the ring during his brutal match with Ivan Drago, by pitching the two fighters’ sons against one another.

Directed this time around by Steven Caple Jr, it doesn’t have quite the same heft as its predecessor and the narrative arc is as predictable as such movies usually are, but the returning cast and a screenplay co-penned by Sylvester Stallone still land firm punches. Graduating to world heavyweight champ in the opening scenes, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has no sooner proposed to his deaf musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), than he learns he’s been challenged to defend his title against Russian  boxer Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is looking to regain the respect and status he lost – along with his wife (Brigitte Nielsen, putting in a cameo) – when Rocky beat him on home turf.

Still broken by what happened in the last Creed-Drago match, Rocky (Stallone in reassuring mumbling mode and still wearing his familiar black-leather jacket, grey T-shirt, and pork-pie hat)  declines to take Adonis’s corner and remain in Philadelphia and  Creed, feeling betrayed and now based in Los Angeles, calls on the son of his father’s trainer (Wood Harris) to get him into physical shape. What he can’t do, however, is get him into the mental shape he needs to overcome his ghosts and, since the match takes place early in the film, it’s fairly obvious that issues will remain to be settled.

Battered by Viktor, Adonis, now a father (whose daughter has inherited mom’s hearing loss), has stepped away from the ring but needs to fight to retain his title. And there’s no prizes for guessing who his opponent has to be, this time, prompted by Apollo’s worldly-wise widow (Phylicia Rashad), with Rocky again by his side, taking him out of his gym comfort zone for some rough training in the desert.

Given he’s working from a formula that can be tweaked but not changed, even if the conventionally staged fights don’t have the same impact, Caple Jr does a solid enough job, working from, as one character notes, the premise that “the belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.” Or, in screenplay terms, faith.

Disappointingly, Bianca’s burgeoning music career subplot is dropped as soon as the baby’s born, though she does get to sing her husband into the ring in Russia (where he’s naturally the underdog) while Rocky’s guilt over his estrangement from his son and grandson plays a rather sentimental final card. However, but there’s plenty of reflection on the ways the legacies of fathers haunt their sons as well as the dynamic between masculinity and vulnerability, between both Rocky and Adonis and, although the backstory’s less subtle, Igor and Viktor, the former relentlessly driving his son, as a vehicle in reclaiming his own life (Rocky notes how Viktor’s been raised on hate), having become an outcast for embarrassing his country by losing to an American.

The film also draws comparisons to the way winners and losers are treated by their countries, Creed and his mother both living in luxury while Igor and Viktor are consigned to the drab environs of the Ukraine, only welcomed back into favour when they are of use to Russian propaganda. Rocky, of course, lives humbly in a modest house suburban house where the street lights don’t work, and still runs the restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian, where he makes pizza dough in the early hours. It doesn’t, ultimately, have that same electric jolt that Coogler applied to resuscitate the franchise, but there’s probably still enough juice to warrant another round. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, Oscar nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protegee working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding BAFTA and Academy Best Actress to her Golden Globes triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat ant-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine,with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the  leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

                                                     

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of  Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20th Century Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945 they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

BAFTA nominee Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual schtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 Solihull – 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 Jan 18-Thu Jan 24

 

NEW RELEASES

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage withJames Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

 

Beautiful Boy (15)

Based on the twin, complementary memoirs of author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth-addicted son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), directed  by Felix Van Groeningen this true-life drug addiction drama charts the struggle by the former to help the latter overcome is habit.

It opens with Sheff Sr interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) for a proposed article on  drug addiction that quickly is made apparent to be have a more personal angle, asking how he can help, and flashes back and forth to show how Nic’s addiction was first discovered, his attempt to go clean, the failed rehab, a doomed romantic relationship (Kaitlyn Dever) on San Francisco’s seedy side, David’s journalistic investigations into addiction and the several acrimonious blame-apportioning confrontations between father and son before the ever-patient and supportive David, driven to the brink one time too many, adopted his eventual chosen path.

A bright, intelligent teen, Nic experiments with crystal methamphetamine and gets hooked. College goes out of the window and he’s enlisted in 26-week in a detox programme, moves to a halfway house, and then disappears. Somewhat unhelpfully, a counsellor tells David that relapse is part of the recovery.

There’s no real attempt to explore what led Nic into addiction, although a troubled childhood that’s aw his parents divorcing is unlikely to have helped. David now lives with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) in Marin County and has a younger daughter. He has frequent phone conversations with his ex, Vicki (Amy Ryan), which inevitably quickly descend into bitter accusations and counter-accusations of blame. Perhaps that residue of toxicity led Nic to seek some sort of escape, the film never offers an opinion.

Both parents try to help their son, who swings between reaching out and self-destruction, lashing out by blaming his often overbearing father for trying to control him. It should be an emotional roller-coaster, but, despite the top notch Oscar-bait lead performances, frequently shot in close-up, Carrell all confused concern,  Chalamet channelling self-loathing in introspective funks and angry flare-ups, it somehow never engages, leaving the audience distanced spectators rather than involved in the drama, Nic often proving very hard to sympathise with.

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat ant-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO PLAYING

RBG (PG)

Documentary charting the life and career of octogenarian U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, alongside her reputation on the bench, has become something of a pop culture icon. Balancing observations on her private self, such as her children’s sparse scrapbook entries on Times When Mom Laughed with professional moments such as her 1993 confirmation hearing before the Senate and her discussion of key cases she brought to the Supreme Court in the 1970s, and her fight to establish equal rights for both women and men by tackling discrepancies in employers’ benefits and social security. (Electric)

 

NOW SHOWING

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own  solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and even then the action is dizzingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the  heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers bursts in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of  the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately it’s not waving, it’s drowning. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of their iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no. With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With BAFTA nominee Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’ Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channeling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron  (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter, puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing  mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (the The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” These are the opening lines to Claudine at School, which, in 1900, took France by storm and, along with three sequels, elevated its self-promoting author, Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West), from being a relatively  successful music critic and literary “entrepreneur”  to being a publishing phenomenon. Except, he didn’t write them.

Indeed, through his workshops, Willy employed a series of ghostwriters who, while never receiving recognition, were guaranteed a wide readership and decent income, would put shape to his ideas which he would then edit. The Claudine novels were, however, the work of his much younger wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the provincial daughter of an old army colleague whom he married in 1893 and whisked off to Paris with its giddy world of literary salons.

However, as director Wash Westmoreland’s film soon makes it clear, while their love for one another may have been strong,  as his new wife soon learns, Willy’s libertine nature was not so easily tamed, with a string of affairs digging into the monthly income. Accepting this as what men do, but demanding he at least be honest about it, her schoolgirl recollections (spiced up by Willy)  came at a most opportune moment for their fortunes and, Collette, as she later decides to call herself as a mark of growing independence, also found extra-marital distractions, although hers too were of the female variety. At one point, however, she discovers that the bored, married bored Louisiana millionaire Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) with whom Willy has tacitly sanctioned an affair, is sleeping with him too!

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs(Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), cuminating in her love affair with transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom, in  a play Willy produced at the Moulin Rouge in 1907,  she shared Paris’ first  same-sex kiss on stage, causing uproar, his bankruptcy and prompted her new career as a  vaudevillian.

Whether as period pieces or of a more contemporary bent, films depicting gender inequality in the creative arts  and the fight for female empowerment aren’t exactly new, indeed Collete’s story was told to rather lesser effect by Danny Huston back in 1991 with Becoming Collette, Where this benefits is in the strength of its two leading stars, West giving one his finest performances, somehow managing to make Willy charmingly engaging even at his cruellest and most self-regarding, and, as his sexual prowess starts to flag, unexpectedly pitiful, while (despite a wincing line about her perfect teeth) Knightley, back in corsets again, is on peak form, smart, witty, sexy and strikingly charismatic.

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories  waiting to be told. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

A sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky reboot was inevitable and, as such, it seems logical that in doing so it would revisit 1985’s Rocky IV, the film in which Apollo Creed died in the ring during his brutal match with Ivan Drago, by pitching the two fighters’ sons against one another.

Directed this time around by Steven Caple Jr, it doesn’t have quite the same heft as its predecessor and the narrative arc is as predictable as such movies usually are, but the returning cast and a screenplay co-penned by Sylvester Stallone still land firm punches. Graduating to world heavyweight champ in the opening scenes, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has no sooner proposed to his deaf musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), than he learns he’s been challenged to defend his title against Russian  boxer Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is looking to regain the respect and status he lost – along with his wife (Brigitte Nielsen, putting in a cameo) – when Rocky beat him on home turf.

Still broken by what happened in the last Creed-Drago match, Rocky (Stallone in reassuring mumbling mode and still wearing his familiar black-leather jacket, grey T-shirt, and pork-pie hat)  declines to take Adonis’s corner and remain in Philadelphia and Creed, feeling betrayed and now based in Los Angeles, calls on the son of his father’s trainer (Wood Harris) to get him into physical shape. What he can’t do, however, is get him into the mental shape he needs to overcome his ghosts and, since the match takes place early in the film, it’s fairly obvious that issues will remain to be settled.

Battered by Viktor, Adonis, now a father (whose daughter has inherited mom’s hearing loss), has stepped away from the ring but needs to fight to retain his title. And there’s no prizes for guessing who his opponent has to be, this time, prompted by Apollo’s worldly-wise widow (Phylicia Rashad), with Rocky again by his side, taking him out of his gym comfort zone for some rough training in the desert.

Given he’s working from a formula that can be tweaked but not changed, even if the conventionally staged fights don’t have the same impact, Caple Jr does a solid enough job, working from, as one character notes, the premise that “the belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.” Or, in screenplay terms, faith.

Disappointingly, Bianca’s burgeoning music career subplot is dropped as soon as the baby’s born, though she does get to sing her husband into the ring in Russia (where he’s naturally the underdog) while Rocky’s guilt over his estrangement from his son and grandson plays a rather sentimental final card. However, but there’s plenty of reflection on the ways the legacies of fathers haunt their sons as well as the dynamic between masculinity and vulnerability, between both Rocky and Adonis and, although the backstory’s less subtle, Igor and Viktor, the former relentlessly driving his son, as a vehicle in reclaiming his own life (Rocky notes how Viktor’s been raised on hate), having become an outcast for embarrassing his country by losing to an American.

The film also draws comparisons to the way winners and losers are treated by their countries, Creed and his mother both living in luxury while Igor and Viktor are consigned to the drab environs of the Ukraine, only welcomed back into favour when they are of use to Russian propaganda. Rocky, of course, lives humbly in a modest house suburban house where the street lights don’t work, and still runs the restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian, where he makes pizza dough in the early hours. It doesn’t, ultimately, have that same electric jolt that Coogler applied to resuscitate the franchise, but there’s probably still enough juice to warrant another round. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

Again directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the second in a planned five part Wizarding World series, this has been the subject of some scathing reviews. Ignore those, there may be flaws, but otherwise this is not only a visual spectacular that often surpasses the original, but it also deepens characters  and ventures into some dark corners in regards to its themes of family and politics.

It does, however, take a while to find its feet and, if you’re not up to scratch with the minutiae of Rowling’s world, both in terms of this franchise and its links to the Potter series, then you might need a reference guide to keep up with the dizzying early going, which, otherwise, has a tendency to be incoherent.

Opening in 1927 New York, with the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald (a blonde-haired, pale-faced Johnny Depp on fine form complete with mismatched eyes) in prison after being captured by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, growing into the role in an increasingly complex manner) and his Tardis-like suitcase, only to escape, with the help of some turncoats, while being transported in a carriage drawn by Thestrals to stand trial in Europe. All of which happens in such a blur, it’s not always easy to keep up or work out what’s going on.

Grindlewald’s plan is to create a master race of pure-bloods who will rule both the wizarding and the human worlds, and to which end he is seeking out mystery man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who devastated Manhattan in the previous film and who, unaware of his true identity, is torn between good and evil. Meanwhile in London, having again been turned down for permission to travel internationally because he won’t take sides,  Newt busies himself looking after his menagerie of creatures (the living green twig Pickett and the Niffler, along with a bunch of babies, among them) with the help of the adoring Bunty (Victoria Yeates), when who should turn up but Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the dizzy dame sister of glamourous Ministry of Magic auror,  Tina (Katherine Waterston), with whom Newt’s secretly in love (but who has cooled towards him after a misunderdstanding), accompanied by her American Muggle boyfriend baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), whose obliviation in the last film is quickly (and not credibly) dismissed, only for the pair to have a spat after Newt lifts a spell, she then flouncing off in a  huff.

Enter Dumbledore (a tweedy, waistcoated Jude Law), at this point a young Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who reveals that both Grindlewald and Credence are in Paris but, for reasons explained later (and which link to the revelation of Albus’s sexuality), because he can’t move against the former, he wants Newt to go to France and deal with things. Reluctantly, (and largely because Tina’s there) he agrees.

Around this point, the plot and its multiple storylines begin to gel. Credence is working in a freaks carnival in Paris with Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus destined to later become Lord Voldemort’s snake, and is being hunted by both Tina, the mysterious French-Senegalese Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a Ministry of Magic assassin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) whose loyalties may well lie elsewhere. The swelling character list involved in trying to solve Credence’s identity also includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s former Hogwarts crush, and  Newt’s brother, Thaddeus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry, and to whom she is now engaged. Added to this, there’s also aged alchemist Nicolas Flamel who gets to play a significant part in the final climactic showdown between those from the Ministry of Magic and Grindelwald and his acolytes.

Although it does take time out in the third act for a lengthy exposition scene in which everyone explains their connections to the other, the film generally gets on with delivering fast-paced, location switching action that involves a creature that resembles a Chinese New Year parade dragon, a fog shrouded London, underground vaults, the Ministry of Magic archives with its cat-like demon guardians, statues that serve as magical portals and Père Lachaise Cemetery. And, of course, Hogwarts along with flashbacks to Dumbledore’s lessons with the young Newt. Indeed, the connections between the franchise and the Potter series begin to take very concrete shape, most especially in a reference to the Dumbledore line and phoenixes.

Aside from the films various complicated family relationships, in Grindelwald’s address to his followers Rowling also mines a strong political thread that, both in its rhetoric and visuals of a world at war he claims he wishes to avoid,  recalls the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, but also resonates with the climate in contemporary Europe. Both exhausting and exhilarating, it may at times confuse, but it never bores, setting up a wholly unexpected family crisis that promises a real cataclysm of a threequel. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, BAFTA nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protegee working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves, striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding BAFTA and Academy Best Actress to her Golden Globes triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Holmes and Watson (12A)

It would have taken a stupendous effort to surpass the banality and puerile crassness that characterised Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous teaming, Step Brothers, but, to their credit they and director Etan Cohen have made a sterling effort. Here they take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective duo who, when a  dead body is found baked in a party cake, stumble on a plot to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) inside Buckingham Palace, the murders being committed to look like the work of Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes in line reading mode)/ There seems little point elaborating the plot, given the writers didn’t both to, but suffice to say there’s a stream of gross out anachronistic slapstick (including an interminably dragged out gag about taking a selfie) that essentially portrays the unstoppable sleuths as buffoons and endless synonyms for onanism.

There are some saving graces, an early boarding schooldays scene showing how Holmes was bullied, leading him to becoming a cold fish, for one and Steve Coogan hoovers up what crumbs there are as one-armed tattoo artist, but Hugh Laurie is wasted as Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft and Reilly (so good as the voice of Wreck It Ralph) and Ferrell (so good, as, er) simply flap around like kids in a playpen indulging in supposedly hilarious political incorrectness. Downey and Cumberbatch both proved that you could bring wit to Holmes, but this doesn’t even touch on the elementary basics. (Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The House That Jack Built (18)

Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest opens with a black screen. It gets a whole lot darker.  Pushing audiences to the limit with its graphic, brutal violence, that includes the murder of two children and the mother then being forced to feed them pie in a grotesque parody of a picnic, it’s a two and a half hour journey through the disturbed mind of a serial killer that accompanies the butchery with meditations on the nature of art, William Blake, mankind’s propensity  for unimaginable violence, the absence  or otherwise of God, black and white footage of jazz pianist Glenn Gould, the nature of killing, a clip from one of the director’s earlier films  and a hellish epilogue titled Katabasis,  Greek for descent, which evokes Dante’s Inferno.

It all begins when independently wealthy architect/engineer Jack (Matt Dillon) is flagged down by a stranded woman (Uma Thurman) who asks if he’ll drive her to a nearby garage to repair her broken car jack. Persistently needled by her mocking put downs, he eventually slams the jack into her skull.  This is, the first of what will be the five ‘incidents’ over a 12-year period he describes to  unseen commentator Verge (Bruno Ganz) as a sort of self-aggrandisement  among the serial killer ranks.

Jack, it would seem, has  always had a cruel streak, as evidenced by a childhood flashback in which we see the young lad calmly cutting off a fluffy young duckling’s leg and throwing it back to watch it flap around. However, the film never sets out to provide explanations as to why he is what he is. Instead it builds in horror as it proceeds, from the murder of a gullible widow, the shootings of the children and their mother, and the savage killing and mutilation of a topless young woman (Riley Keough), one of her breasts being turned into a wallet, all the bodies being stored in a deep freeze he owns. Throughout, Jack. Believing himself an artistic genius in his chosen field, seeks to impress Verge, who tauntingly remains unconvinced, accusing him of clinging to a  pathetic dream of something great.

It’s unquestionably hard viewing, but it’s also brilliantly shot through with black comedy, such as Jack’s OCD  constantly sending him back into the house of his most recent murder to check he’s cleaned away all the blood, even as he hears a police siren closing in, or the final chapter where, having lined up a series of victims to be killed with a single bullet, he has a hissy fit when one of them points out the cartridge isn’t  a full metal jacket and he storms off to the shop to complain.

The title would, initially, seem to refer to the hillside construction on which we see him working, but eventually proves to have a far more grotesque appliance involving the frozen corpses through which he escapes as the cops close in  and the film shifts into the surreal. Dillon delivers a remarkable performance of a hugely difficult role and, even when the film descents in the baffling realms of philosophical existentialism and tortured artistic autobiography, while it could never, except in the most perverse sense, be described as enjoyable, it is unrelentingly compelling. (From Mon: Mockingbird)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine,with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the  leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sorry To Bother You (15)

The debut of rapper turned writer-director Boots Riley, at the end of the day this Michel Gondry-inspired sociopolitical satire is a film built around an unsubtle word play. The word is workhorse and is applied here in a sort of body horror-comedy critique of the exploitation of the labour force and subsequent unionisation.

A rising star in the black firmament, Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius Green (pronounced Cash Is Green), a silver-tongued bullshitter who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson),  a performance artist who wears designer activist slogan earrings and twirls advertising signs on the sidewalk. He lands himself a cold calling telesales job with Regalview largely on the account of, as his boss puts it, he has initiative and he can read, where the overriding rule is Stick To The Script. He’s making no headway until his veteran co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) advises him to use his ‘white voice’. Soon (dubbed by David Cross), as conveyed by a montage of silly celebratory poses, he’s racking up the sales, with the promise by his supervisor, Johnny (Michael X. Sommers)  that he may one day graduate to the literal next level and enter the golden gates elevator to join the mythical Power Sellers.

There is, however, discontent among his fellow workers,  now including Detroit (white voiced by Lily James), who’s apparently put her career on hold,  led by militant unioniser  Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who organises a down phones walk-out. Cash is on-board until he’s then given promotion to the elite, at which point,  moved upstairs to work under the eye-patched Mr. (Omari Hardwick, white voiced by Patton Oswald), kitted out in smart new duds, raking in obscene earnings and moved to a swanky upmarket apartment, loyalty and solidarity go out of the window, along with his relationship with Detroit.

His rise to superstar earns him an invite to a party/orgy hosted by laid back sarong-clad, coke-fiend Steve Lift (a quietly hilarious Armie Hammer who accepts all of the accusations against him as a compliment), CEO of Clearview which runs Worry Free, a voluntary slave-labour colony system against which radical activist collective Left Eye are leading protests.  He sees an opportunity in Cash’s ability to get into people’s heads  part of his own organisation. However, as Cash discovers when he takes a wrong turn looking for the bathroom, not in the way he’d assumed, with Lift involved in what, to avoid spoilers, will be simply called Equus-Sapiens.  Things take a far darker and more violent turn as matters spin out of control

There’s the nub of a strong satire here on capitalism, selling out, self-serving ambition and  genetic science excess and, for a while, it works well. The problem is Riley overloads the film with visual trickery (the cold calls drop Cash’s desk into the homes of his marks) and things like the self-explanatory titled TV game show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me and how Cash becomes an internet sensation after being hit on the head by a protestor’s  soda can, leading to a sales boom in  bandaged-afro wigs which simply blunt the satirical edge the more wacky it all becomes. It doesn’t help either that the special effects, especially in the final scenes, look unfinished. Riley has a lot to say, it’s just unfortunate that so much of it gets lost in the noise. (Mockingbird)

 

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends, rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20thCentury Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945 they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

BAFTA nominee Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual schtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Wife (15)

Again underlining her status as one of the greatest actresses of her generation, until she finally explodes at the film’s ending, Glenn Close gives a Golden Globe winning master class in understatement and restrained tension as Joan Castleman, the sixty-something wife of older celebrated author, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), her former struggling university professor (Harry Lloyd) who divorced his wife to marry her, his star student (Annie Starke). As the film opens, persuading her to have sex to calm him down, he’s nervously awaiting news from Sweden, the pair subsequently bouncing up and down on the bed to celebrate his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Their daughter due to give birth at any moment, they take their son, David (Max Irons) himself an aspiring writer and resentful of his father’s seeming lack of support or interest, with them to receive the award as, between being fussed over by Swedish officials and flashbacks to university days and their ensuing affair,  the film slowly unfolds the relationship between Joan and her husband. Flirting with the young official photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned to shadow him in Sweden, we learn Joe’s had several affairs, to which Joan, who enjoys the comforts of being married to such a prestigious writer, has turned a stoical blind eye. But there’s more to it. The flashbacks reveal that, back in the day, she herself had literary aspirations, her university essay ‘The Faculty Wife’, based on Joe’s marriage, held in high esteem. However, at a literary function, a minor female author (Elizabeth McGovern) cautions her to give up all hopes of being taken seriously or read, publishing being a highly chauvinistic domain. And so, it would seem, that Joan abandoned the idea and settled into becoming the dutiful, long-suffering wife, coaching him on his responsibilities and manners. At cocktail parties, Joe always acknowledges her as his inspiration and muse, but  adds that, no, she doesn’t write. And Joan smiles and carries on. However, Joe’s would be warts and all biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who’s contrived to also be in Sweden for the awards, has his own theories and is determined to wheedle out the truth, even if Joan refuses to spill the beans.

Anyone who knows the story of French authoress Collete, will have sussed out the marriage’s creative dynamic well before the subsequent revelations, summed up in a line about how “there’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.” As such, the logic feels flawed as to why such a clearly strong-willed  and talented woman would meekly accept the  situation, not even wishing to bask in reflected glory, or why she finally says enough is enough following the awards-ceremony in which he showers her with praise, saying he could not be the writer he is without her. Indeed, as the flashbacks show, it was she who, working at a publishers, got them to look at his work and facilitated his masterpiece, The Walnut.

Adapting Meg Wolitzer’s 1992-set novel, director Bjorn Runge has a keen eye for the trappings, amusingly drawing out the red tape and absurd protocol of such events, the couple even being awakened to a candle-lit serenade. But, he lacks imagination, the flashbacks have none of the main narrative’s brittle edge and he also overdoes the resonances and narrative design, with David’s work in progress mirroring his mother’s essay in depicting a marriage in crisis while Joe’s chat up line involving James Joyce quote about falling snow is made literal in the final moments.

Pryce does a decent job in shaping Joe as not a bad man but one who’s weak and narcissistic, while Slater is excellent as the slippery journo, the café chat between him and an inscrutable Joan a particular highlight, but this is unquestionably Close’s film, rising above the flaws in the material to command the screen and keep you engaged even as you’re questioning the plausibility. (MAC)

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire 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 Jan 11-Thu Jan 17

NEW RELEASES

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20th Century Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945 they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

BAFTA nominee Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Front Runner (15)

For a brief moment in 1988, it seemed that Democratic senator Gary Hart was a shoo-in to replace Reagan as America’s President. Then, over the course of three weeks, everything went pear-shaped as the Miami Herald ran an article implying he had been involved in an extra-marital affair, articulating long held rumours among the Washington press corps as to his infidelities,  and everything snowballed out of control as the other papers, the Washginton Post among them, were forced to become opart of the tabloid journalism witchhunt into Hart’s private life and, therefore, his moral fitness to hold office.

Based on Matt Bai’s novel All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, who serves asco-wruter alongside political consultant Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman, it inevitably juggles fact and fiction for dramatic effect, but the essence of the story holds true.

Unfortunately, opening with Hart’s earlier campaign against Walyer Mondale to win the Democratic nomination, the hubbub of the newsreel footage and the busy camera work weaving in and around the campaign workers, makes it almost impossible to make out what’s going on and, while it eventually settles down, the chance to hook the audience has been squandered.

Hugh Jackman is very good as the good-looking, personable and passionately idealistic Hart whose policy focused on improving the lives of working-class Americans, but whose ‘it’s none of your business’ response to allegations that he was cheating on his wife with local model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton, not given sufficient backstory), whom he met aboard the unfortunately named yacht Monkey Business,  merely served to fan the media flames, even though public opinion believed that he was being treated unfairly.

Reitman crafts a solid film around the attempts at damage limitation by Hart team, fronted by J.K. Simmons as his beleaguered campaign manager, Bill Dixon, and the increasingly intrusive probing by the press, adopting National Enquirer  tactics,  the Miami Herald, largely embodied by  in over his head reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), pretty much forcing the other papers into pursuing the story. In both major and minor roles, the performances throughout are strong, Vera Farmiga as Hart’s supportive rock wife (from whom he had been briefly separated) heading up a cast list that includes  Alfred Molina as the editor of the Post, Molly Ephraim as one of Hart’s team sympathetic towards the fallout experienced by Rice and her subsequent treatment by Hart, and Mamoudou Athie as fictional Post reporter A.J. Parker.

The pursuit of Hart over his private life, ultimately putting an end to his presidential ambitions, marked a turning point in terms of American politics and the media and, while earier, the press had, for example,  turned a blind eye to the shenanigans of the Kennedys, from this point anyone running for office was seen as fair game and opened the floodgates to today’s tabloid journalism. It’s unfortunate that the performances and the subject matter are wrapped up in a film that too often falls stylistically and dramatically flat, even if it leaves you wondering how  Hart’s sexual indiscretions cost him the presidency, while, three decades later, Trump rode into the White House on a rollercoaster  of sleaze and chauvinism allegations. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lizzie (15)

According to the popular skipping rhyme of the day, in the  industrial bay town of Fall River, MA on August 4,  1892  “Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one”. However, at the subsequent trial, Borden was found not guilty of murdering Andrew Borden or his second wife, Abby, the jury refusing to believe anyone of such refined breeding could commit such acts.

Working from a screenplay by Bryce Kass, largely based around Ed McBain’s novel, director  Craig William Macneill takes her guilt for granted, fuelled by abuses suffered and her father’s will placing her  and her older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) under the financial thumb of  his late wife’s ne’er-do-well brother (Denis O’Hare). However,  while assigning Abby’s murder to Borden, the film has the father killed by the family’s Irish maid, Bridget, also known as Maggie, with whom Lizzie was rumoured to have had a lesbian relationship and who was also the reluctant subject of  Andrew Borden’s attentions.

Starring Chloe Sevigny, who also produced, as Lizzie with Kirtsen Stewart as Bridget, it’s a curiously cold and clinical, slow-paced affair  that, while indicating the abusive, tight-fisted Andrew Borden’s (Jamey Sheridan) controlling personality, her prickly stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and the stubborn, impulsive and epilepsy-prone Lizzie’s resentment at the repression in her home, never quite catches fire, a problem exacerbated by the film’s  drained colour scheme, which makes the extended post-murder scenes all the more lifeless for a narrative ostensibly driven by rage and passion that encourages you to understand if not even applaud the brutal axe killings.  (Until Wed:MAC)

Return of the Hero (12A)

A ripe French comedy with two sparkling lead performances, this stars Jean Dujardin as Capitaine Charles-Gregoire Neuville who, no sooner has he proposed to  Pauline (Noemie Merlant), the younger daughter of the well-to-do Beaugrand family, is called off to join Napoleon’s war against Austria. Although he promises to write every day, no letters arrive, placing the frail Pauline’s health at risk. To which end, her sister, Elisabeth (Melanie Laurent) decides to forge Neuville’s letters, intercepting her sister’s somewhat bawdy replies, spinning out a dashing tale of adventure and, when the war ends, consigning him to a post in India, becoming a successful businessman but, ultimately, facing death while trapped in a  fort resisting the British.

It’s all perfect, Pauline going on to marry younger nobleman Nicolas (Christophe Montenez) and have a child in the belief that her former fiancé has died a hero. Indeed, the town even erects a stature in his honour. Inevitably, however, things take an inconvenient turn when, while out in the town markets,  Elisabeth sees Neuville emerge from a coach, bearded, destitute and in rags. It seems that, rather than the glory she’s invented, he deserted. Understandably keen not to have the truth come out, she arranges for him to move on and continues to maintain the charade. Which is when, scrubbed up to his former self, Neuville rides back into the family’s life, looking to exploit his wholly fictitious reputation, forcing him and Elisabeth to concoct further stories to explain why he’s not dead and how he escaped, while greedy family associates practically beg to be allowed to invest in his a pyramid scheme non-existent diamond mine.

It’s all fairly predictable, with Elisabeth inevitably finding herself drawn to the rogueish Neuville and, although there is a striking moment when, over a family dinner with a visiting General who’s arrived to deal with a local Cossacks problem, Neuville harrowingly recounts the story of a slaughter that was clearly the incident that led to his desertion, director Laurent Tirard plays it with a light, comedic touch that makes for enjoyably frothy viewing. (Sun- Thu: MAC)

 

The Upside (12A)

A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual schtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

 

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own  solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and even then the action is dizzingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the  heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers bursts in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of  the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of their iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With BAFTA nominee Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channeling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron  (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing  mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (the The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” These are the opening lines to Claudine at School, which, in 1900, took France by storm and, along with three sequels, elevated its self-promoting author, Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West), from being a relatively  successful music critic and literary “entrepreneur”  to being a publishing phenomenon. Except, he didn’t write them.

Indeed, through his workshops, Willy employed a series of ghostwriters who, while never receiving recognition, were guaranteed a wide readership and decent income, would put shape to his ideas which he would then edit. The Claudine novels were, however, the work of his much younger wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the provincial daughter of an old army colleague whom he married in 1893 and whisked off to Paris with its giddy world of literary salons.

However, as director Wash Westmoreland’s film soon makes it clear, while their love for one another may have been strong,  as his new wife soon learns, Willy’s libertine nature was not so easily tamed, with a string of affairs digging into the monthly income. Accepting this as what men do, but demanding he at least be honest about it, her schoolgirl recollections (spiced up by Willy)  came at a most opportune moment for their fortunes and, Collette, as she later decides to call herself as a mark of growing independence,  also found extra-marital distractions, although hers too were of the female variety. At one point, however, she discovers that the bored, married bored Louisiana millionaire Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) with whom Willy has tacitly sanctioned an affair, is sleeping with him too!

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs (Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), cuminating in her love affair with transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom, in  a play Willy produced at the Moulin Rouge in 1907,  she shared  Paris’ first  same-sex kiss on stage, causing uproar, his bankruptcy and prompted her new career as a  vaudevillian.

Whether as period pieces or of a more contemporary bent, films depicting gender inequality in the creative arts  and the fight for female empowerment aren’t exactly new, indeed Collete’s story was told to rather lesser effect by Danny Huston back in 1991 with Becoming Collette, Where this benefits is in the strength of its two leading stars, West giving one his finest performances, somehow managing to make Willy charmingly engaging even at his cruellest and most self-regarding, and, as his sexual prowess starts to flag, unexpectedly pitiful, while (despite a wincing line about her perfect teeth) Knightley, back in corsets again, is on peak form, smart, witty, sexy and strikingly charismatic.

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on  to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories  waiting to be told. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

A sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky reboot was inevitable and, as such, it seems logical that in doing so it would revisit 1985’s  Rocky IV, the film in which Apollo Creed died in the ring during his brutal match with Ivan Drago, by pitching the two fighters’ sons against one another.

Directed this time around by Steven Caple Jr, it doesn’t have quite the same heft as its predecessor and the narrative arc is as predictable as such movies usually are, but the returning cast and a screenplay co-penned by Sylvester Stallone still land firm punches. Graduating to world heavyweight champ in the opening scenes, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has no sooner proposed to his deaf musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), than he learns he’s been challenged to defend his title against Russian  boxer Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is looking to regain the respect and status he lost – along with his wife (Brigitte Nielsen, putting in a cameo) – when Rocky beat him on home turf.

Still broken by what happened in the last Creed-Drago match, Rocky (Stallone in reassuring mumbling mode and still wearing his familiar black-leather jacket, grey T-shirt, and pork-pie hat)  declines to take Adonis’s corner and remain in Philadelphia and  Creed, feeling betrayed and now based in Los Angeles, calls on the son of his father’s trainer (Wood Harris) to get him into physical shape. What he can’t do, however, is get him into the mental shape he needs to overcome his ghosts and, since the match takes place early in the film, it’s fairly obvious that issues will remain to be settled.

Battered by Viktor, Adonis, now a father (whose daughter has inherited mom’s hearing loss), has stepped away from the ring but needs to fight to retain his title. And there’s no prizes for guessing who his opponent has to be, this time, prompted by Apollo’s worldly-wise widow (Phylicia Rashad), with Rocky again by his side, taking him out of his gym comfort zone for some rough training in the desert.

Given he’s working from a formula that can be tweaked but not changed, even if the conventionally staged fights don’t have the same impact, Caple Jr does a solid enough job, working from, as one character notes, the premise that “the belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.” Or, in screenplay terms, faith.

Disappointingly, Bianca’s burgeoning music career subplot is dropped as soon as the baby’s born, though she does get to sing her husband into the ring in Russia (where he’s naturally the underdog) while Rocky’s guilt over his estrangement from his son and grandson plays a rather sentimental final card. However, but there’s plenty of reflection on the ways the legacies of fathers haunt their sons as well as the dynamic between masculinity and vulnerability, between both Rocky and Adonis and, although the backstory’s less subtle, Igor and Viktor, the former relentlessly driving his son, as a vehicle in reclaiming his own life (Rocky notes how Viktor’s been raised on hate), having become an outcast for embarrassing his country by losing to an American.

The film also draws comparisons to the way winners and losers are treated by their countries, Creed and his mother both living in luxury while Igor and Viktor are consigned to the drab environs of the Ukraine, only welcomed back into favour when they are of use to Russian propaganda. Rocky, of course, lives humbly in a modest house suburban house where the street lights don’t work, and still runs the restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian, where he makes pizza dough in the early hours. It doesn’t, ultimately, have that same electric jolt that Coogler applied to resuscitate the franchise, but there’s probably still enough juice to warrant another round. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

Again directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the second in a planned five part Wizarding World series, this has been the subject of some scathing reviews. Ignore those, there may be flaws, but otherwise this is not only a visual spectacular that often surpasses the original, but it also deepens characters  and ventures into some dark corners in regards to its themes of family and politics.

It does, however, take a while to find its feet and, if you’re not up to scratch with the minutiae of Rowling’s world, both in terms of this franchise and its links to the Potter series, then you might need a reference guide to keep up with the dizzying early going, which, otherwise, has a tendency to be incoherent.

Opening in 1927 New York, with the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald (a blonde-haired, pale-faced Johnny Depp on fine form complete with mismatched eyes) in prison after being captured by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, growing into the role in an increasingly complex manner) and his Tardis-like suitcase, only to escape, with the help of some turncoats, while being transported in a carriage drawn by Thestrals to stand trial in Europe. All of which happens in such a blur, it’s not always easy to keep up or work out what’s going on.

Grindlewald’s plan is to create a master race of pure-bloods who will rule both the wizarding and the human worlds, and to which end he is seeking out mystery man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who devastated Manhattan in the previous film and who, unaware of his true identity, is torn between good and evil. Meanwhile in London, having again been turned down for permission to travel internationally because he won’t take sides,  Newt busies himself looking after his menagerie of creatures (the living green twig Pickett and the Niffler, along with a bunch of babies, among them) with the help of the adoring Bunty (Victoria Yeates), when who should turn up but Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the dizzy dame sister of glamourous Ministry of Magic auror,  Tina (Katherine Waterston), with whom Newt’s secretly in love (but who has cooled towards him after a misunderdstanding), accompanied by her American Muggle boyfriend baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), whose obliviation in the last film is quickly (and not credibly) dismissed, only for the pair to have a spat after Newt lifts a spell, she then flouncing off in a  huff.

Enter Dumbledore (a tweedy, waistcoated Jude Law), at this point a young Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who reveals that both Grindlewald and Credence are in Paris but, for reasons explained later (and which link to the revelation of Albus’s sexuality), because he can’t move against the former, he wants Newt to go to France and deal with things.  Reluctantly, (and largely because Tina’s there) he agrees.

Around this point, the plot and its multiple storylines begin to gel. Credence is working in a freaks carnival in Paris with Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus destined to later become Lord Voldemort’s snake, and is being hunted by both Tina, the mysterious French-Senegalese Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a Ministry of Magic assassin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) whose loyalties may well lie elsewhere. The swelling character list involved in trying to solve Credence’s identity also includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s former Hogwarts crush, and  Newt’s brother, Thaddeus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry, and to whom she is now engaged. Added to this, there’s also aged alchemist Nicolas Flamel who gets to play a significant part in the final climactic showdown between those from the Ministry of Magic and Grindelwald and his acolytes.

Although it does take time out in the third act for a lengthy exposition scene in which everyone explains their connections to the other, the film generally gets on with delivering fast-paced, location switching action that involves a creature that resembles a Chinese New Year parade dragon, a fog shrouded London, underground vaults, the Ministry of Magic archives with its cat-like demon guardians, statues that serve as magical portals  and Père Lachaise Cemetery. And, of course, Hogwarts along with flashbacks to Dumbledore’s lessons with the young Newt. Indeed, the connections between the franchise and the Potter series begin to take very concrete shape, most especially in a reference to the Dumbledore line and phoenixes.

Aside from the films various complicated family relationships, in Grindelwald’s address to his followers Rowling also mines a strong political thread that, both in its rhetoric and visuals of a world at war he claims he wishes to avoid,  recalls the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, but also resonates with the climate in contemporary Europe. Both exhausting and exhilarating, it may at times confuse, but it never bores, setting up a wholly unexpected family crisis that promises a real cataclysm of a threequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, BAFTA nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protegee working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use fo Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding BAFTA and Academy Best Actress to her Golden Globes triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Free Solo (12A)

Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s character portrait National Geographic documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Electric)

The Grinch (U)

Originally adapted in 1966 for TV, Dr. Seuss’s  children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas was given a live action treatment in 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey. The latest, produced under the Illumination banner,  returns to animation, shortening the title and giving it a contemporary music makeover with an R&B version of You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch, but hewing very closely to the spirit and look of the original, albeit replacing the Seuss doggerel rhymes with new versions as well as adding a new character with Christmas-crazy neighbour Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson).

You know the story, living alone on Mount Crumpit save for his loyal dog Max, the Grinch hates Christmas and, after 53 years, decides to put an end to it by stealing all the presents and decorations from every home in Whoville, only to have his heart (two sizes too small)  changed by little Who girl Cyndi-Lou. The book never gives a reason why he despises the festive season, but the Carrey film had him as misfit bullied at school and this version, in which the character’s winningly voiced in an American accent by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s because, as a young  orphan, he was left all alone one Christmas  and has never been happy since.  It also indicates that there’s some lingering human decency in him since he’s kind and compassionate toward Max and to Fred, the overweight reindeer he co-opts to pull his stolen sledge.

Bright and colourful with some highly detailed animation (especially the weave on the sweaters), it delivers its message about caring and kindness (here, the Grinch is redeemed when the button-nosed Cindy-Lou says she doesn’t want presents, just for her mom to be happy), the design of Whoville and the Grinch’s cave all wonderfully ramshackle, and throws in some sly touches for the grown-ups, such as the Grinch playing All By Myself a la Phantom of the Opera on a pipe organ and going on an emotional eating binge.  Go green. (Empire Great Park)

Holmes and Watson (12A)

It would have taken a stupendous to surpass the banality and puerile crassness that characterised Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous teaming, Step Brothers, but, to their credit they and director Etan Cohen have made a sterling effort. Here they take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective duo who, when a  dead body is found baked in a party cake, stumble on a plot to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) inside Buckingham Palace, the murders being committed to look like the work of Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes in line reading mode)/ There seems little point elaborating the plot, given the writers didn’t both to, but suffice to say there’s a stream of gross out anachronistic slapstick (including an interminably dragged out gag about taking a selfie) that essentially portrays the unstoppable sleuths as buffoons and endless synonyms for onanism.

There are some saving graces, an early boarding schooldays scene showing how Holmes was bullied, leading him to becoming a cold fish, for one and Steve Coogan hoovers up what crumbs there are as one-armed tattoo artist, but Hugh Laurie is wasted as Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft and Reilly (so good as the voice of Wreck It Ralph) and Ferrell (so good, er, mmm) simply flap around like kids in a playpen indulging in supposedly hilarious political incorrectness. Downey and Cumberbatch both proved that you could bring wit to Holmes, but this doesn’t even touch on the elementary basics.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine,with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the  leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (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)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of  Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Welcome To Marwen (12A)

On April 8, 2000, artist/photographer Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five neo-Nazis outside a New York bar having told them he had a fetish for wearing women’s shoes. Hogancamp spent 40 days in hospital, nine in a coma, and, when discharged, had no  memory of his previous life as a WWII comics book illustrator, of friends, failed marriage, his collection of 200 pairs of women’s shoes, anything.

Unable to afford therapy to address his trauma, he created his own by building Marwen, a ⅙-scale World War II-era Belgian town (the name a conflation of his and Wendy, the barmaid who found him), in his backyard, populating it with dolls representing himself, his friends, and his attackers, building new memories to replace those he’d lost in a world of his own creation where he was the hero. Discovered by photographer David Naugle, his story was the subject of the award-winning 2010 documentary named for his creation and now gets a factional retelling by director Robert Zemeckis starring Steve Carrell as Hogancamp.

Set a year after the attack, with Mark both readying an exhibition of his work and in trepidation of facing his assailants in court and giving a victim impact statement, it adds a further dimension to the story by bringing to life through digitised body motion animation to events depicted in the staged photographs. As such, it opens with Mark’s Action Man-style surrogate, Cap’n Hogie, crash landing his plane and donning a pair of women’s shoes to replace his burned boots. He’s surprised by a bunch of Germans who, seeing his footwear, threaten to emasculate him, only to be mowed down by a Tarantino-esque group of female fighters who take him to Marwen for safety. They’re representations of various women who have been significant in Mark’s real-life: Julie (Janelle Monáe), his GI therapist,  Roberta (Merritt Wever), who runs the local hobby store and whose doll complains of constantly having her blouse ripped off, Caralala (Eliza Gonzalez), his co-worker at the local bar, Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian careworker, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), his favourite (porn) actress. Into their company comes Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark’s new neighbour (for whom the town becomes Marwencol in her honour) who sparks  romantic turns to the narratives in both the real and the doll world where, kitted out in glossy anachronistic black stilettos, she (unlike her human counterpart) falls in love with Hogie. Importantly, none of them judge him for his thing for heels, which he describes as wearing because “they connect me to dames. I like dames.”

He, however, is scared of getting close because there’s also green-haired doll named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a witch who always prevents Hogie from finding happiness. It’s indicated early on that she represents the pills he takes to relieve his pain which, in fact, have him trapped in addiction, unable to find closure, hence the fact that the doll Nazis, to whose ranks are eventually added an SS officer representing Nicol’s  abusive ex (Neil Jackson), always return to life.

Embodying Mark’s consuming sadness and vulnerability, Carrell is terrific, albeit at times a touch creepy; however, while it deftly blends and mirrors its real and plastic worlds, the film is more lauded for its ambition than its achievement, delivering an upbeat emotional payoff, but, ultimately, in retreading the same ground and telling Hogancamp’s story through a sentimental lens (the Nicol character storyline is completely fictional), proves far less dramatically effective than it is visually. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

White Boy Rick (15)

Directed by Yann Demange, this stars Matthew McConaughey, but he’s not actually the central titular character. That will be his teenage son, Rick Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt) who, in 80s Detroit, to save his illegal gun-dealing father from being jailed, was recruited by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry) to become a drug dealer and informant  in the almost exclusively black neighbourhood’s crack cocaine network, only to find he had a taste for the action and the money and, although he got out at one stage when the arrangement came to an end after he was shot by one of the gang, plunged back in, dragging dad along, and, aged 17, wound being give life imprisonment, the state’s longest sentence for someone not involved in violent crime.

Both  Matthew McConaughey and Merritt, along with Bel Powley as Rick’s junkie daughter, Dawn, who they end up abducting from her crackhouse and putting her through cold turkey, give strong performances. There’s also an amusing turn from Bruce Dern as  Rick’s rascally grandfather.  Unfortunately, the other mostly black characters, the various Curry Crew gang members (among them rapper YG and Jonathan Majors), who have ties to the mayor almost interchangeable, lack focus and are marginalised, while Eddie Marsan’s role as a white drugs kingpin is never really clear and Kyanna Simone Simpson, as the black girl by whom Rick Jr fathers a child, pretty much vanishes from the plot once her narrative purpose is served.

It’s all suitably surface gritty and grubby, but it lacks any real texture and the way Rick (whose actual shady criminal background is glossed over) is shafted by the authorities never summons the indignation it should, the film is clearly built on anger but never come over as more than slightly irked.  (MAC)

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  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 Jan 4-Thu Jan 10

 

NEW RELEASES

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protegee working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.  

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use fo Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much making the Globes, Baftas and Oscars Best Actress gong a foregone conclusion.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” These are the opening lines to Claudine at School, which, in 1900, took France by storm and, along with three sequels, elevated its self-promoting author, Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West), from being a relatively  successful music critic and literary “entrepreneur”  to being a publishing phenomenon. Except, he didn’t write them.

Indeed, through his workshops, Willy employed a series of ghostwriters who, while never receiving recognition, were guaranteed a wide readership and decent income, would put shape to his ideas which he would then edit. The Claudine novels were, however, the work of his much younger wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the provincial daughter of an old army colleague whom he married in 1893 and whisked off to Paris with its giddy world of literary salons.

However, as director Wash Westmoreland’s film soon makes it clear, while their love for one another may have been strong,  as his new wife soon learns, Willy’s libertine nature was not so easily tamed, with a string of affairs digging into the monthly income. Accepting this as what men do, but demanding he at least be honest about it, her schoolgirl recollections (spiced up by Willy)  came at a most opportune moment for their fortunes and, Collette, as she later decides to call herself as a mark of growing independence,  also found extra-marital distractions, although hers too were of the female variety. At one point, however, she discovers that the bored, married bored Louisiana millionaire Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) with whom Willy has tacitly sanctioned an affair, is sleeping with him too!

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs (Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), cuminating in her love affair with transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom, in  a play Willy produced at the Moulin Rouge in 1907,  she shared  Paris’ first  same-sex kiss on stage, causing uproar, his bankruptcy and prompted her new career as a  vaudevillian.

Whether as period pieces or of a more contemporary bent, films depicting gender inequality in the creative arts  and the fight for female empowerment aren’t exactly new, indeed Collete’s story was told to rather lesser effect by Danny Huston back in 1991 with Becoming Collette, Where this benefits is in the strength of its two leading stars, West giving one his finest performances, somehow managing to make Willy charmingly engaging even at his cruellest and most self-regarding, and, as his sexual prowess starts to flag, unexpectedly pitiful, while (despite a wincing line about her perfect teeth) Knightley, back in corsets again, is on peak form, smart, witty, sexy and strikingly charismatic and, while the film was shut out of the Golden Globes, should certainly be among the Academy and BAFTA nominations.  

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on  to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories  waiting to be told. (From Wed: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The House That Jack Built (18)

Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest opens with a black screen. It gets a whole lot darker. Pushing audiences to the limit with its graphic, brutal violence, that includes the murder of two children and the mother then being forced to feed them pie in a grotesque parody of a picnic, it’s a two and a half hour journey through the disturbed mind of a serial killer that accompanies the butchery with meditations on the nature of art, William Blake, mankind’s propensity  for unimaginable violence, the absence  or otherwise of God, black and white footage of jazz pianist Glenn Gould, the nature of killing, a clip from one of the director’s earlier films  and a hellish epilogue titled Katabasis,  Greek for descent, which evokes Dante’s Inferno.

It all begins when independently wealthy architect/engineer Jack (Matt Dillon) is flagged down by a stranded woman (Uma Thurman) who asks if he’ll drive her to a nearby garage to repair her broken car jack. Persistently needled by her mocking put downs, he eventually slams the jack into her skull.  This is, the first of what will be the five ‘incidents’ over a 12-year period he describes to  unseen commentator Verge (Bruno Ganz) as a sort of self-aggrandisement  among the serial killer ranks.

Jack, it would seem, has  always had a cruel streak, as evidenced by a childhood flashback in which we see the young lad calmly cutting off a fluffy young duckling’s leg and throwing it back to watch it flap around. However, the film never sets out to provide explanations as to why he is what he is. Instead it builds in horror as it proceeds, from the murder of a gullible widow, the shootings of the children and their mother, and the savage killing and mutilation of a topless young woman (Riley Keough), one of her breasts being turned into a wallet, all the bodies being stored in a deep freeze he owns. Throughout, Jack. Believing himself an artistic genius in his chosen field, seeks to impress Verge, who tauntingly remains unconvinced, accusing him of clinging to a  pathetic dream of something great.

 It’s unquestionably hard viewing, but it’s also brilliantly shot through with black comedy, such as Jack’s OCD  constantly sending him back into the house of his most recent murder to check he’s cleaned away all the blood, even as he hears a police siren closing in, or the final chapter where, having lined up a series of victims to be killed with a single bullet, he has a hissy fit when one of them points out the cartridge isn’t  a full metal jacket and he storms off to the shop to complain.

The title would, initially, seem to refer to the hillside construction on which we see him working, but eventually proves to have a far more grotesque appliance involving the frozen corpses through which he escapes as the cops close in  and the film shifts into the surreal. Dillon delivers a remarkable performance of a hugely difficult role and, even when the film descents in the baffling realms of philosophical existentialism and tortured artistic autobiography, while it could never, except in the most perverse sense, be described as enjoyable, it is unrelentingly compelling.  (Fri-Mon: MAC)

Welcome To Marwen (12A)

On April 8, 2000, artist/photographer Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five neo-Nazis outside a New York bar having told them he had a fetish for wearing women’s shoes. Hogancamp spent 40 days in hospital, nine in a coma, and, when discharged, had no  memory of his previous life as a WWII comics book illustrator, of friends, failed marriage, his collection of 200 pairs of women’s shoes, anything.

Unable to afford therapy to address his trauma, he created his own by building Marwen, a ⅙-scale World War II-era Belgian town (the name a conflation of his and Wendy, the barmaid who found him), in his backyard, populating it with dolls representing himself, his friends, and his attackers, building new memories to replace those he’d lost in a world of his own creation where he was the hero. Discovered by photographer David Naugle, his story was the subject of the award-winning 2010 documentary named for his creation and now gets a factional retelling by director Robert Zemeckis starring Steve Carrell as Hogancamp.

Set a year after the attack, with Mark both readying an exhibition of his work and in trepidation of facing his assailants in court and giving a victim impact statement, it adds a further dimension to the story by bringing to life through digitised body motion animation to events depicted in the staged photographs. As such, it opens with Mark’s Action Man-style surrogate, Cap’n Hogie, crash landing his plane and donning a pair of women’s shoes to replace his burned boots. He’s surprised by a bunch of Germans who, seeing his footwear, threaten to emasculate him, only to be mowed down by a Tarantino-esque group of female fighters who take him to Marwen for safety. They’re representations of various women who have been significant in Mark’s real-life: Julie (Janelle Monáe), his GI therapist,  Roberta (Merritt Wever), who runs the local hobby store and whose doll complains of constantly having her blouse ripped off, Caralala (Eliza Gonzalez), his co-worker at the local bar, Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian careworker, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), his favourite (porn) actress. Into their company comes Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark’s new neighbour (for whom the town becomes Marwencol in her honour) who sparks  romantic turns to the narratives in both the real and the doll world where, kitted out in glossy anachronistic black stilettos, she (unlike her human counterpart) falls in love with Hogie. Importantly, none of them judge him for his thing for heels, which he describes as wearing because “they connect me to dames. I like dames.”

He, however, is scared of getting close because there’s also green-haired doll named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a witch who always prevents Hogie from finding happiness. It’s indicated early on that she represents the pills he takes to relieve his pain which, in fact, have him trapped in addiction, unable to find closure, hence the fact that the doll Nazis, to whose ranks are eventually added an SS officer representing Nicol’s  abusive ex (Neil Jackson), always return to life.

Embodying Mark’s consuming sadness and vulnerability, Carrell is terrific, albeit at times a touch creepy; however, while it deftly blends and mirrors its real and plastic worlds, the film is more lauded for its ambition than its achievement, delivering an upbeat emotional payoff, but, ultimately, in retreading the same ground and telling Hogancamp’s story through a sentimental lens (the Nicol character storyline is completely fictional), proves far less dramatically effective than it is visually. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

 

ALSO PLAYING

Free Solo (12A)

Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s character portrait National Geographic documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Electric; Wed-Sat:MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own  solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and even then the action is dizzingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humourous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the  heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers bursts in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow. 

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of  the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of their iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett. 

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing. 

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channeling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron  (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing  mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (the The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

A sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky reboot was inevitable and, as such, it seems logical that in doing so it would revisit 1985’s  Rocky IV, the film in which Apollo Creed died in the ring during his brutal match with Ivan Drago, by pitching the two fighters’ sons against one another.

Directed this time around by Steven Caple Jr, it doesn’t have quite the same heft as its predecessor and the narrative arc is as predictable as such movies usually are, but the returning cast and a screenplay co-penned by Sylvester Stallone still land firm punches. Graduating to world heavyweight champ in the opening scenes, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has no sooner proposed to his deaf musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), than he learns he’s been challenged to defend his title against Russian  boxer Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is looking to regain the respect and status he lost – along with his wife (Brigitte Nielsen, putting in a cameo) – when Rocky beat him on home turf.

Still broken by what happened in the last Creed-Drago match, Rocky (Stallone in reassuring mumbling mode and still wearing his familiar black-leather jacket, grey T-shirt, and pork-pie hat)  declines to take Adonis’s corner and remain in Philadelphia and  Creed, feeling betrayed and now based in Los Angeles, calls on the son of his father’s trainer (Wood Harris) to get him into physical shape. What he can’t do, however, is get him into the mental shape he needs to overcome his ghosts and, since the match takes place early in the film, it’s fairly obvious that issues will remain to be settled.

Battered by Viktor, Adonis, now a father (whose daughter has inherited mom’s hearing loss), has stepped away from the ring but needs to fight to retain his title. And there’s no prizes for guessing who his opponent has to be, this time, prompted by Apollo’s worldly-wise widow (Phylicia Rashad), with Rocky again by his side, taking him out of his gym comfort zone for some rough training in the desert.

Given he’s working from a formula that can be tweaked but not changed, even if the conventionally staged fights don’t have the same impact, Caple Jr does a solid enough job, working from, as one character notes, the premise that “the belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.” Or, in screenplay terms, faith.

Disappointingly, Bianca’s burgeoning music career subplot is dropped as soon as the baby’s born, though she does get to sing her husband into the ring in Russia (where he’s naturally the underdog) while Rocky’s guilt over his estrangement from his son and grandson plays a rather sentimental final card. However, but there’s plenty of reflection on the ways the legacies of fathers haunt their sons as well as the dynamic between masculinity and vulnerability, between both Rocky and Adonis and, although the backstory’s less subtle, Igor and Viktor, the former relentlessly driving his son, as a vehicle in reclaiming his own life (Rocky notes how Viktor’s been raised on hate), having become an outcast for embarrassing his country by losing to an American.

The film also draws comparisons to the way winners and losers are treated by their countries, Creed and his mother both living in luxury while Igor and Viktor are consigned to the drab environs of the Ukraine, only welcomed back into favour when they are of use to Russian propaganda. Rocky, of course, lives humbly in a modest house suburban house where the street lights don’t work, and still runs the restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian, where he makes pizza dough in the early hours. It doesn’t, ultimately, have that same electric jolt that Coogler applied to resuscitate the franchise, but there’s probably still enough juice to warrant another round. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

Again directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the second in a planned five part Wizarding World series, this has been the subject of some scathing reviews. Ignore those, there may be flaws, but otherwise this is not only a visual spectacular that often surpasses the original, but it also deepens characters  and ventures into some dark corners in regards to its themes of family and politics.

It does, however, take a while to find its feet and, if you’re not up to scratch with the minutiae of Rowling’s world, both in terms of this franchise and its links to the Potter series, then you might need a reference guide to keep up with the dizzying early going, which, otherwise, has a tendency to be incoherent.

Opening in 1927 New York, with the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald (a blonde-haired, pale-faced Johnny Depp on fine form complete with mismatched eyes) in prison after being captured by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, growing into the role in an increasingly complex manner) and his Tardis-like suitcase, only to escape, with the help of some turncoats, while being transported in a carriage drawn by Thestrals to stand trial in Europe. All of which happens in such a blur, it’s not always easy to keep up or work out what’s going on.

Grindlewald’s plan is to create a master race of pure-bloods who will rule both the wizarding and the human worlds, and to which end he is seeking out mystery man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who devastated Manhattan in the previous film and who, unaware of his true identity, is torn between good and evil. Meanwhile in London, having again been turned down for permission to travel internationally because he won’t take sides,  Newt busies himself looking after his menagerie of creatures (the living green twig Pickett and the Niffler, along with a bunch of babies, among them) with the help of the adoring Bunty (Victoria Yeates), when who should turn up but Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the dizzy dame sister of glamourous Ministry of Magic auror,  Tina (Katherine Waterston), with whom Newt’s secretly in love (but who has cooled towards him after a misunderdstanding), accompanied by her American Muggle boyfriend baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), whose obliviation in the last film is quickly (and not credibly) dismissed, only for the pair to have a spat after Newt lifts a spell, she then flouncing off in a  huff.

Enter Dumbledore (a tweedy, waistcoated Jude Law), at this point a young Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who reveals that both Grindlewald and Credence are in Paris but, for reasons explained later (and which link to the revelation of Albus’s sexuality), because he can’t move against the former, he wants Newt to go to France and deal with things.  Reluctantly, (and largely because Tina’s there) he agrees.

Around this point, the plot and its multiple storylines begin to gel. Credence is working in a freaks carnival in Paris with Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus destined to later become Lord Voldemort’s snake, and is being hunted by both Tina, the mysterious French-Senegalese Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a Ministry of Magic assassin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) whose loyalties may well lie elsewhere. The swelling character list involved in trying to solve Credence’s identity also includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s former Hogwarts crush, and  Newt’s brother, Thaddeus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry, and to whom she is now engaged. Added to this, there’s also aged alchemist Nicolas Flamel who gets to play a significant part in the final climactic showdown between those from the Ministry of Magic and Grindelwald and his acolytes.

Although it does take time out in the third act for a lengthy exposition scene in which everyone explains their connections to the other, the film generally gets on with delivering fast-paced, location switching action that involves a creature that resembles a Chinese New Year parade dragon, a fog shrouded London, underground vaults, the Ministry of Magic archives with its cat-like demon guardians, statues that serve as magical portals  and Père Lachaise Cemetery. And, of course, Hogwarts along with flashbacks to Dumbledore’s lessons with the young Newt. Indeed, the connections between the franchise and the Potter series begin to take very concrete shape, most especially in a reference to the Dumbledore line and phoenixes.

Aside from the films various complicated family relationships, in Grindelwald’s address to his followers Rowling also mines a strong political thread that, both in its rhetoric and visuals of a world at war he claims he wishes to avoid,  recalls the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, but also resonates with the climate in contemporary Europe. Both exhausting and exhilarating, it may at times confuse, but it never bores, setting up a wholly unexpected family crisis that promises a real cataclysm of a threequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Grinch (U)

Originally adapted in 1966 for TV, Dr. Seuss’s  children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas was given a live action treatment in 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey. The latest, produced under the Illumination banner,  returns to animation, shortening the title and giving it a contemporary music makeover with an R&B version of You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch, but hewing very closely to the spirit and look of the original, albeit replacing the Seuss doggerel rhymes with new versions as well as adding a new character with Christmas-crazy neighbour Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson).

You know the story, living alone on Mount Crumpit save for his loyal dog Max, the Grinch hates Christmas and, after 53 years, decides to put an end to it by stealing all the presents and decorations from every home in Whoville, only to have his heart (two sizes too small)  changed by little Who girl Cyndi-Lou. The book never gives a reason why he despises the festive season, but the Carrey film had him as misfit bullied at school and this version, in which the character’s winningly voiced in an American accent by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s because, as a young  orphan, he was left all alone one Christmas  and has never been happy since.  It also indicates that there’s some lingering human decency in him since he’s kind and compassionate toward Max and to Fred, the overweight reindeer he co-opts to pull his stolen sledge.

Bright and colourful with some highly detailed animation (especially the weave on the sweaters), it delivers its message about caring and kindness (here, the Grinch is redeemed when the button-nosed Cindy-Lou says she doesn’t want presents, just for her mom to be happy), the design of Whoville and the Grinch’s cave all wonderfully ramshackle, and throws in some sly touches for the grown-ups, such as the Grinch playing All By Myself a la Phantom of the Opera on a pipe organ and going on an emotional eating binge.  Go green. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)

Holmes and Watson (12A)

It would have taken a stupendous to surpass the banality and puerile crassness that characterised Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous teaming, Step Brothers, but, to their credit they and director Etan Cohen have made a sterling effort. Here they take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective duo who, when a  dead body is found baked in a party cake, stumble on a plot to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) inside Buckingham Palace, the murders being committed to look like the work of Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes in line reading mode)/ There seems little point elaborating the plot, given the writers didn’t both to, but suffice to say there’s a stream of gross out anachronistic slapstick (including an interminably dragged out gag about taking a selfie) that essentially portrays the unstoppable sleuths as buffoons and endless synonyms for onanism.

There are some saving graces, an early boarding schooldays scene showing how Holmes was bullied, leading him to becoming a cold fish, for one and Steve Coogan hoovers up what crumbs there are as one-armed tattoo artist, but Hugh Laurie is wasted as Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft and Reilly (so good as the voice of Wreck It Ralph) and Ferrell (so good, er, mmm) simply flap around like kids in a playpen indulging in supposedly hilarious political incorrectness. Downey and Cumberbatch both proved that you could bring wit to Holmes, but this doesn’t even touch on the elementary basics.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine,with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

 Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the  leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (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)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sorry To Bother You (15)

The debut of rapper turned writer-director Boots Riley, at the end of the day this Michel Gondry-inspired sociopolitical satire is a film built around an unsubtle word play. The word is workhorse and is applied here in a sort of body horror-comedy critique of the exploitation of the labour force and subsequent unionisation.

A rising star in the black firmament, Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius Green (pronounced Cash Is Green), a silver-tongued bullshitter who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson),  a performance artist who wears designer activist slogan earrings and twirls advertising signs on the sidewalk. He lands himself a cold calling telesales job with Regalview largely on the account of, as his boss puts it, he has initiative and he can read, where the overriding rule is Stick To The Script. He’s making no headway until his veteran co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) advises him to use his ‘white voice’. Soon (dubbed by David Cross), as conveyed by a montage of silly celebratory poses, he’s racking up the sales, with the promise by his supervisor, Johnny (Michael X. Sommers)  that he may one day graduate to the literal next level and enter the golden gates elevator to join the mythical Power Sellers.

There is, however, discontent among his fellow workers,  now including Detroit (white voiced by Lily James), who’s apparently put her career on hold,  led by militant unioniser  Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who organises a down phones walk-out. Cash is on-board until he’s then given promotion to the elite, at which point,  moved upstairs to work under the eye-patched Mr. (Omari Hardwick, white voiced by Patton Oswald), kitted out in smart new duds, raking in obscene earnings and moved to a swanky upmarket apartment, loyalty and solidarity go out of the window, along with his relationship with Detroit.

His rise to superstar earns him an invite to a party/orgy hosted by laid back sarong-clad, coke-fiend Steve Lift (a quietly hilarious Armie Hammer who accepts all of the accusations against him as a compliment), CEO of Clearview which runs Worry Free, a voluntary slave-labour colony system against which radical activist collective Left Eye are leading protests.  He sees an opportunity in Cash’s ability to get into people’s heads  part of his own organisation. However, as Cash discovers when he takes a wrong turn looking for the bathroom, not in the way he’d assumed, with Lift involved in what, to avoid spoilers, will be simply called Equus-Sapiens.  Things take a far darker and more violent turn as matters spin out of control

There’s the nub of a strong satire here on capitalism, selling out, self-serving ambition and  genetic science excess and, for a while, it works well. The problem is Riley overloads the film with visual trickery (the cold calls drop Cash’s desk into the homes of his marks) and things like the self-explanatory titled TV game show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me and how Cash becomes an internet sensation after being hit on the head by a protestor’s  soda can, leading to a sales boom in  bandaged-afro wigs which simply blunt the satirical edge the more wacky it all becomes. It doesn’t help either that the special effects, especially in the final scenes, look unfinished. Riley has a lot to say, it’s just unfortunate that so much of it gets lost in the noise.  (MAC)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of  Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Three Identical Strangers (12A)

In 1980, on his first day at college, Robert Shafran was unexpectedly greeted like an old friend by people he didn’t know and who called him Eddie. He figured out that, adopted as a baby, he must have an identical twin brother. In fact, he had two, Edward Galland and David Kellman. Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary begins with that first meeting and follows their talk show media celebrity path as they moved in together in Manhattan, and even made a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan, staring at  Madonna walking down the street. As you might imagine, they made the most of their identical looks, conning health insurance and women alike before they eventually all married, settled down and opened a restaurant called Triplets. They even met their birth mother for a drink, though  the reunion went little further. So far, so fairytale happy.

But then the documentary takes a darker turn as the brothers learn why they were separated, a  backstory that becomes more sinister and unsettling as it goes. On learning that  their adoptive sons had identical siblings, the respective parents were not unnaturally angry, but attempts to file a lawsuit were discouraged by the well-connected Jewish New York adoption agency, Louise Wise Services. That was hardly surprising since, in fact, the triplets had been deliberately separated as part of a psychological experiment by noted child psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, a  Holocaust refugee from Austria who seems to have had more in common with Nazi geneticists, who placed them placed them in different homes with carefully selected parents (affluent, middle-class, blue-collar) for a nature vs nurture study on child development and on parenting. Each set of parents were aware of this, but not that they weren’t the only guinea pigs. Indeed, as the brothers learned, they weren’t the only separated twins in Neubauer’s study, before he called an end to it in 1980 when it became too extensive. 

Yet this is clearly only the top of a horrifying and disturbing iceberg, the study results never being published and the file under seal at Yale University until 2066, raising the question as to what else is being kept hidden and who is being protected. (Mon/Tue: MAC)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060 

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza 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

Preview: The Cardigans, O2 Academy Birmingham

20 years after the release of their seminal album Gran Turismo, Swedish pop-rockers The Cardigans return to UK shores for a four-date tour including Birmingham’s 02 Academy on Thursday 6 December.

The Swedish electronic rock five-piece mark two decades since the release of the game-changing fourth album which features classic singles including ‘Hanging Around’, ‘Erase / Rewind’ and ‘My Favourite Game’, and catapulted the band to super-stardom.

Gran Turismo achieved Platinum status in UK, sold over 3 million copies worldwide and saw the band nominated for an astounding seven Grammi Awards in Sweden.

The band, fronted by vocalist Nina Persson, said ahead of the tour, “We are delighted to return to the UK in December. We believe it’s the first time since the summer of 2007. This time we’ll indulge in the late 90s playing Gran Turismo all the way through.”

Support each night comes from singer-songwriters Moto Boy and Jenny Wilson.

Tickets for The Cardigans on Thursday 6 December at O2 Academy Birmingham are available via the venue’s official site.

Words: Dave Breeze

Dan’n’Boo for Christmas

Birmingham-based/ Wolverhampton-born songwriter Dan Whitehouse concludes a busy year with his annual Christmas concert on Thursday 20 December 2018 at Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton.

The gig will see Dan, who has this year been on tour with The Little Unsaid, Gretchen Peters and Brumbeat legend Roy Wood, team up with writer, producer and label-mate Boo Hewerdine, as both artists perform separately, as well as together.

Dan Whitehouse and Boo Hewerdine
Singer-songwriters Dan Whitehouse and Boo Hewerdine

Says Dan: “I’ll be playing some new material from my forthcoming album produced by Boo as well as joining Boo on some of his material and playing songs from previous albums too. We promise collaboration, celebration and festive joy!”

Signed to Reveal Records (Joan As Police Woman, Lau), Dan is currently working on his next album – due for release later in 2019 and produced by Boo Hewerdine.

Having dropped live versions of The State Of The English (with guest Emily Barker) and The Aerial View (with synth player Tom Livemore and vocalist Harriet Harkcom) online, early indications point to a more experimental release from Dan, who picked up Best Folk/ Country Artist at the Birmingham Music Awards 2018 and has been described as playing “Black Country Soul.”

Boo came to prominence in the late-1980s with The Bible, going on to make his name as a solo artist, songwriter and producer. He’s currently preparing a new album and continuing to work with both Eddi Reader and Chris Difford.

Says Dan: “I always look forward to playing my hometown especially in December – it’s a great time of year and caps off another rewarding 12 months of making new music and touring.

“I’m especially looking forward to playing with Boo, who is one of my favourite songwriters.”

Dan Whitehouse and Boo Hewerdine play Newhampton Arts Centre (NAC), Wolverhampton, on Thursday 20 December 2018. For more information and tickets, see: www.newhamptonarts.co.uk

More on BrumNotes: Dan Whitehouse collaborates with Danielle Cawdell for Silence Set Me Free

 

Popular posts