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MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Oct 18-Thu Oct 24

NEW RELEASES

 

Zombieland: Double Tap (15)

A knowingly self-referencing sequel to the 2009 gleefully politically incorrect Shaun of the Dead-styled cult hit, narrated direct to the audience in voiceover by Jesse Eisenberg, this reunites the original characters, all named for their hometowns, neurotic rules-obsessed Columbus (Eisenberg), NRA poster boy redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), snarky, moody Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who, at the start of the film, decide to hole up in the White House. The zombies, as  a quick rundown and a nod to The Walking Dead explains, have evolved and, while there’s still the clueless Homers, there’s now seemingly indestructible T-800s, named, of course, after The Terminator in just one of the film’s countless pop-culture gags.

Less of a plot and more of a string of road movie encounters punctuated by a steady stream of hilarious, banter-riddled dialogue, things get underway when, Little Rock wanting to find someone her own age and Wichita nonplussed by Columbus’s proposal, the pair take off. However, when the former hooks up with  Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a pothead pacifist hippie – and worse, a musician – steals the car and heads out for a like-minded safety zone community called Babylon (after the David Grey song), Wichita returns to the fold to get help finding her, except, in her brief absence, Columbus has acquired himself  a dumb-blonde pink-clad airhead girlfriend named Madison (a terrific scene stealing Zoey Deutch) who’s been hiding out in a Mall freezer, rather naturally making for somewhat awkward tension between him and Wichita as they all set off  after Little Rock, a journey that will take them to a decayed Graceland and an Elvis museum saloon run by the feisty Elvis-obsessed Nevada (Rosario Dawson) and a brief encounter with Columbus and Tallahassee’s mirror images, monster truck driving Alpha-male Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and the twitchy Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch) before the final apocalyptic showdown with a horde of T-800s.

Barely a second goes by without some quip, sarcastic put down or visual gag, hitting the target more often than not, among them Elvis’s blue suede shoes, the animated on screen appearance of Columbus’s rules, a running gag about their minivan, a throwaway Zombie Kill of the Year moment, and an amusing revelation about the fate of Bill Murray. Yes, it essentially plays as a rerun of the original with some added quirky characters, but written by Deadpool duo Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, directed by Venom’s Ruben Fleischer and gleefully acted by all concerned with tongues firmly in cheek,  it has verve, energy, irreverent hilarity and, of course, copious amounts of head-popping gore. All topped off with an inspired surprise cameo credits sequence.  Like the zombies, switch off your brain and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)

Having made his spin-off big screen debut in 2015, Aardman Animation’s woolly mischief-maker returns to raise the baa with a second family friendly claymation feature (the title both a typical bad pun but also the name of a haunted house attraction at Farmer Ted’s in Ormskirk) to delight all ages, all without barely  a single distinguishable word of dialogue.  Life on Mossy Bottom Farm is pretty much business as usual with the farmer’s wardrobe not having extended beyond jumper and red underpants and his dog, Bitzer, clamping down on every attempt by Shaun to engage  in any non-sheep activities, one of which, involving  Frisbee, ends up in wrecking the combine harvester.

Meanwhile, in the woods, on the way back from the chippy, a man sees an alien spacecraft land, emerging from it a cute kiddie alien with big floppy telekinetic-power ears  and a talent for vocal imitation who, it transpires, is called Lu-La and who, playing around back on her own planet, accidentally managed to trigger the family spaceship and has ended up on Earth.

Discovered by Shaun hiding out in the barn and eating his pizza, the thrust of the story is he, the flock and, eventually, Bitzer, trying to help her return home to her parents, meaning they first have to find the device that powers the ship, the problem being that she’s been hunted by the men in yellow from the Ministry of Alien Detection and, for reasons of  her own, their alien obsessed boss. Meanwhile, all the talk of aliens has created a local media buzz, attracting all manner of UFO seekers, something Farmer looks to cash in on by getting the sheep to build  him a  sci-fi theme park, Farmageddon, and charging £30 a pop for admission so he can buy his new dream harvester.

As you would expect, the film is stuffed with sci-fi movie references, notably nodding to the monolith moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the coded notes of Close Encounters, the X-Files music and even an appearance by Doctor Who (Tom Baker version) with a portaloo Tardis. On top of which you get a reminder not to overdo those sugar-rush drink, a running gag about poor mobile phone reception in the countryside while the tacky Farmageddon itself nods to all those shoddy pop-up Santa experience rip-offs.

Making up for inspired silent-movie styled physical comedy for what it lacks in dialogue, while subtle claymation facial features  impart a wide range of emotional responses, this is glorious and very British fun. Shear enjoyment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

The first film took the story of Sleeping Beauty and the evil fairy Maleficent well beyond the fairy tale and Disney’s own animated telling, telling  events from the latter’s perspective and giving her her wings back and a moral makeover in her love for the princess Aurora, returning the Moors to their magical glory and making her god-daughter Queen.

Set five years on, this takes it even further into Game of Thrones territory (one of several obvious influences alongside Lord of the Rings and Avatar) as, not best pleased to learn from Aurora (an impossibly rosy-cheeked pale but interesting Elle Fanning) that she has accepted the somewhat interrupted marriage proposal by Prince Phillip (a charisma-free Harris Dickinson replacing Brenton Thwaites) and, invited to a meet the parents dinner at the palace by King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) throws a  stupendous tantrum when the latter says Aurora will now have a real mother, seemingly leaving the King comatose in a curse. Flying off,  she is, however, shot down  and sent crashing into the river by the palace guards using iron missiles, a never previously mentioned weakness  that, along with the fact a deadly toxin is made from flowers that bloom on the graves of dead fairies, is just one of several narrative contrivances.

All this, as the film is quick to explain, has to do with the scheming, obsessed Ingrith’s plan to start a war between the humans and the fey who live in the Moors so she can destroy their kind forever. What she hadn’t counted on  was Maleficent being saved by the introduction of an origin story involving her hitherto unseen kin of fellow winged and horned Dark Fey, among them peace wanting Connall (Chiwetel  Ejiofor) and the more belligerent Borra (Ed Skein), setting the stage for  Ingrith’s intended genocide by luring them and the  inhabitants  of the Moors (among them returning fluttery fairies Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) to the palace for the wedding – and their destruction.

While often undeniably enchanting in its depiction of the assorted fairy folk and other magical beings, given some truly dark moments and brutal deaths, at times reminiscent of Nazi atrocities, this is likely to give younger audiences  decidedly sleepless nights, not to mention  having them confused over its revisionist account of the infamous spinning wheel and its needle.

Sporting her horned headpiece, black wings and chiselled alabaster cheekbones, the strikingly formidable Jolie plays it to the max yet still managing to not tip things over into excessive camp while, in what is basically a showdown between competing power-dressing alpha mothers-in-law that climaxes in a humdinger of a battle, Pfeiffer delivers icy ruthlessness with aplomb, largely leaving the rest of the cast, a somewhat bland Fanning included, in their shadow with only Sam Riley as Maleficent’s  shape shifting sidekick raven Diaval not being eclipsed.

On a basic level, it’s all of an overly busy, overlong and often incoherent if visually dazzling mess in search of a story and complete with  final scene of a maternal Maleficent that should never have left the editing room, but  there’s no denying there are still copious pleasures here. And those cheekbones.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Official Secrets (15)

In 2003, as the Blair government prepared to join the United States in a war on Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Katharine Gun (Kiera Knightley), a British GCHQ translator, read a memo sent by a high ranking American official about monitoring  certain members of the UK Security Council so they could obtain material they could use to blackmail them into voting in favour of a war. Her conscience troubled by the fact that Tony Blair was lying to the British public about the threat Hussein posed  (“Just because you’re Prime Minister, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!”  she rails at the TV even more reading the memo) and that the United States was trying to strongarm its way into a second Gulf War, she leaked the memo to an anti-war activist friend and it eventually found its way into the hands of Martin Bright (Matt Smith), an investigative reporter at The  Observer, a  paper which, up to that point, had been supporting the government’s stance.

When, after validating its authenticity, they ran a front page splash about US dirty tricks, an investigation as to the whistleblower naturally followed with Gun, to save her  co-workers being put under constant pressure and surveillance,  eventually declaring what she had done (noting that her loyalty was to the British public not the British government), and that she had acted to try and prevent an illegal war and save potentially thousands of lives. She did so knowing that she could be imprisoned for breaking the Official Secrets Act and potentially putting her immigrant husband  Yasar (Adam Bakri),a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, at risk of being deported, a situation prompting a  race against the clock sequence here that may or may not be dramatic licence.

Give it’s all public record, it’s no spoiler to say that no less dramatic but entirely true is the fact that, less than half an hour into her trial, the prosecutor announced they were withdrawing all charges, the reasons having to do with damaging information her lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) had gathered about Lord Goldsmith’s volte face to declare the war legal.

Directed and co-written by Gavin Hood, while no All The President’s Men or, indeed Vice, which also addressed the manipulation of the war,  and far less flashy than either, it is a solid political conspiracy thriller about events that continue to reverberate and provoke righteous outrage about the collusion between Bush and Blair to blatantly lie about weapons of mass destruction and imminent threat (an Official Secrets Act loophole Gun’s lawyers used to validate her actions in practical terms) to justify the war. It does sag slightly midway, but once the decision to charge Gun is made, the urgency,  intensity and the sense of threat (notably in her meeting  with a Scotland Yard inspector) crank up. Supported by a dishevelled Rhys Ifans as The Observer’s vocally volatile  D.C. correspondent Ed Vulliamy, Matthew Goode as Bright’s war-correspondent colleague Peter Beaumont and Conleth Hill as the paper’s  truculent editor Roger Alton, it’s Knightley’s well-nuanced performance, part moral indignation, part scared and vulnerable, that lift the film and keeps you engaged, even if you know how it all ended.  Here, as Gun, she declares that her only regret in doing what she did was that she failed. To stop the war perhaps, but to open the public’s eyes to the duplicity and corruption of their governments, far from it. And a reminder to be careful of using spellcheck. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Peanut Butter Falcon (12A)

Clearly informed with the spirit of Mark Twain (who is referenced in the dialogue), this charming tale of a growing friendship between two society outsiders could prove the year’s biggest sleeper indie hit in much the same way that films like Juno and The Station Agent did before.

Dumped in an underfunded Richmond nursing home after being dumped by his parents,  Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a wrestling-obsessed Down syndrome 22-year-old is constantly trying to escape, finally managing to run off into the night, clad in only his underpants, with the help of  his aged, slyly surly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern).

Hiding out under a  canvas sheet on a boat belonging to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled crab fisherman who’s poaching from fellow fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf),when Tyler’s forced to take off  after setting fire to his rivals’ traps, the accidental buddies find themselves embarking on an odyssey by foot and raft down the Southeast coast after the initially reluctant Tyler promises to take him to a wrestling school in the Florida bayou run by his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church). On the run, Tyler’s being pursued by Duncan and Ratboy looking for revenge while Zak’s volunteer carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), has been ordered to find him and take him back.

As crafted by writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, it charts a well-worn coming of age, self-worth discovery road movie path with the friendship growing between the two unlikely travelling companions through their shared feelings of worthlessness and isolation as they head for their destination, try and evade their pursuers, encounter assorted adventures and eccentrics along the way and Zak takes up the wrestling name of the title.  The comedy is gentle and affectionate, with only Zak ever mentioning his affliction, poignantly describing  how he’s referred to as a retard but never losing his resolve or determination to follow his dream while, as self-appointed protector, Tyler gets to come to terms with the guilt that’s been haunting him. Eleanor’s impulsive decision to join them on the  journey feels a touch narratively contrived, but the blossoming romance between her and Tyler and the building of a new family is never forced. The chemistry between the two leads feels organic and genuine, their banter and interaction of an improvisational nature, a guileless La Boef  winningly low key as the irascible but warm-hearted Tyler while the more extrovert Gottsagen, with his good-natured humour and emotional nuances, engages empathy without ever asking for pity. It has a simple charm that lingers long after the end credits.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Wed: Mockingbird)

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Abominable (U)

Essentially E.T., but white and furry in marketable plush fashion, this latest from Dreamworks animation opened well in the States, but its success is likely more down to a dearth of other family films rather than any inherent charm. Escaping from the laboratory where it’s being held captive, a young Yeti fetches up on the roof of the Shanghai building where teen loner Yi (Chloe Bennett from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who, real name Wang,  is, in fact American Chinese) lives with her widowed mother and gran, the latter frequently hidden behind the mountain of pork dumplings she’s constantly  cooking. Soothing the creature with her late father’s violin (which she claims to have sold), Yi, with the help of vain childhood friend med student Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, a direct relation to the Sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his 1953 Everest climb) and his nerdy cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) who live downstairs,  sets out to take Everest, the name they’ve given their new chum, back to his home in the Himalayas, travelling across China on a  journey her dad always meant to take.  However, they’re being chased by a zoologist, Dr Zara (Sarah Poulson), who sports a pet gerbil on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot and works for Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an aged collector who wants to prove yetis exist to  dispel the humiliation he’s suffered for years, and has ordered her and his strongarm hirelings to recapture the creature. Although, it turns out Zara has her own agenda.

Pitched very much at younger kids, it’s all very predictable and, with its repetitive chase sequences, at times, somewhat dull. However, when not focused on the plot as such, the landscapes, including a musical interlude time out (cue Coldplay’s Fix You) at  a 233-ft tall cliffside Buddha carved during the Tang dynasty, and the fact that Everest has magical powers to control nature offer some moments of ravishing beauty (and an attack by giant blueberries, prompting one of the film’s butt jokes) as the film dutifully ticks off life lessons about friendship, family, and finding your place in the world.  Trailing the far more enjoyable Smallfoot, this has its heart in the right place but seems unlikely leave much of a  footprint in the box office snow.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ad Astra (12A)

Basically Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues,  director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.

The son of fabled veteran  astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in  his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the  International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.

At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune  in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard,  to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows,  to ostensibly send  a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.

In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating  his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father,  the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.

As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons,  and Roy’s need to escape from Mars,  it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of  Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that  setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

The Day Shall Come (15)

Nine years on from his audacious  failed suicide bombers  farce Four Lions, writer-director Chris Morris returns with an equally sharp but somewhat slighter political satire the thrust of which can be basically boiled down to the FBI inventing terrorist plots (“pitch me the next 9/11”) to foil and preventing  staged fake attempted bombings  to make themselves look good, supplying and paying for all the drugs, guns and supposed nuclear explosives deemed necessary. Their unwitting mark is Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis) a delusional (he  talks to God through a  duck and at one point he’s convinced God is acting through his horse), off his medication wannabe prophet and revolutionary incensed at the gentrification of   Miami and resolved to overturn the “accidental dominance of the white people”. Or at least get enough money to save his farm. His Star of Six army, however, comprises  just four people, two deadpan sidekicks (Andrel McPherson,  ), his wife (Danielle Brooks) and young daughter. And, preaching non-violence, he refuses to use any weapons other than sticks and a toy crossbow.

So, he’s prime fodder to be set up by ambitious South Beach FBI agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and her bumbling boss (Denis O’Hare), who set up a sting whereby an undercover agent poses as an IS representative offering Moses a ton of cash and Kalishnioakovs (he tried to defer accepting the guns) which further extends to supplying him with fake nuclear devices to sell on to a neo-Nazi group so he can then be arrested for terrorism. The further the innocent and oblivious Moses is pulled in, the more ludicrous it all becomes, leading to the incompetent and casually callous FBI having to declare  a non-existent nuclear emergency so they can stop it, and radicalising a bunch of harmless oddballs along the way.

At one point, an over-enthusiastic cop asks, faced with an unarmed white man and unarmed black man, which is more likely to have gun which gives an idea of the thin line the film knowingly walks between satire and reality, just as the buffoonish actions of those supposedly in charge of keeping the world safe are as scary as they are wickedly funny.

Stuffed with barbed lines and ridiculous scenarios, nonetheless it makes some earnestly serious observations about the post 9/11 world and the bureaucratic need to invent enemies to  citizenry, wisely never overstretching the plot and reeling it all in at a succinct 87 minutes and final what happened after ironic credits punch that goes a long way to explaining the mentality that put Trump in the White House. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gemini Man (12A)

Giving a wholly literal meaning to the phrase about being your own worst enemy, the storyline has been knocking around for over 20 years when it was originally down to eb a Tont Scott film, the intervening years having seen other directors and the likes of  Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson supposedly attached. Finally, it lands in the lap of Ang Lee  with Will Smith as DIA  sharpshooter hitman Henry Brogan who, now 51, and carrying increasingly heavy baggage over the 72 kills he’s made, decides to retire to his home in Georgia after one last shot, lying in a  field and taking out a Russian bioterrorist who’s aboard a train speeding across Belgium. However, shortly after, he meets up with an old friend and fellow assassin who provides intel that the target wasn’t  what he was told and next thing he knows his former agency, led by  cold fish Lassister (Linda Emond) are trying to kill him.

Going on the run with Baron (Benedict Wong), another old colleague and crack pilot, and Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding  her ground in what is little more than an appendage role), the  DIA agent who’d been assigned to  run surveillance on him, they head to Cartegena where  he’s attacked by an assassin despatched by his former mentor Clay Verris (Clive Owen creaking through the rote self-justifying bad guy), who now runs high-tech mercenary agency Gemini,  and who turns out to look like a younger version of himself. In fact, that’s exactly what he is, a perfect DNA match Brogan clone created by Verris  and raised – and trained- as his ‘son’.

It’s an interesting narrative idea, but, ultimately, while loosely touching on themes of nature vs nurture, alienation and technology out of control,  there’s not too much you can do with it other than have the older Brogan try and prevent Junior (a computer-generated Fresh Prince era Smith) from making the same life choices mistakes he did and nudge him down the path of redemption.

The relatively thin,  predictable and logically flawed cat and mouse plot with its wooden expositionary dialogue are, however, greatly enhanced by Lee shooting   at a high frames per second rate, giving it incredibly fine detail and amping up the intensity of the many action sequences, including Junior taking on Henry using  motorbike as a weapon. Plus of course the sight of Will Smith fighting Will Smith, both delivering soulful performances, although the older version gets all the quips.  The five months later coda feels awkwardly tacked on and the film fizzles out rather than ending, but even so, the action races along and delivers enough of a  thrill to keep you engaged. Even so, it’s not the same as seeing Captain America battle himself in Endgame. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Goldfinch (15)

Predicted to be one of the biggest flops in cinema history, while it has its flaws it’s hard to fathom why American audiences didn’t flock watch the birdy. However, likely more discerning literary-minded viewers here will better embrace this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning serendipitous novel. Opening with his adult self (Ansel Elgort) washing blood from his shirt and lining up a fatal overdose in his hotel room, the film flashes back to 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) admiring both the titular 17th century painting of a chained bird by Fabritius and the girl standing next to him at  the  New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bombing kills his mother, leading to him being taken in by the wealthy family of   nerdy schoolfriend Andy (Ryan Foust) where he grows close to art-loving matriarch Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman in familiar chilly mode). He also strikes up a friendship with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antique furniture restorer whose business partner was killed in in the same explosion and who is now guardian to his granddaughter, Pippa (Aimée Lawrence), the girl from the museum who also suffered trauma.

However, just at the point it seems likely the Barbours will adopt him, his errant father Larry (Luke Wilson) re-emerges along with his trashy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and carts him off to an otherwise unoccupied road at the edge of the desert where he strikes up a friendship with fellow outsider Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian whose abusive father’s work has seen him move from country to country, who introduces him to both drink and drugs, the latter for which he develops  a particular fondness.  But then yet another family upheaval sees him flee back to New York where he reunites with Hobie and, as the film switches focus to the adult Theo, become his new salesman partner cum surrogate son and, eventually become engaged to the Barbour’s daughter, Kitsy (Willa Fitzgerald). Through all of this, Theo carries with him a yellow bag contaiing a package wrapped in newspaper, which he clutches close when in need of comfort. Inside is the Fabritius painting, a link to his mother but also a mark of the guilt he feels about her death. How he came to take it and obtain the ring he first presents to Hobie are explained towards the end, by which time Theo is being threatened by a client (Denis O’Hare) to whom he sold a doctored ‘antique’ and who has worked out that he has the painting, which has apparently been used as collateral by a Miami drug gang.

It’s a tangled storyline into which also arrives the now grown Boris (Aneurin Barnard) whose dodgy dealings have made him quite a success as well as the return of Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) to a life reforged but build on deceptions, just as his impending marriage is looking more about the head than the heart.  However, despite the fractured narrative and, even if things slip into the melodramatic in the last act, director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan keep you involved and wanting to know where Theo’s journey is taking him and what has led him there, the strong core performances carrying it over some of the more uneven patches and the admittedly emotional coldness for much of its running time. At the end of the day, it warrants ignoring the sour word of mouth and giving it your trust.  (MAC)

Hitsville: The Making of Motown (12A)

Unquestionably the most iconic, most successful and most influential record company in the history of black music, Motown was founded by Berry Gordy, a Detroit kid and budding entrepreneur who saw no reason why blacks and whites couldn’t share a love of the same music. A budding songwriter, he borrowed $800 from his father and sisters and acquired a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, joined forces with a guy named Smokey Robinson and changed the face of music. Taking its title from the name given the label’s home as well as the punch line in the company song (sung, after other embarrassed former employees demur, claiming to have forgotten the lines, by the two men over the end credits), this documentary by British filmmakers Ben and Gabe Turner charts how the label, modelled on the Ford Motor Company production line where Gordy worked, became an assembly line turning out hit records and stars in a well machined manner with company divisions all responsible for certain aspects. Archive sound recordings of company meetings (such as Gordy, Robinson and A&R head as Mickey Stephenson arguing over releases) and vintage footage of recording sessions are just part of this fascinating insight that includes rare film of The Temptations rehearsing My Guy, electrifying film of the young Michael Jackson and Diana Ross performing two very different live takes on You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You on a Motown Revue tour, a song that almost saw her and Gordy parting company.

It doesn’t touch on her decision to quit The Supremes or other darker moments like Marvin Gaye’s murder or David Ruffin’s drug problems and prison terms but it doesn’t shy away from how Stevie Wonder demanded his the terms of relationship with the label be rewritten when he turned 21 so he could do what he wanted or how Gordy, who remarks how he only gave artists freedom within certain parameters, didn’t want Gaye to go protest with What’s Goin’ On. However, while personal politics and issues of behind the scenes control are interesting, it’s the way the film brings the creation of the music alive and forgotten facts such as how I Heard It Through The Grapevine was a No 1 for Gladys Knight before Gaye, who originally only released it on an album before going on to become the label’s biggest selling record ever, that the Supremes had a  string of flops before they recorded You Can’t Hurry Love after Martha Reeves had turned it down or, indeed that a pre-Buffalo Springfield Neil Young was signed to the label as part of The Mynah Birds fronted by Rick James. Essential viewing for anyone with even the vaguest interest in the history of modern music.  (Mon:Mac)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar a foregone conclusion, chances are that, having triumphed at Venice,  this will also make strong running for Best Film and Todd Phillips as Best Director. Darker, both tonally and morally, than even that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it does not arrive without controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing  a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Franes Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a  neurological  condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourettes. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a  bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting  a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harrass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who,  here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.

An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.

Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Judy (12A)

Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play End of the Rainbow about the last months of Judy Garland’s life when she played a colourfully variable season at London’s Talk of the Town (sometimes dazzling, sometimes drunk) , inevitably, directed by  Rupert Goold and written by first timer Tom Edge, reality and what you see on screen are often very different things. Certainly she was pelted with food by the audience when she appeared late, drunk and slurring, but it’s unlikely, even as a gay icon,  she ever went back to  a flat shared by two gay fans (for post-show scrambled eggs and the final scene where they boost her in time of mid-song crisis is most certainly fiction. That said, this is very faithful in portraying the desperate loneliness and insecurity that crippled the former child star of The Wizard of Oz, even if Rene Zellweger’s electrifying, note perfect (and inevitably Oscar scooping) performance is far better than the film that contains it.

Opening the story at the tail end of 1968, deep in debt Garland return to her hotel from a show (for which she’s paid the princely sum of $150) featuring her youngest  children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she’s informed she’s been thrown out because of her unpaid bills. With nowhere else to go, she winds up at the home of her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), with whom’s she’s involved in a  custody wrangle, who makes it very clear what he thinks of her parenting.

Given her reputation of being difficult and unreliable, if she wants  to raise the money she needs to keep her children, she has to accept a five week season at the Talk of the Town, under impresario Bernard Delfont (Michale Gambon), although the kids have to remain behind.

Arriving in London, she’s feted as a superstar, but a combination of crippling insecurity, insomnia, pills and drink, leave her refusing to rehearse and having to be frog marched on to the stage by exasperated but sympathetic (real) production assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) where, once in the spotlight, she knocks them dead with a rendition of  I’ll Go My Way by Myself. It’s kind of downhill from that point, hitting rock bottom when her impulsive brief marriage to the much younger  Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a chancer with an eye on making a  fortune off her name, blows up in her face and she’s sacked. On top of which, Luft turns up with some unwelcome news about what the children have decided for their future.

All this is regularly punctuated with flashbacks to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) who, as Dorothy Gale won the world’s hearts with Over The Rainbow, but was bullied and verbally (and it was  rumoured sexually) abused by tyrannical movie mogul Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery)  who, to get what wanted on camera had her dosed up with appetite suppressants to keep her thing, amphetamines to keep her awake and sleeping pills for her anxiety-induced insomnia, an addiction that stayed with her as she grew, compounded by alcoholism. If you weren’t already aware Garland’s nightmare existence at MGM, from which she was eventually ‘let go’ in 1950, this is a real wake up call., and further serves to elicit empathy and understanding when you see the adult Judy acts like a diva and collapsing into self-destruction.

The problem is that Zellweger’s performance is so intense, so fierce and so compelling, and her self-performed musical numbers so exhilarating, that the film around her pales into a somewhat rote biopic of underwritten supporting characters (though Buckley does emerge with honours) with brief interactions between Garland and  the likes of daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Talk of the Town musical arranger Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson,  skiffle star Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgleish), whose show she most definitely did not usurp as seen here, and, as her younger self, frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, a potential young romance rejected here in favour of the roar of the crowd.

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Last Tree (15)

Adopting the same child to man tripartite structure as Moonlighting and also concerning with questions of identity and culture, writer-director Shola Amoo weaves an at times dreamlike spell across his semi-autobiographical account of a young Nigerian-British boy’s coming of age and journey of self-discovery.

Femi (an endearing Tai Golding) is first introduced living an idyllic life with his white foster ‘nan’ Mary (Denise Black) in rural Lincolnshire, playing happily with his white schoolmates. But then his  mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) resurfaces and takes him away to live with her in a cramped tower block in inner city London where she imposes strict parenting, feeding him Nigerian food and beating him for any transgression while the other boys in his class mock his full name (Olufemi), getting him into trouble on his first day. Transition via a flickering screen to his teenage years (now played by Sam Adewunmi) and, feeling doubly betrayed by his foster and his birth mother,  he’s hanging with a  bad crowd, has developed an attitude and is failing in school. He’s a prime recruit as apprentice in waiting for slightly older smalltime drug dealer Mace (Demmy Ladipo) in what increasingly seems to be the only option open to him.

It will take an attraction to fellow outsider, blue braided Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), who has her own issues with race and bullying, some tough love by his mother, an understanding dedicated teacher (Nicholas Pinnock), a return visit to Mary and a somewhat contrived trip to Lagos to finally meet his arrogant Christian pastor father before he can comes to terms with his heritage, his family, himself and who he wants to and could be

Amoo offers subtle indications of the confusion Femi feels, such as posters of Tupac on his bedroom wall and The Cure on his Walkman, and Adewunmi captures all this with a seething internalised performance that only really erupts in a moment of uncontained anger and another molten catharsis.  Ikumelo is excellent too in brining empathy to a figure who initially comes across as unsympathetic in her harsh treatment of her son, Amoo gradually revealing the paths she’s had to also journey. On the downside, the Tobe relationship doesn’t really go anywhere and the attempts to humanise Mace by suggesting he has turned to what he does as the only option to look after his family never really gel with the subsequent brutality he has dished out. At times bearing an early Ken Loach influence, at others, especially in the final stretch, that of Truffaut, juggling the poetic with harsh realism, this is an insightful; and important film, even if the title remains a mystery. (Until Wed: MAC)

Rambo: Last Blood  (18)

Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet  for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed  by a  supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier,  tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a  bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by  Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.

However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a  sort of grislier version of Home Alone.

There’s  a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls  of pills), and is duly let  loose for yet another killing spree.  With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.

The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard  revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending  a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off  the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Or Not (18)

When orphaned Grace (Samara Weaving) married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), scion of the blueblood Le Domas games dynasty, she never thought till death us do part would apply so literally or so soon.  As part of the initiation into the family, at midnight new members are required to play one of the many games the family has devised or marketed over the years. And everyone has to abide by the rules, established by the great grandfather Victor in a deal with mysterious benefactor Le Bail, so as to avoid unspecified consequences. The card the new arrival most certainly does not want to draw is hide and seek. Which unfortunately, is precisely what Grace does, for the first time since the events of the 30-years earlier prologue.  She just has to stay hidden until dawn. The problem is that, while her husband, only just returned to the family fold, demurs and tries to help,  everyone else in the family, armed to the teeth with old-time crossbows, axes and guns,   is required to hunt her down so she can become  ritual sacrifice in the ‘games room’. So now, Grace, still in her full and increasingly torn and bloodied wedding get-up has to try and avoid demented patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny), Alex’s indifferent mother  (Andie MacDowell), ambivalent black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his sisters, cokehead  Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and the ill-named Charity  (Elyse Levesque),  her  numbskull husband  Fitch (Kristiann Bruun) and,  looking like a refugee from the Addams Family, the coldblooded Aunt Helene (a gloweringly wonderful Nicky Guadagni),  not to mention Emilie’s two kids and the butler (John Ralston), and stay alive. Something the   three maids, through a series of mishaps, find rather harder to accomplish. If she succeeds, legend has it that the family, in some sort of diabolic deal, will pay the price instead.

Essentially, this is another in spooky house cat and mouse genre, but, as written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it marries the often bloody horror with the sort of sardonic  Gothic pastiche that distinguished the likes of  What We Do in the Shadows and  Tucker and Dale Meet Evil, the gallows humour (notably a scene involving Grace trying to steal a car that’s overriden by the service agent) increasing along with the blood and a rather gruesome encounter with the Goat Pit as it gathers to its confessedly Heathers-inspired climax.

You can read it as social/class satire, but it’s best enjoyed by just sitting back and watch the excellent, playing it knowingly straight Weaving transform from wide-eyed blonde to fuck you female rage and delivering the final line with crowd applauding aplomb.  (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  – 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 Oct 11-Thu Oct 17

 

Gemini Man (12A)

Giving a wholly literal meaning to the phrase about being your own worst enemy, the storyline has been knocking around for over 20 years when it was originally down to eb a Tont Scott film, the intervening years having seen other directors and the likes of  Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson supposedly attached. Finally, it lands in the lap of Ang Lee  with Will Smith as DIA  sharpshooter hitman Henry Brogan who, now 51, and carrying increasingly heavy baggage over the 72 kills he’s made, decides to retire to his home in Georgia after one last shot, lying in a  field and taking out a Russian bioterrorist who’s aboard a train speeding across Belgium. However, shortly after, he meets up with an old friend and fellow assassin who provides intel that the target wasn’t  what he was told and next thing he knows his former agency, led by  cold fish Lassister (Linda Emond) are trying to kill him.

Going on the run with Baron (Benedict Wong), another old colleague and crack pilot, and Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding  her ground in what is little more than an appendage role), the  DIA agent who’d been assigned to  run surveillance on him, they head to Cartegena where  he’s attacked by an assassin despatched by his former mentor Clay Verris (Clive Owen creaking through the rote self-justifying bad guy), who now runs high-tech mercenary agency Gemini,  and who turns out to look like a younger version of himself. In fact, that’s exactly what he is, a perfect DNA match Brogan clone created by Verris  and raised – and trained- as his ‘son’.

It’s an interesting narrative idea, but, ultimately, while loosely touching on themes of nature vs nurture, alienation and technology out of control,  there’s not too much you can do with it other than have the older Brogan try and prevent Junior (a computer-generated Fresh Prince era Smith) from making the same life choices mistakes he did and nudge him down the path of redemption.

The relatively thin,  predictable and logically flawed cat and mouse plot with its wooden expositionary dialogue are, however, greatly enhanced by Lee shooting   at a high frames per second rate, giving it incredibly fine detail and amping up the intensity of the many action sequences, including Junior taking on Henry using  motorbike as a weapon. Plus of course the sight of Will Smith fighting Will Smith, both delivering soulful performances, although the older version gets all the quips.  The five months later coda feels awkwardly tacked on and the film fizzles out rather than ending, but, nevertheless, the action races along and delivers enough of a  thrill to keep you engaged. Even so, it’s not the same as seeing Captain America battle himself in Endgame. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Abominable (U)

Essentially E.T. but white and furry in marketable plush fashion, this latest from Dreamworks animation opened well in the States, but its success is likely more down to a dearth of other family films rather than any inherent charm. Escaping from the laboratory where it’s being held captive, a young Yeti fetches up on the roof of the Shanghai building where teen loner Yi (Chloe Bennett from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who, real name Wang,  is, in fact American Chinese) lives with her widowed mother and gran, the latter frequently hidden behind the mountain of pork dumplings she’s constantly  cooking. Soothing the creature with her late father’s violin (which she claims to have sold), Yi, with the help of vain childhood friend med student Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, a direct relation to the Sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his 1953 Everest climb) and his nerdy cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) who live downstairs,  sets out to take Everest, the name they’ve given their new chum, back to his home in the Himalayas, travelling across China on a  journey her dad always meant to take.  However, they’re being chased by a zoologist, Dr Zara (Sarah Poulson), who sports a pet gerbil on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot and works for Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an aged collector who wants to prove yetis exist to  dispel the humiliation he’s suffered for years, and has ordered her and his strongarm hirelings to recapture the creature. Although, it turns out Zara has her own agenda.

Pitched very much at younger kids, it’s all very predictable and, with its repetitive chase sequences, at times, somewhat dull. However, when not focused on the plot as such, the landscapes, including a musical interlude time out (cue Coldplay’s Fix You) at  a 233-ft tall cliffside Buddha carved during the Tang dynasty, and the fact that Everest has magical powers to control nature offer some moments of ravishing beauty (and an attack by giant blueberries, prompting one of the film’s butt jokes) as the film dutifully ticks off life lessons about friendship, family, and finding your place in the world.  Trailing the far more enjoyable Smallfoot, this has its heart in the right place but seems unlikely leave much of a  footprint in the box office snow.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Day Shall Come (15)

Nine years on from his audacious  failed suicide bombers  farce Four Lions, writer-director Chris Morris returns with an equally sharp but somewhat slighter political satire the thrust of which can be basically boiled down to the FBI inventing terrorist plots (“pitch me the next 9/11”) to foil and preventing  staged fake attempted bombings  to make themselves look good, supplying and paying for all the drugs, guns and supposed nuclear explosives deemed necessary. Their unwitting mark is Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis) a delusional (he  talks to God through a  duck and at one point he’s convinced God is acting through his horse), off his medication wannabe prophet and revolutionary incensed at the gentrification of   Miami and resolved to overturn the “accidental dominance of the white people”. Or at least get enough money to save his farm. His Star of Six army, however, comprises  just four people, two deadpan sidekicks (Andrel McPherson,  ), his wife (Danielle Brooks) and young daughter. And, preaching non-violence, he refuses to use any weapons other than sticks and a toy crossbow.

So, he’s prime fodder to be set up by ambitious South Beach FBI agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and her bumbling boss (Denis O’Hare), who set up a sting whereby an undercover agent poses as an IS representative offering Moses a ton of cash and Kalishnioakovs (he tried to defer accepting the guns) which further extends to supplying him with fake nuclear devices to sell on to a neo-Nazi group so he can then be arrested for terrorism. The further the innocent and oblivious Moses is pulled in, the more ludicrous it all becomes, leading to the incompetent and casually callous FBI having to declare  a non-existent nuclear emergency so they can stop it, and radicalising a bunch of harmless oddballs along the way.

At one point, an over-enthusiastic cop asks, faced with an unarmed white man and unarmed black man, which is more likely to have gun which gives an idea of the thin line the film knowingly walks between satire and reality, just as the buffoonish actions of those supposedly in charge of keeping the world safe are as scary as they are wickedly funny.

Stuffed with barbed lines and ridiculous scenarios, nonetheless it makes some earnestly serious observations about the post 9/11 world and the bureaucratic need to invent enemies to  citizenry, wisely never overstretching the plot and reeling it all in at a succinct 87 minutes and final what happened after ironic credits punch that goes a long way to explaining the mentality that put Trump in the White House. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Neither WolfNor Dog (12A)

A  one-man independent cinema project by Steven Lewis Simpson who serves as director, producer, cinematographer, editor and co-screenwriter, it’s based on Kent Nerburn’s semi-autobiographical Native American-themed novel and stars Christopher Sweeney as  Nerburn who, having recently published an oral history of Native American folklore, gets  call from a young Native American woman (Roseanne Supernault) who says her grandfather, Dan (a sly, wry Bald Eagle), a Lakota elder, has something important o discuss and wants to meet in person.

Despite the fact he lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several hundred miles from Minnesota, Nerburn, his family away and his father having recently passed, decides to visit.  On meeting Dan, he’s given a shoebox of of assorted words of wisdom about the relationship between the red man and the white man (“When white people won, it was a victory. When we won, it was a massacre”) which the  mischievous old man wants him to publish.

Initial attempts to create a narrative prove frustrating, ridiculed and rejected by Dan’s cynical friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), but when he decides to throw in the towel and go home, his truck conveniently breaks down and, while it’s in for repairs, he’s taken off on a road trip by Dan and Grover to get an insight into the realties of reservation life and issues such as racism, poverty and  emotional recompense.

While laudable that Simpson should take on so many roles, he might have considered delegating hat of editor, given that the film is overlong, awkwardly episodic, sluggish and frequently extends sequences (such as a roadside cafe encounter with an alcoholic Native American) beyond their natural life.

Dan and Grover’s journey is clearly intended to educate white audiences to the plight of Native Americans, as opposed to Hollywood’s usual white saviour movies, but often lacks subtlety, reducing things to clichés such as “You have to listen before you can learn to see”, and Sweeney’s performance too often feels more confused than his character. On the other hand,  Whitman and the then 95-year-old Bald Eagle, who passed shortly after filming, are compelling, having something of the trickster about them, and the latter’s monologue at a cemetery in memory of victims of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, is powerfully moving. It requires patience and forbearance. But,   visually, politically and emotionally there are moments here well worth the effort.  (Mon:MAC)

 

 

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Bait (15)

When his brother Steven (Giles King) repurposes their father’s vessel to use for tourist trips,  gruff Cornish cove fisherman Martin (Edward Rowe) was left without a boat and the pair fell out. His childhood home now a get-away for wealthy Londoners, Martin is displaced to the estate above the harbour as his struggle to restore the family to their traditional place creates increasing friction with tourists and locals alike in a film about a modern community facing unwelcome change. (Electric)

The Fireflies Are Gone (15)

Award-winning Canadian film set in a former coastal industrial town as,  school coming to a close for the summer, just turned 17 and only seeing her former union organiser father on occasional visits home, disaffected outsider Léo  (Karelle Tremblay) meets reclusive and aimless guitarist Steve who takes up lodgings in her mother’s basement. Their budding platonic relationship, pivoted around his guitar lessons and her holiday job,  enable her to finally spread her wings and escape her frosty mother and detested stepfather. (Wed:MAC)

 

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Ad Astra (12A)

Essentially Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues,  director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.

The son of fabled veteran  astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in  his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the  International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.

At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune  in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard,  to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows,  to ostensibly send  a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.

In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating  his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father,  the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.

As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons,  and Roy’s need to escape from Mars,  it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of  Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that  setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingird; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Farewell (PG)

“Based on an actual lie” reads the opening statement, writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, the dialogue mostly in Mandarin with some English,  an expansion of a true story about Wang’s own grandmother already told as an episode of the This American Life TV series. The lie in question is the decision by her extended, scattered family not to tell  family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that, as her younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), informs them, has stage 4 lung cancer terminal cancer and only   months to live.

Instead, they use the excuse of a  grandson’s’ wedding to his Japanese girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) to variously return home from America and Japan to Changchun for the marriage and the banquet Nai Nai is organising, to say their goodbyes, everyone under strict instructions not to let the cat out of the bag. That, most especially, includes her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who moved to New York with her family when she was a child, but has kept up a close relationship. She’s horrified that Chinese practise means the diagnosis is being kept secret and, while her parents,  boozy, hangdog-looking father (Tzi Ma) and acerbic, emotionally distant  (“Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die”) mother (Diana Lin) insist she stay behind because she can’t hide her emotions, although financially strapped (and having just heard she’s not getting a  Guggenheim Foundation grant), she flies out anyway.

As such, what ensues is a finely judged farce of  deceptions that takes in a whole range of prickly family dynamics involving long simmering resentments, jealousies, snobbery and snide put downs, all of which Billi looks upon with increasing frustration and annoyance while also having to deal with her feelings of guilt,  detachment from her native country and what family and home really mean.

Hitherto best known for her broad comic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina proves she can also be a finely nuanced serious actress, conveying her emotional struggles with a look or a hesitation in the way she speaks. But she’s also supported by a  superb ensemble cast, most notably the wonderful Zhou as the granny who long since stopped filtering her feelings (and, given she did the same with her late husband, likely knows what’s going on but plays long), Lin with her barely contained hostility towards her China-based sister-in-law’s hypocritical social pretensions,  and, in a largely physical performance involving a drunken wedding karaoke session, Chen Han as  Hao,  the dim bulb son of   Hiyai’s elder brother, whose wedding  has been swiftly arranged (in an amusing scene Nai Nai insists they say they’ve been dating for a year so people don’t think the bride’s pregnant).

Bittersweet with a gentle disarming humour, it’s an affectionate portrait of family  and cultural identity that deftly steers clear of sentimentality to end on a swelling slo mo euphoria and feelgood dramatic irony note in the final credits, a film that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow and perhaps the feeling to reconnect with those distant elderly relatives you’ve not seen in years. (MAC)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar a foregone conclusion, chances are that, having triumphed at Venice,  this will also make strong running for Best Film and Todd Phillips as Best Director. Darker, both tonally and morally, than even that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it does not arrive without controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing  a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Franes Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a  neurological  condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourettes. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a  bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting  a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harrass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who,  here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.

An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.

Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (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)

Judy (12A)

Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play End of the Rainbow about the last months of Judy Garland’s life when she played a colourfully variable season at London’s Talk of the Town (sometimes dazzling, sometimes drunk) , inevitably, directed by  Rupert Goold and written by first timer Tom Edge, reality and what you see on screen are often very different things. Certainly she was pelted with food by the audience when she appeared late, drunk and slurring, but it’s unlikely, even as a gay icon,  she ever went back to  a flat shared by two gay fans (for post-show scrambled eggs and the final scene where they boost her in time of mid-song crisis is most certainly fiction. That said, this is very faithful in portraying the desperate loneliness and insecurity that crippled the former child star of The Wizard of Oz, even if Rene Zellweger’s electrifying, note perfect (and inevitably Oscar scooping) performance is far better than the film that contains it.

Opening the story at the tail end of 1968, deep in debt Garland return to her hotel from a show (for which she’s paid the princely sum of $150) featuring her youngest  children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she’s informed she’s been thrown out because of her unpaid bills. With nowhere else to go, she winds up at the home of her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), with whom’s she’s involved in a  custody wrangle, who makes it very clear what he thinks of her parenting.

Given her reputation of being difficult and unreliable, if she wants  to raise the money she needs to keep her children, she has to accept a five week season at the Talk of the Town, under impresario Bernard Delfont (Michale Gambon), although the kids have to remain behind.

Arriving in London, she’s feted as a superstar, but a combination of crippling insecurity, insomnia, pills and drink, leave her refusing to rehearse and having to be frog marched on to the stage by exasperated but sympathetic (real) production assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) where, once in the spotlight, she knocks them dead with a rendition of  I’ll Go My Way by Myself. It’s kind of downhill from that point, hitting rock bottom when her impulsive brief marriage to the much younger  Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a chancer with an eye on making a  fortune off her name, blows up in her face and she’s sacked. On top of which, Luft turns up with some unwelcome news about what the children have decided for their future.

All this is regularly punctuated with flashbacks to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) who, as Dorothy Gale won the world’s hearts with Over The Rainbow, but was bullied and verbally (and it was  rumoured sexually) abused by tyrannical movie mogul Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery)  who, to get what wanted on camera had her dosed up with appetite suppressants to keep her thing, amphetamines to keep her awake and sleeping pills for her anxiety-induced insomnia, an addiction that stayed with her as she grew, compounded by alcoholism. If you weren’t already aware Garland’s nightmare existence at MGM, from which she was eventually ‘let go’ in 1950, this is a real wake up call., and further serves to elicit empathy and understanding when you see the adult Judy acts like a diva and collapsing into self-destruction.

The problem is that Zellweger’s performance is so intense, so fierce and so compelling, and her self-performed musical numbers so exhilarating, that the film around her pales into a somewhat rote biopic of underwritten supporting characters (though Buckley does emerge with honours) with brief interactions between Garland and  the likes of daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Talk of the Town musical arranger Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson,  skiffle star Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgleish), whose show she most definitely did not usurp as seen here, and, as her younger self, frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, a potential young romance rejected here in favour of the roar of the crowd.

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba (Seth Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rambo: Last Blood  (18)

Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet  for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed  by a  supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier,  tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a  bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by  Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.

However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a  sort of grislier version of Home Alone.

There’s  a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls  of pills), and is duly let  loose for yet another killing spree.  With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.

The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard  revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending  a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off  the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Empire Great Park;   Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Or Not (18)

When orphaned Grace (Samara Weaving) married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), scion of the blueblood Le Domas games dynasty, she never thought till death us do part would apply so literally or so soon.  As part of the initiation into the family, at midnight new members are required to play one of the many games the family has devised or marketed over the years. And everyone has to abide by the rules, established by the great grandfather Victor in a deal with mysterious benefactor Le Bail, so as to avoid unspecified consequences. The card the new arrival most certainly does not want to draw is hide and seek. Which unfortunately, is precisely what Grace does, for the first time since the events of the 30-years earlier prologue.  She just has to stay hidden until dawn. The problem is that, while her husband, only just returned to the family fold, demurs and tries to help,  everyone else in the family, armed to the teeth with old-time crossbows, axes and guns,   is required to hunt her down so she can become  ritual sacrifice in the ‘games room’. So now, Grace, still in her full and increasingly torn and bloodied wedding get-up has to try and avoid demented patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny), Alex’s indifferent mother  (Andie MacDowell), ambivalent black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his sisters, cokehead  Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and the ill-named Charity  (Elyse Levesque),  her  numbskull husband  Fitch (Kristiann Bruun) and,  looking like a refugee from the Addams Family, the coldblooded Aunt Helene (a gloweringly wonderful Nicky Guadagni),  not to mention Emilie’s two kids and the butler (John Ralston), and stay alive. Something the   three maids, through a series of mishaps, find rather harder to accomplish. If she succeeds, legend has it that the family, in some sort of diabolic deal, will pay the price instead.

Essentially, this is another in spooky house cat and mouse genre, but, as written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it marries the often bloody horror with the sort of sardonic  Gothic pastiche that distinguished the likes of  What We Do in the Shadows and  Tucker and Dale Meet Evil, the gallows humour (notably a scene involving Grace trying to steal a car that’s overriden by the service agent) increasing along with the blood and a rather gruesome encounter with the Goat Pit as it gathers to its confessedly Heathers-inspired climax.

You can read it as social/class satire, but it’s best enjoyed by just sitting back and watch the excellent, playing it knowingly straight Weaving transform from wide-eyed blonde to fuck you female rage and delivering the final line with crowd applauding aplomb.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring themes such as finding your purpose, self-worth, abandonment, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and that letting go and moving on doesn’t mean you stop loving or being loved, it will touch chords in both children and adults alike while also providing thrilling action sequences, dark and scary moments, affecting poignancy, laughs (not least in Buzz thinking his pre-programmed recordings are his ‘inner voice’) and moments of breathtaking beauty. From a joyful reunion to a moving parting of the ways farewell, this will take your heart to infinity and beyond.  (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  – 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

Brum comic scoops festival award

Celya AB - Credit Dave Freak

Comedian Celya AB has been announced as the winner of the prestigious Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2019.

Celya enraptured a sell-out audience at The Glee Club on Friday night (4 October 2019), where she was presented with the region’s biggest comedy prize by BBCWM presenter Lisa Smith.

Originally from Paris, Celya’s win marked exactly five years, to the day, since she swapped the French capital for a welcoming Birmingham.

Picking up her award, she said: “It means a lot for me to be considered a Birmingham talent; it was huge just to have been nominated!”

Inspired by the likes of Dylan Moran, David Mitchell and American comedian and actress Maria Bamford, as well as French trio Les Inconnus and the late humourist Pierre Desproges, Celya made her stand-up debut at Sutton Coldfield’s The Comedy Junction in early 2017, encouraged by comedian Karen Bayley.

“I’ve always had a love of stand-up, but never thought I’d do it. I kept talking about it for so long. Then Karen said I had to do something, and she gave me three days’ notice. I did five minutes, and went on with a glass of wine,” she recalls of her debut. “I got my first laugh and thought about it for the next three weeks.”

Despite the success, Celya recognised she still had much to learn, and spent the next two years defining her craft.

“For the first year of doing stand-up, you’re just getting used to being on stage – I wasn’t very good for the first year, I wasn’t a natural performer, I was really shy. The second year was learning to write jokes I liked. But you’re constantly learning in comedy, it’s always evolving.”

Discussing her comedic style, she says: “It’s really stupid, a bit daft, maybe a bit surreal, and a bit on the weird side. I just want to be myself on stage, as much as I can.”

As well as making appearances at clubs around the country, Celya, who is of French/ Algerian heritage, also runs her own monthly comedy nights at the Queen’s Arms and Red Lion pubs, both in the city’s Jewellery Quarter. Since being shortlisted for the Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award, she’s also made it through to the Funny Women competition finals, appearing at The Bloomsbury Theatre in London.

Looking ahead to the future, Celya says: “I want to write more, and I want to start thinking about going to the Edinburgh Fringe, maybe to do 45 minutes, or a double-header, but also trial more new material – I’m just trying to get better.”

The Jewellery Quarter-based comic faced stiff competition from four other emerging West Mids acts: Belfast-born TV researcher Mary Flanigan, who relocated to Birmingham’s Kings Heath at the beginning of the year; Erdington’s Jay Droch, nominated just 18 months after his stand-up debut; the darkly challenging Adam Elmi, from Edgbaston; and Doug Carter, who recalled growing up in Bedworth, Warwickshire, during the 1980s.

In addition to awarding Celya the main prize, the judging panel were keen to commend Mary Flanigan for her engaging performance, which looked at the challenges of being a stranger in a new city, and pondered what might happen if the Mr Men and Little Miss characters were subjected to a CGI/ live action Lion King-styled makeover.

A spokesperson for the festival said: “Deciding on a winner is never an easy task, but our judges were impressed by Celya’s relaxed and confident stage presence, and the unpredictability of her material. She’s made significant strides in her comedy, particularly over the last 12 months, and has great promise.

“We very much look forward to seeing how she continues to grow as a comedian in the months ahead.”

A collaboration between the award-winning festival and The Glee Club, the Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award was set up in 2014 to recognise and support emerging comedic talent from the city and wider West Midlands.

2019’s festival kicked off on Friday 4 October with sell-out shows at the Town Hall (James Acaster), The Glee (Breaking Talent Award and Fern Brady), and Cherry Reds, and continues at various venues across the city until Sunday 13 October. Highlights include appearances from Josh Widdicombe, Henning Wehn, Reginald D Hunter and The Impractical Jokers, plus two Free Half-Dayers featuring 16 free comedy shows over successive Sunday afternoons (Cherry Reds, The Victoria).

For full listings and more information, see: bhamcomfest.co.uk

NEWS: Comedy Festival announces 2019 award shortlist …

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Oct 4-Thu Oct 10

 

NEW RELEASES

Joker (15)

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar a foregone conclusion, chances are that, having triumphed at Venice,  this will also make strong running for Best Film and Todd Phillips as Best Director. Darker, both tonally and morally, than even that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it does not arrive without controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing  a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Franes Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a  neurological  condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourettes. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a  bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting  a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harrass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who,  here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.

An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.

Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (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)

Hitsville: The Making of Motown (12A)

Unquestionably the most iconic, most successful and most influential record company in the history of black music, Motown was founded by Berry Gordy, a Detroit kid and budding entrepreneur who saw no reason why blacks and whites couldn’t share a love of the same music. A budding songwriter, he borrowed $800 from his father and sisters and acquired a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, joined forces with a guy named Smokey Robinson and changed the face of music. Taking its title from the name given to the label’s home as well as the punch line in the company song (sung, after other embarrassed former employees demur, claiming to have forgotten the lines, by the two men over the end credits), this documentary by British filmmakers Ben and Gabe Turner charts how the label, modelled on the Ford Motor Company production line where Gordy worked, became an assembly line turning out hit records and stars in a well machined manner with company divisions all responsible for certain aspects. Archive sound recordings of company meetings (such as Gordy, Robinson and A&R head as Mickey Stephenson arguing over releases) and vintage footage of recording sessions are just part of this fascinating insight that includes rare film of The Temptations rehearsing My Guy, electrifying film of the young Michael Jackson and Diana Ross performing two very different live takes on You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You on a Motown Revue tour, a song that almost saw her and Gordy parting company.

It doesn’t touch on her decision to quit The Supremes or other darker moments like Marvin Gaye’s murder or David Ruffin’s drug problems and prison terms but it doesn’t shy away from how Stevie Wonder demanded his the terms of relationship with the label be rewritten when he turned 21 so he could do what he wanted or how Gordy, who remarks how he only gave artists freedom within certain parameters, didn’t want Gaye to go protest with What’s Goin’ On. However, while personal politics and issues of behind the scenes control are interesting, it’s the way the film brings the creation of the music alive and forgotten facts such as how I Heard It Through The Grapevine was a No 1 for Gladys Knight before Gaye, who originally only released it on an album before going on to become the label’s biggest selling record ever, that the Supremes had a  string of flops before they recorded You Can’t Hurry Love after Martha Reeves had turned it down or, indeed that a pre-Buffalo Springfield Neil Young was signed to the label as part of The Mynah Birds fronted by Rick James. Essential viewing for anyone with even the vaguest interest in the history of modern music.  (Tue: Mockingbird)

Judy (12A)

Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play End of the Rainbow about the last months of Judy Garland’s life when she played a colourfully variable season at London’s Talk of the Town (sometimes dazzling, sometimes drunk) , inevitably, directed by  Rupert Goold and written by first timer Tom Edge, reality and what you see on screen are often very different things. Certainly she was pelted with food by the audience when she appeared late, drunk and slurring, but it’s unlikely, even as a gay icon,  she ever went back to  a flat shared by two gay fans (for post-show scrambled eggs and the final scene where they boost her in time of mid-song crisis is most certainly fiction. That said, this is very faithful in portraying the desperate loneliness and insecurity that crippled the former child star of The Wizard of Oz, even if Rene Zellweger’s electrifying, note perfect (and inevitably Oscar scooping) performance is far better than the film that contains it.

Opening the story at the tail end of 1968, deep in debt Garland return to her hotel from a show (for which she’s paid the princely sum of $150) featuring her youngest  children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she’s informed she’s been thrown out because of her unpaid bills. With nowhere else to go, she winds up at the home of her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), with whom’s she’s involved in a  custody wrangle, who makes it very clear what he thinks of her parenting.

Given her reputation of being difficult and unreliable, if she wants  to raise the money she needs to keep her children, she has to accept a five week season at the Talk of the Town, under impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), although the kids have to remain behind.

Arriving in London, she’s feted as a superstar, but a combination of crippling insecurity, insomnia, pills and drink, leave her refusing to rehearse and having to be frog marched on to the stage by exasperated but sympathetic (real) production assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) where, once in the spotlight, she knocks them dead with a rendition of  I’ll Go My Way by Myself. It’s kind of downhill from that point, hitting rock bottom when her impulsive brief marriage to the much younger  Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a chancer with an eye on making a  fortune off her name, blows up in her face and she’s sacked. On top of which, Luft turns up with some unwelcome news about what the children have decided for their future.

All this is regularly punctuated with flashbacks to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) who, as Dorothy Gale won the world’s hearts with Over The Rainbow, but was bullied and verbally (and it was  rumoured sexually) abused by tyrannical movie mogul Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery)  who, to get what wanted on camera had her dosed up with appetite suppressants to keep her thing, amphetamines to keep her awake and sleeping pills for her anxiety-induced insomnia, an addiction that stayed with her as she grew, compounded by alcoholism. If you weren’t already aware Garland’s nightmare existence at MGM, from which she was eventually ‘let go’ in 1950, this is a real wake up call., and further serves to elicit empathy and understanding when you see the adult Judy acts like a diva and collapsing into self-destruction.

The problem is that Zellweger’s performance is so intense, so fierce and so compelling, and her self-performed musical numbers so exhilarating, that the film around her pales into a somewhat rote biopic of underwritten supporting characters (though Buckley does emerge with honours) with brief interactions between Garland and  the likes of daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Talk of the Town musical arranger Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson,  skiffle star Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgleish), whose show she most definitely did not usurp as seen here, and, as her younger self, frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, a potential young romance rejected here in favour of the roar of the crowd.

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rojo (15)

Set in 1975 in the period shortly before Argentina’s coup d’etat, director  Benjamin Naishtat offers a portrait of a country about to tear itself apart, opening with a silent scene as various people emerge from a shuttered, detached and abandoned house, carrying with them various piece of furniture.  Cut to a restaurant where, sitting at table waiting or his wife, balding well-known local lawyer Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) is harangued by a stranger (Diego Cremonesi) wanting to order. The counsellor gives up his seat but, bristling under the humiliation, launches into a tirade against the man, who then erupts, starts calling everyone Nazis and is thrown out. Leaving the restaurant later with his wife, the couple encounter the man again who attacks the lawyer and then shoots himself,  culminating in the former driving the body out to the desert and dumping it.

The fractured but ultimately interlinked narrative then involves Claudio being approached by a friend, Vivas (Claudio Martínez Bel), who wants his help in a dodgy real estate deal involving the house seen at the start, along with a troupe of American rodeo performers who become political pawns, Claudio’s teenage dance student daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti), her jealous boyfriend and an abduction. Then, to add further tension to Claudio’s life, along comes a Columbo-like celebrity TV detective (Alfredo Castro) from Chile investigating the disappearance of  Vivas’s briother-in-law, who, of course, is the suicide from earlier. And, of course, there’s the eclipse which gives rise to the film’s title ‘red’.

Run through with images of  people disappearing and musing on middle-class moral corruption and hypocrisy, it has a seam of dark humour to compound the unease, but will the central theme is obvious enough,you’ll need an awareness of  Argentina’s political climate in the mid-70s to  appreciate the deeper nuances and the perplexing ending (Mon-Wed: MAC)

ALSO PLAYING

Bait (15)

When his brother Steven (Giles King) repurposes their father’s vessel to use for tourist trips,  gruff Cornish cove fisherman Martin (Edward Rowe) was left without a boat and the pair fell out. His childhood home now a get-away for wealthy Londoners, Martin is displaced to the estate above the harbour as his struggle to restore the family to their traditional place creates increasing friction with tourists and locals alike in a film about a modern community facing unwelcome change. (Fri-Tue: MAC)

Bridge (12A)

Shown in partnership with the Birmingham Indian Film Festival for BEDLAM Arts and Mental Health Festival, this is an . award-winning film about the chance meeting of two suicidal strangers on a bridge over the River Ganges that brings great challenges but eventually healing to their  lives. (Sun:MAC)

 

Inna de Yard (12A)

Documentary set in Kingston about a gathering of reggae legends, among them Ken Boothe, and Judy Mowatt as they convene  to record an unplugged album of hits, featuring personal testimonies and histories alongside the history of reggae music and its continuing relevance.(Sat 5/Wed:9: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

Ad Astra (12A)

Essentially Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues,  director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.

The son of fabled veteran  astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in  his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the  International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.

At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune  in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard,  to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows,  to ostensibly send  a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.

In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating  his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father,  the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.

As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons,  and Roy’s need to escape from Mars,  it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of  Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that  setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (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 Farewell (PG)

“Based on an actual lie” reads the opening statement, writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, the dialogue mostly in Mandarin with some English,  an expansion of a true story about Wang’s own grandmother already told as an episode of the This American Life TV series. The lie in question is the decision by her extended, scattered family not to tell  family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that, as her younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), informs them, has stage 4 lung cancer terminal cancer and only   months to live.

Instead, they use the excuse of a  grandson’s’ wedding to his Japanese girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) to variously return home from America and Japan to Changchun for the marriage and the banquet Nai Nai is organising, to say their goodbyes, everyone under strict instructions not to let the cat out of the bag. That, most especially, includes her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who moved to New York with her family when she was a child, but has kept up a close relationship. She’s horrified that Chinese practise means the diagnosis is being kept secret and, while her parents,  boozy, hangdog-looking father (Tzi Ma) and acerbic, emotionally distant  (“Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die”) mother (Diana Lin) insist she stay behind because she can’t hide her emotions, although financially strapped (and having just heard she’s not getting a  Guggenheim Foundation grant), she flies out anyway.

As such, what ensues is a finely judged farce of  deceptions that takes in a whole range of prickly family dynamics involving long simmering resentments, jealousies, snobbery and snide put downs, all of which Billi looks upon with increasing frustration and annoyance while also having to deal with her feelings of guilt,  detachment from her native country and what family and home really mean.

Hitherto best known for her broad comic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina proves she can also be a finely nuanced serious actress, conveying her emotional struggles with a look or a hesitation in the way she speaks. But she’s also supported by a  superb ensemble cast, most notably the wonderful Zhou as the granny who long since stopped filtering her feelings (and, given she did the same with her late husband, likely knows what’s going on but plays long), Lin with her barely contained hostility towards her China-based sister-in-law’s hypocritical social pretensions,  and, in a largely physical performance involving a drunken wedding karaoke session, Chen Han as  Hao,  the dim bulb son of   Hiyai’s elder brother, whose wedding  has been swiftly arranged (in an amusing scene Nai Nai insists they say they’ve been dating for a year so people don’t think the bride’s pregnant).

Bittersweet with a gentle disarming humour, it’s an affectionate portrait of family  and cultural identity that deftly steers clear of sentimentality to end on a swelling slo mo euphoria and feelgood dramatic irony note in the final credits, a film that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow and perhaps the feeling to reconnect with those distant elderly relatives you’ve not seen in years. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

The Goldfinch (15)

Predicted to be one of the biggest flops in cinema history, while it has its flaws it’s hard to fathom why American audiences didn’t flock watch the birdy. However, likely more discerning literary-minded viewers here will better embrace this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning serendipitous novel. Opening with his adult self (Ansel Elgort) washing blood from his shirt and lining up a fatal overdose in his hotel room, the film flashes back to 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) admiring both the titular 17th century painting of a chained bird by Fabritius and the girl standing next to him at  the  New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bombing kills his mother, leading to him being taken in by the wealthy family of   nerdy schoolfriend Andy (Ryan Foust) where he grows close to art-loving matriarch Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman in familiar chilly mode). He also strikes up a friendship with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antique furniture restorer whose business partner was killed in in the same explosion and who is now guardian to his granddaughter, Pippa (Aimée Lawrence), the girl from the museum who also suffered trauma.

However, just at the point it seems likely the Barbours will adopt him, his errant father Larry (Luke Wilson) re-emerges along with his trashy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and carts him off to an otherwise unoccupied road at the edge of the desert where he strikes up a friendship with fellow outsider Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian whose abusive father’s work has seen him move from country to country, who introduces him to both drink and drugs, the latter for which he develops  a particular fondness.  But then yet another family upheaval sees him flee back to New York where he reunites with Hobie and, as the film switches focus to the adult Theo, become his new salesman partner cum surrogate son and, eventually become engaged to the Barbour’s daughter, Kitsy (Willa Fitzgerald). Through all of this, Theo carries with him a yellow bag contaiing a package wrapped in newspaper, which he clutches close when in need of comfort. Inside is the Fabritius painting, a link to his mother but also a mark of the guilt he feels about her death. How he came to take it and obtain the ring he first presents to Hobie are explained towards the end, by which time Theo is being threatened by a client (Denis O’Hare) to whom he sold a doctored ‘antique’ and who has worked out that he has the painting, which has apparently been used as collateral by a Miami drug gang.

It’s a tangled storyline into which also arrives the now grown Boris (Aneurin Barnard) whose dodgy dealings have made him quite a success as well as the return of Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) to a life reforged but build on deceptions, just as his impending marriage is looking more about the head than the heart.  However, despite the fractured narrative and, even if things slip into the melodramatic in the last act, director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan keep you involved and wanting to know where Theo’s journey is taking him and what has led him there, the strong core performances carrying it over some of the more uneven patches and the admittedly emotional coldness for much of its running time. At the end of the day, it warrants ignoring the sour word of mouth and giving it your trust.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Mustang (12A)

Produced by Robert Redford (who, it should be remembered starred in and directed The Horse Whisperer) and helmed by first timer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, this draws on the real-life facts that 100,000 wild horses still roam America and many are rounded up and used as occupational therapy for prisoners who break and train them ready to be auctioned. As such, it’s not hard to see where the story is going when, serving time in a remote prison compound in the Nevada desert for a crime not revealed until a scene towards the end, sporting shaved head and goatee, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a brooding loner (“I’m not good with people”) inmate with anger management issues encounters an equally wilful new equine arrival.

Initially assigned by the grizzled programme manager (Bruce Dern)  to shovel up horse shit, he’s then given a chance to assist fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) in the training (although he briefly blows it when he loses his temper and punches the horse) and comes to bond with the animal he names  Marquis, each taming the rage within the other.

The narrative is  expanded with subplots involving a cellmate who gets Roman to smuggle drugs out of the horse infirmary, scenes between inmates and the prison counsellor (Connie Britton)  and three sequences between Roman and his estranged, pregnant young daughter (Gideon Adlon) that climax in a powerful emotional catharsis, but otherwise this focuses on the dynamic between man and horse. It’s less well-rounded than The Rider, to which it inevitably bears comparison,  but Schoenart’s soulful performance, always threatening to erupt, ensures the humanism at the film’s heart is never dimmed, the first sequence when the horse nuzzles up to him in his isolation profoundly moving. (MAC)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld NEC)

Rambo: Last Blood  (18)

Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet  for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed  by a  supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier,  tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a  bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by  Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.

However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a  sort of grislier version of Home Alone.

There’s  a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls  of pills), and is duly let  loose for yet another killing spree.  With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.

The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard  revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending  a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off  the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;   Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Or Not (18)

When orphaned Grace (Samara Weaving) married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), scion of the blueblood Le Domas games dynasty, she never thought till death us do part would apply so literally or so soon.  As part of the initiation into the family, at midnight new members are required to play one of the many games the family has devised or marketed over the years. And everyone has to abide by the rules, established by the great grandfather Victor in a deal with mysterious benefactor Le Bail, so as to avoid unspecified consequences. The card the new arrival most certainly does not want to draw is hide and seek. Which unfortunately, is precisely what Grace does, for the first time since the events of the 30-years earlier prologue.  She just has to stay hidden until dawn. The problem is that, while her husband, only just returned to the family fold, demurs and tries to help,  everyone else in the family, armed to the teeth with old-time crossbows, axes and guns,   is required to hunt her down so she can become  ritual sacrifice in the ‘games room’. So now, Grace, still in her full and increasingly torn and bloodied wedding get-up has to try and avoid demented patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny), Alex’s indifferent mother  (Andie MacDowell), ambivalent black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his sisters, cokehead  Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and the ill-named Charity  (Elyse Levesque),  her  numbskull husband  Fitch (Kristiann Bruun) and,  looking like a refugee from the Addams Family, the coldblooded Aunt Helene (a gloweringly wonderful Nicky Guadagni),  not to mention Emilie’s two kids and the butler (John Ralston), and stay alive. Something the   three maids, through a series of mishaps, find rather harder to accomplish. If she succeeds, legend has it that the family, in some sort of diabolic deal, will pay the price instead.

Essentially, this is another in spooky house cat and mouse genre, but, as written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it marries the often bloody horror with the sort of sardonic  Gothic pastiche that distinguished the likes of  What We Do in the Shadows and  Tucker and Dale Meet Evil, the gallows humour (notably a scene involving Grace trying to steal a car that’s overriden by the service agent) increasing along with the blood and a rather gruesome encounter with the Goat Pit as it gathers to its confessedly Heathers-inspired climax.

You can read it as social/class satire, but it’s best enjoyed by just sitting back and watch the excellent, playing it knowingly straight Weaving transform from wide-eyed blonde to fuck you female rage and delivering the final line with crowd applauding aplomb.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 27-Thu Oct 3

NEW RELEASES

Ready Or Not (18)

When orphaned Grace (Samara Weaving) married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), scion of the blueblood Le Domas games dynasty, she never thought till death us do part would apply so literally or so soon.  As part of the initiation into the family, at midnight new members are required to play one of the many games the family has devised or marketed over the years. And everyone has to abide by the rules, established by the great grandfather Victor in a deal with mysterious benefactor Le Bail, so as to avoid unspecified consequences. The card the new arrival most certainly does not want to draw is hide and seek. Which unfortunately, is precisely what Grace does, for the first time since the events of the 30-years earlier prologue.  She just has to stay hidden until dawn. The problem is that, while her husband, only just returned to the family fold, demurs and tries to help,  everyone else in the family, armed to the teeth with old-time crossbows, axes and guns,   is required to hunt her down so she can become  ritual sacrifice in the ‘games room’. So now, Grace, still in her full and increasingly torn and bloodied wedding get-up has to try and avoid demented patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny), Alex’s indifferent mother  (Andie MacDowell), ambivalent black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his sisters, cokehead  Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and the ill-named Charity  (Elyse Levesque),  her  numbskull husband  Fitch (Kristiann Bruun) and,  looking like a refugee from the Addams Family, the coldblooded Aunt Helene (a gloweringly wonderful Nicky Guadagni),  not to mention Emilie’s two kids and the butler (John Ralston), and stay alive. Something the   three maids, through a series of mishaps, find rather harder to accomplish. If she succeeds, legend has it that the family, in some sort of diabolic deal, will pay the price instead.

Essentially, this is another in spooky house cat and mouse genre, but, as written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it marries the often bloody horror with the sort of sardonic  Gothic pastiche that distinguished the likes of  What We Do in the Shadows and  Tucker and Dale Meet Evil, the gallows humour (notably a scene involving Grace trying to steal a car that’s overriden by the service agent) increasing along with the blood and a rather gruesome encounter with the Goat Pit as it gathers to its confessedly Heathers-inspired climax.

You can read it as social/class satire, but it’s best enjoyed by just sitting back and watch the excellent, playing it knowingly straight Weaving transform from wide-eyed blonde to fuck you female rage and delivering the final line with crowd applauding aplomb.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Don’t Let Go (15)

A police procedural with a paranormal slant, writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes looks to make a comeback after falling off the radar since his critically lauded Mean Creek debut 15 years, but ambition rather unfortunately outstrips achievement, as audiences become entangled in its parallel timelines plot.

David Oyelowo is Jack, an LAPD detective who, his brother (Brian Tyree Henry) being an unreliable ex-con drug dealer, has taken his teenage niece Ashley (Storm Reid) under his wing. So, he’s understandably distraught to turn up at the house and find the entire family, dog included, butchered. So, you can understand his confusion when, a few days later, he gets a call from the phone he gave Ashley and hears her voice on the other end.  Not a recording but in real time. Well, real time in that this is from four days earlier, before she was killed.

So, in a nutshell, his future and past selves are now in a race against the clock to find out who the killer is and prevent the murder from happening, he in the present talking to Ashley in the past (she thinking that his future is her now), as he gets her to track down who was in the car seen outside her house, getting himself shot in the process.  Not surprisingly, his boss (Alfred Molina) and best buddy fellow cop Bobby (Mykelti Williamson) are a little concerned about his mental state.

Although the identity of the killer becomes glaringly obvious to any casual student of the genre early on, it’s a potentially interesting narrative set up, and both Olewyo and Reid deliver serviceable performances. But the internal logic is shot through with holes. Why doesn’t Jack just get her to leave the city until the fateful day is over, why doesn’t she photograph the car number plate with her phone rather than struggle to scribble it on a  piece of paper and why can’t either of them text? Still, if you can overlook such niggles, the premise is enough to sustain engagement until the nerve-wracking final seconds as past and present collide. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Goldfinch (15)

Predicted to be one of the biggest flops in cinema history, while it has its flaws it’s hard to fathom why American audiences didn’t flock watch the birdy. However, likely more discerning literary-minded viewers here will better embrace this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning serendipitous novel. Opening with his adult self (Ansel Elgort) washing blood from his shirt and lining up a fatal overdose in his hotel room, the film flashes back to 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) admiring both the titular 17th century painting of a chained bird by Fabritius and the girl standing next to him at  the  New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bombing kills his mother, leading to him being taken in by the wealthy family of   nerdy schoolfriend Andy (Ryan Foust) where he grows close to art-loving matriarch Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman in familiar chilly mode). He also strikes up a friendship with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antique furniture restorer whose business partner was killed in in the same explosion and who is now guardian to his granddaughter, Pippa (Aimée Lawrence), the girl from the museum who also suffered trauma.

However, just at the point it seems likely the Barbours will adopt him, his errant father Larry (Luke Wilson) re-emerges along with his trashy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and carts him off to an otherwise unoccupied road at the edge of the desert where he strikes up a friendship with fellow outsider Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian whose abusive father’s work has seen him move from country to country, who introduces him to both drink and drugs, the latter for which he develops  a particular fondness.  But then yet another family upheaval sees him flee back to New York where he reunites with Hobie and, as the film switches focus to the adult Theo, become his new salesman partner cum surrogate son and, eventually become engaged to the Barbour’s daughter, Kitsy (Willa Fitzgerald). Through all of this, Theo carries with him a yellow bag containing a package wrapped in newspaper, which he clutches close when in need of comfort. Inside is the Fabritius painting, a link to his mother but also a mark of the guilt he feels about her death. How he came to take it and obtain the ring he first presents to Hobie are explained towards the end, by which time Theo is being threatened by a client (Denis O’Hare) to whom he sold a doctored ‘antique’ and who has worked out that he has the painting, which has apparently been used as collateral by a Miami drug gang.

It’s a tangled storyline into which also arrives the now grown Boris (Aneurin Barnard) whose dodgy dealings have made him quite a success as well as the return of Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) to a life reforged but build on deceptions, just as his impending marriage is looking more about the head than the heart.  However, despite the fractured narrative and, even if things slip into the melodramatic in the last act, director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan keep you involved and wanting to know where Theo’s journey is taking him and what has led him there, the strong core performances carrying it over some of the more uneven patches and the admittedly emotional coldness for much of its running time. At the end of the day, it warrants ignoring the sour word of mouth and giving it your trust. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Last Tree (15)

Adopting the same child to man tripartite structure as Moonlighting and also concerning with questions of identity and culture, writer-director Shola Amoo weaves an at times dreamlike spell across his semi-autobiographical account of a young Nigerian-British boy’s coming of age and journey of self-discovery.

Femi (an endearing Tai Golding) is first introduced living an idyllic life with his white foster ‘nan’ Mary (Denise Black) in rural Lincolnshire, playing happily with his white schoolmates. But then his  mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) resurfaces and takes him away to live with her in a cramped tower block in inner city London where she imposes strict parenting, feeding him Nigerian food and beating him for any transgression while the other boys in his class mock his full name (Olufemi), getting him into trouble on his first day. Transition via a flickering screen to his teenage years (now played by Sam Adewunmi) and, feeling doubly betrayed by his foster and his birth mother,  he’s hanging with a  bad crowd, has developed an attitude and is failing in school. He’s a prime recruit as apprentice in waiting for slightly older smalltime drug dealer Mace (Demmy Ladipo) in what increasingly seems to be the only option open to him.

It will take an attraction to fellow outsider, blue braided Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), who has her own issues with race and bullying, some tough love by his mother, an understanding dedicated teacher (Nicholas Pinnock), a return visit to Mary and a somewhat contrived trip to Lagos to finally meet his arrogant Christian pastor father before he can comes to terms with his heritage, his family, himself and who he wants to and could be

Amoo offers subtle indications of the confusion Femi feels, such as posters of Tupac on his bedroom wall and The Cure on his Walkman, and Adewunmi captures all this with a seething internalised performance that only really erupts in a moment of uncontained anger and another molten catharsis.  Ikumelo is excellent too in brining empathy to a figure who initially comes across as unsympathetic in her harsh treatment of her son, Amoo gradually revealing the paths she’s had to also journey. On the downside, the Tobe relationship doesn’t really go anywhere and the attempts to humanise Mace by suggesting he has turned to what he does as the only option to look after his family never really gel with the subsequent brutality he has dished out. At times bearing an early Ken Loach influence, at others, especially in the final stretch, that of Truffaut, juggling the poetic with harsh realism, this is an insightful; and important film, even if the title remains a mystery.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

NOW SHOWING

Ad Astra (12A)

Essentially Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues,  director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.

The son of fabled veteran  astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in  his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the  International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.

At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune  in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard,  to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows,  to ostensibly send  a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.

In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating  his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father,  the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.

As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons,  and Roy’s need to escape from Mars,  it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of  Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that  setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Farewell (PG)

“Based on an actual lie” reads the opening statement, writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, the dialogue mostly in Mandarin with some English,  an expansion of a true story about Wang’s own grandmother already told as an episode of the This American Life TV series. The lie in question is the decision by her extended, scattered family not to tell  family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that, as her younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), informs them, has stage 4 lung cancer terminal cancer and only   months to live.

Instead, they use the excuse of a  grandson’s’ wedding to his Japanese girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) to variously return home from America and Japan to Changchun for the marriage and the banquet Nai Nai is organising, to say their goodbyes, everyone under strict instructions not to let the cat out of the bag. That, most especially, includes her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who moved to New York with her family when she was a child, but has kept up a close relationship. She’s horrified that Chinese practise means the diagnosis is being kept secret and, while her parents,  boozy, hangdog-looking father (Tzi Ma) and acerbic, emotionally distant  (“Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die”) mother (Diana Lin) insist she stay behind because she can’t hide her emotions, although financially strapped (and having just heard she’s not getting a  Guggenheim Foundation grant), she flies out anyway.

As such, what ensues is a finely judged farce of  deceptions that takes in a whole range of prickly family dynamics involving long simmering resentments, jealousies, snobbery and snide put downs, all of which Billi looks upon with increasing frustration and annoyance while also having to deal with her feelings of guilt,  detachment from her native country and what family and home really mean.

Hitherto best known for her broad comic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina proves she can also be a finely nuanced serious actress, conveying her emotional struggles with a look or a hesitation in the way she speaks. But she’s also supported by a  superb ensemble cast, most notably the wonderful Zhou as the granny who long since stopped filtering her feelings (and, given she did the same with her late husband, likely knows what’s going on but plays long), Lin with her barely contained hostility towards her China-based sister-in-law’s hypocritical social pretensions,  and, in a largely physical performance involving a drunken wedding karaoke session, Chen Han as  Hao,  the dim bulb son of   Hiyai’s elder brother, whose wedding  has been swiftly arranged (in an amusing scene Nai Nai insists they say they’ve been dating for a year so people don’t think the bride’s pregnant).

Bittersweet with a gentle disarming humour, it’s an affectionate portrait of family  and cultural identity that deftly steers clear of sentimentality to end on a swelling slo mo euphoria and feelgood dramatic irony note in the final credits, a film that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow and perhaps the feeling to reconnect with those distant elderly relatives you’ve not seen in years. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza)

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister,  Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake,  a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs  and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw  are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner  Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.

All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a  cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).

Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team,  the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kitchen (15)

Based on a somewhat obscure DC comic, Straight Outta Compton co-writer turned first time director Andrea Berloff, serves up a warmed over variation on Widows  considerably drained of flavour. Set in Hell’s Kitchen in the late 70s, when their respective husbands, low rent Irish-American mobsters Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Rob (Jeremy Robb) and the gang boss’s brother Kevin (James Badge Dale) get sent down for three years in an attempted robbery, their wives, mother-of-two Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), abused Claire (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), who, being both black and uptown has never been accepted as part of the family, find themselves financially stretched. The ‘family’ support money promised by Kevin’s brother, bully boy Little Jackie (Myk Watford), not enough to cover the rent, Kathy persuades the others to join her in taking over collecting the neighbourhood protection money, promising the assorted businesses that they’ll be more effective than the men.  This, of course, doesn’t sit too well with Little Jackie or his mother, Helen (Margo Martindale) who’s still very much involved behind the scenes. And the three are warned that they should get out or face the consquences.  When the consequences come calling on Claire in an attempted rape by Little Jackie, she’s saved by the sudden reappearance of Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a sociopathic former mob hitman and old flame timely back from Vietnam  to put a bullet in Little Jackie’s head and introduce the women to the fine art of dismembering and disposing of a body, a task Claire takes to with relish.

With their boss gone, the men soon fall into line and the trio  are ruling the roost, cleaning up the streets and pulling in a fortune. However, when Kathy decides she wants to help the Irish construction workers, of which her father is one, and pressures (a bullet in the head) the local Hasidic businessmen into employing them, she attracts the attention of Italian mob moss Coretti (Bill Camp) in Brooklyn who supply their own men for the jobs. However, a mutually beneficial deal is brokered but then the bombshell drops that the husbands are getting out early and that they’re going to want to reassume their old positions and ways and won’t take kindly to having their women doing men’s work. Clearly they or  the husbands have to go.

With an underwritten screenplay (which also entails  a scrappy subplot involving Common as an FBI agent) that pulls double crosses and confrontations out of thin air, the film loads up casual violence, sometimes to awkwardly comic effect, but never really conjures any sense of tension.  While Berloff never brings any real sense of character to Hell’s Kitchen itself, the leads do their best with the clunky dialogue and unfocused direction, Moss arguably the strongest of the three. However, while audiences are clearly intended to root for them over the way they’ve been treated in a  male dominated society,  their journey to self-empowerment (cued by such songs as Barracuda and Gold Dust Woman ) leaves an unpleasant taste given that, at least in terms of Ruby and Claire, they’re no less brutal or ruthless than their male counterparts, as the film hobbles towards its implausible and underwhelming conclusion. There’s no heat in this kitchen.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

Rambo: Last Blood  (18)

Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet  for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed  by a  supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier,  tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a  bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by  Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.

However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a  sort of grislier version of Home Alone.

There’s  a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls  of pills), and is duly let  loose for yet another killing spree.  With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.

The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard  revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending  a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off  the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;   Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Souvenir (15)

Critically touted but as yet to make her breakthrough, British writer-director Joanna Hogg may have finally had her eureka moment  with this quasi-autobiographical 80s set (seemingly mostly over Christmas though the chronology of background events is inconsistent) tale of an aspirant film student from a  well-to-do background  about which she feels uncomfortable embarking on her first feature. Living in a  flat in Knightsbridge, owned by her wealthy grandparents, a stone’s throw from Harrods (the 1983 bombing of which is heard at one point), she’s Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and she wants to make a documentary about working-class communities in Sunderland in the wake of the shipyards collapse, though she’s not having much luck pitching it to prospective backers. At a party with her Bohemian flatmates, she gets into conversation with the coolly supercilious, sceptical but highly cultured Anthony (Tom Burke), who, apparently holding down a job at the Foreign Office about which he can’t talk, declares a passion for Powell and Pressburger, dismisses the film school of social realism (“We don’t want to see life played out as it is, we want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine”) and  takes her to the Wallace Collection to see Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir and tells her “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost”  as part of his seduction routine.

Next thing, he’s moved in and is buying her sexy lingerie and taking her off to Venice, putting her filmmaking on hold. However, as it turns out, he always seem to be short of money, quite possibly because, as she’s warned a little too late,  he’s a parasitical heroin addict.

Slow, chilled, austere and measured, it offers a non-judgemental look at the class system and a distancing between art and real-life that calls to mind the work of Visconti and Jarman , enfolding into a tale of doomed romance. Swinton Byrne possesses the same inscrutable fragility and reserves her mother Tilda, who plays her mother here, but, in a hint of Princess Diana, with more a suggestion of vulnerability and insecurity behind her eyes while Burke’s underplayed performance delivers a creepy calculated arrogance to perfection. There’s also an amusing cameo from Richard Ayoade as a fellow filmmaker declaring his dismay that, as home of the Stones, the Kinks and the Small Faces, Britain till hasn’t come up with a decent screen musical.In the search for clarity, “Sincerity isn’t enough,” Anthony  tells Julie at one point, but, as Hogg’s film reveals, honesty can be. (MAC)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 20-Thu Sept 26

 

NEW RELEASES

Ad Astra (12A)

Essentially Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues,  director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.

The son of fabled veteran  astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in  his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the  International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.

At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune  in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard,  to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows,  to ostensibly send  a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.

In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating  his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father,  the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.

As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons,  and Roy’s need to escape from Mars,  it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of  Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that  setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path.  (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 Farewell (PG)

“Based on an actual lie” reads the opening statement, writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, the dialogue mostly in Mandarin with some English,  an expansion of a true story about Wang’s own grandmother already told as an episode of the This American Life TV series. The lie in question is the decision by her extended, scattered family not to tell  family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that, as her younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), informs them, has stage 4 lung cancer terminal cancer and only   months to live.

Instead, they use the excuse of a  grandson’s’ wedding to his Japanese girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) to variously return home from America and Japan to Changchun for the marriage and the banquet Nai Nai is organising, to say their goodbyes, everyone under strict instructions not to let the cat out of the bag. That, most especially, includes her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who moved to New York with her family when she was a child, but has kept up a close relationship. She’s horrified that Chinese practise means the diagnosis is being kept secret and, while her parents,  boozy, hangdog-looking father (Tzi Ma) and acerbic, emotionally distant  (“Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die”) mother (Diana Lin) insist she stay behind because she can’t hide her emotions, although financially strapped (and having just heard she’s not getting a  Guggenheim Foundation grant), she flies out anyway.

As such, what ensues is a finely judged farce of  deceptions that takes in a whole range of prickly family dynamics involving long simmering resentments, jealousies, snobbery and snide put downs, all of which Billi looks upon with increasing frustration and annoyance while also having to deal with her feelings of guilt,  detachment from her native country and what family and home really mean.

Hitherto best known for her broad comic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina proves she can also be a finely nuanced serious actress, conveying her emotional struggles with a look or a hesitation in the way she speaks. But she’s also supported by a  superb ensemble cast, most notably the wonderful Zhou as the granny who long since stopped filtering her feelings (and, given she did the same with her late husband, likely knows what’s going on but plays long), Lin with her barely contained hostility towards her China-based sister-in-law’s hypocritical social pretensions,  and, in a largely physical performance involving a drunken wedding karaoke session, Chen Han as  Hao,  the dim bulb son of   Hiyai’s elder brother, whose wedding  has been swiftly arranged (in an amusing scene Nai Nai insists they say they’ve been dating for a year so people don’t think the bride’s pregnant).

Bittersweet with a gentle disarming humour, it’s an affectionate portrait of family  and cultural identity that deftly steers clear of sentimentality to end on a swelling slo mo euphoria and feelgood dramatic irony note in the final credits, a film that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow and perhaps the feeling to reconnect with those distant elderly relatives you’ve not seen in years. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

The Kitchen (15)

Based on a somewhat obscure DC comic, Straight Outta Compton co-writer turned first time director Andrea Berloff, serves up a warmed over variation on Widows  considerably drained of flavour. Set in Hell’s Kitchen in the late 70s, when their respective husbands, low rent Irish-American mobsters Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Rob (Jeremy Robb) and the gang boss’s brother Kevin (James Badge Dale) get sent down for three years in an attempted robbery, their wives, mother-of-two Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), abused Claire (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), who, being both black and uptown has never been accepted as part of the family, find themselves financially stretched. The ‘family’ support money promised by Kevin’s brother, bully boy Little Jackie (Myk Watford), not enough to cover the rent, Kathy persuades the others to join her in taking over collecting the neighbourhood protection money, promising the assorted businesses that they’ll be more effective than the men.  This, of course, doesn’t sit too well with Little Jackie or his mother, Helen (Margo Martindale) who’s still very much involved behind the scenes. And the three are warned that they should get out or face the consquences.  When the consequences come calling on Claire in an attempted rape by Little Jackie, she’s saved by the sudden reappearance of Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a sociopathic former mob hitman and old flame timely back from Vietnam  to put a bullet in Little Jackie’s head and introduce the women to the fine art of dismembering and disposing of a body, a task Claire takes to with relish.

With their boss gone, the men soon fall into line and the trio  are ruling the roost, cleaning up the streets and pulling in a fortune. However, when Kathy decides she wants to help the Irish construction workers, of which her father is one, and pressures (a bullet in the head) the local Hasidic businessmen into employing them, she attracts the attention of Italian mob moss Coretti (Bill Camp) in Brooklyn who supply their own men for the jobs. However, a mutually beneficial deal is brokered but then the bombshell drops that the husbands are getting out early and that they’re going to want to reassume their old positions and ways and won’t take kindly to having their women doing men’s work. Clearly they or  the husbands have to go.

With an underwritten screenplay (which also entails  a scrappy subplot involving Common as an FBI agent) that pulls double crosses and confrontations out of thin air, the film loads up casual violence, sometimes to awkwardly comic effect, but never really conjures any sense of tension.  While Berloff never brings any real sense of character to Hell’s Kitchen itself, the leads do their best with the clunky dialogue and unfocused direction, Moss arguably the strongest of the three. However, while audiences are clearly intended to root for them over the way they’ve been treated in a  male dominated society,  their journey to self-empowerment (cued by such songs as Barracuda and Gold Dust Woman ) leaves an unpleasant taste given that, at least in terms of Ruby and Claire, they’re no less brutal or ruthless than their male counterparts, as the film hobbles towards its implausible and underwhelming conclusion. There’s no heat in this kitchen.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rambo: Last Blood  (18)

Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet  for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed  by a  supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier,  tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a  bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by  Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.

However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a  sort of grislier version of Home Alone.

There’s  a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls  of pills), and is duly let  loose for yet another killing spree.  With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.

The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard  revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending  a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off  the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;   Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Animals (15)

Adapted from her own novel by Emma Jane Unsworth, but relocated from Manchester to Dublin, director Sophie Hyde essentially offers up a female version of Withnail and I as, turning thirty and  marriage sees the bonds of a hitherto inseparable friendship between two party hard women start to unravel.

At 32, reluctant barista Laura (Holliday Grainger) isn’t so much a  failed writer as a stillborn one, constantly jotting down notes,  but not having written more than ten pages in ten years. None of which she’s kept. She shares a flat with her landlady and best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat), the Withnail of the two, a somewhat feckless American  come to Ireland to escape  an abusive father and always ready to accompany Laura on her booze-fuelled jaunts round the city’s clubs and bars, and then to push her further.

However, when Laura’s younger sister Jean (Amy Molloy), once a wild child herself, announces she’s expecting, it sounds some sort of alarm bells and when she starts dating Jim (Fra Fee), a far more straitlaced, classical pianist on the rise, she’s the one who proposes.  Her nights she spends with Jim, who gives up drinking (for reasons of guilt revealed later), but still carries on her partying lifestyle. All of which  leaves confirmed caustic singleton and rebel Tyler not just bemused, but confused, resentful and angry, to the extent that, afraid of losing her,  she attempts to break them up by nudging Laura towards an affair with Marty (Dermot Murphy), a soulful poet professor. At the same time, Laura finds herself uncertain that she actually wants the settled and safe lives of Jim, Jean and her parents, yet nor is she sure she can continue down the same hedonistic path as Tyler.

Someone observes that Laura drinks “with a real sense of mortality”, and it’s very much this that the film explores, the search to find something to give life meaning when staring into the abyss, but always doubting if it really does, or if you’re going to go self-destructive  and ruin everything.  While they may be social animals, of a feral nature, Tyler and Laura have created their own hermetic world and are scared of leaving it, or, in Tyler’s case, of being left there on her own.  Liked Laura’s writing, both women’s lives are blocked and neither can move forward, always scribbling but never forming full paragraphs.

The supporting cast are solid and the two leads are terrific, both prickly and riddled with self-doubt, whether they acknowledge it or not, both fearful of being alone. The screenplay and the actresses make no attempt to render them especially likeable, indeed both can be cruelly hurtful and vindictive, ruthlessly selfish and manipulative, lashing out and yet at the same time are achingly vulnerable in their palpable hurt. The important thing is that they feel real and true,

Working with cinematographer Bryan Mason, Hyde and create an atmosphere so thick you can almost smell the streets and the bars, but equally overdoes her ‘animal’ symbolism  with shots of foxes prowling the alleyways looking for scraps to survive. Even so, this is up thre with Booksmart as one of the most  compelling, insightful and emotionally involving female friendship films in many a  year. (Mockingbird)

Blinded By The Light (12A)

Easily director Gurinder Chadha’s best work since Bend It Like Beckham, this may be predictable and clichéd, but its feelgood crowd pleaser vibe about the power of music to transform lives is impossible to resist. Co-penned by Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges with British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, it’s based on his book about how the music of Bruce Springsteen spoke to him and as a Luton teenager and rescued him from the late 80s austerity and mass unemployment of Thatcher’s Britain with its riots in response to the rise of neo-Nazi National Front

Here, Javed (star in the making Viveik Kalra) is an Anglicised  Pakistani British teenager with no sense of purpose or direction, he’s never had a girlfriend, writes songs for his best mate neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is into the emergent synth pop (the soundtrack also features Pet Shop Boys and Cutting Crew) and politically-charged poetry for himself. He wants to be a writer, but his traditionalist factory worker father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is determined he get a proper job as a doctor or lawyer while his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) takes in piecework so the family, which also includes similarly-Anglicized older sister  Shazia (Nikita Mehta), can scrape by.

Three things happen that turn his life around. His supportive English teacher (Hayley Atwell) is taken with his writing and enters him for a competition. He starts dating activist classmate Eliza (Nell William). And, most importantly, Roops (Aaron Phagura), the only Sikh at his school, introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen by way of Born in the U.S.A and Darkness on the Edge of Town. While others, including Matt And the school’s amateur radio presenter, reckon the Boss is old news, it hits Javed like a thousand volts of electricity as he hears Springsteen expressing his own blue collar frustration and dreams (“I check my look in the mirror, I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face”).  Soon he’s wearing check shirts with torn sleeves and his room is full of Springsteen posters.

But then his dad gets laid off, and suddenly any hopes of becoming a writer, even though he’s given a chance to intern at the local newspaper (where he goes on write a front page lead about an attack on a mosque), seem even more remote.

In similar fashion to Sunshine on Leith and, to some extent, Sing Street (and, if you must, Mamma Mia), Chadha uses Springsteen’s songs often projecting the lyrics on screen, to both propel the narrative and mirror both Javed’s personal issues (such as Independence Day reflecting his relationship with his father) and the state of the nation, such as backdropping the 1987 riots to Jungleland. Naturally, they also serve as a romance booster as in both Prove It All Night and an obligatory crowd song and dance sequence where  he sings Thunder Road to Eliza in the local outdoor market, Matt’s dad (Rob Bryden) and everyone else  singing along. Rather inevitably, the highlight comes with Born To Run as Javed, Roos, and Eliza dance through the city streets and out into the fields.

Evoking thoughts of Nick Hornby and East Is East, it sets Javed’s struggle to claim his own identity against such familiar tropes as fractured friendships, immigrant generational clashes (those ties that bind!) and triumphing over the odds, giving the film an anthemic thematic and narrative quality that echoes the songs. The various narrative strands are deftly woven together, including a sequence where Shazia reveals an unexpected side to her dutiful daughter image and Javed and Roops stand up to a bunch of NF yobs, variously inducing laughter, tears and, above all, inspiration as it climaxes in speech about family, forgiveness and rock n roll that will have you reaching for the tissues and punching the air at the same time. (Mockingbird)

 

Crawl (15)

Basically Lake Placid reinvented as a home invasion movie, or Jaws in the basement with alligators rather than a shark, although characters seem perfectly capable of surviving having limps mangled or ripped off by the swamp killers, this is a perfectly respectable and tension-packed thriller.  With a Category 5 hurricane on the way and everyone being evacuated, when he doesn’t answer his phone , collegiate swimmer (and yes, that proves a crucial plot element) Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) heads out to her demanding ex-coach dad Dave’s (Barry Pepper), southern Florida home and finds the neighbourhood deserted and him badly injured in the crawlspace.  She revives and patches him up but, bad news, the rising flood waters have not just swamped the town, but they’ve brought with them dozens of murderous gators, at least two of whom are in the cellar. So, somehow, she’s got to get herself, dad and the obligatory family dog, to safety before they’re either drowned or eaten.

Virtually, save for some gator fodder, a two-hander (and four paws), it’s a simple B-movie set-up, one which  director Alexandre Aja mines for maximum effect as he piles on the suspense and injury and still finds room to throw in some surprises and character background regarding the father-daughter relationship. It’s popcorn, but it’s well-buttered and salted.  And don’t worry about the dog. (Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister,  Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake,  a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs  and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw  are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner  Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.

All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a  cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).

Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team,  the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Informer (15)

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, clearly taking cues from Michael Mann and Antoine Fuqua, it’s an adaptation (part written by Roland Joffe) of a Swedish crime thriller relocated from Stockholm to New York  and, while fairly generic in a  90s sort of way, it never fails to grip.

An ex-con who got early parole by becoming an FBI informant, Polish former sniper Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is recruited by handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to help in a  sting to nail Polish drugs lord The General (Eugene Lipinski). However, when one of the underlings decides to improvise a deal on the side, things go awry  when a cop gets killed, Pete finds himself being pressured by Wilcox’s boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen), to go along with The General’s demand that, as penance, he break parole so he can get sent back to prison and to act as The General’s inside , but, in fact, work for the FBI to bring down the behind bars networks. Knowing he has the tapes to show what he was doing, he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, NYPD cop Grens (Common) is investigating his buddy’s murder and has Pete pinned as prime suspect. Somewhat inevitably, at some point, cold fish Montgomery orders Wilcox to pull the plug and burn her contact, leaving Pete to survive, unsure of who wants to kill him most, the Polish inmates or the rival African American drug boss.

Throw in supportive Pete’s wife (Ana de Armas) and young daughter, who find themselves caught between Gens, the duplicitous FBI and the General’s goons and there’s plenty of fuse to keep the tangled plot burning.

Between the grim and grimy New York streets and a prison wall to wall with heavily tattooed thugs, the film is high on visual atmosphere and adopts a suitably cynical view of how the FBI use and throw away informants when the situation demands. Kinnaman does strong and soulfully silent to good effect while the supporting cast provide just what the screenplay asks, ranging from cold pragmatism to troubled conscience and doggedly loyal support as it builts to an implausible but nevertheless gripping hostage stand-off climax. There’s enough loose ends for the coda to suggest a sequel. Hopefully the box office will warrant one.  (Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (12)

Based on assorted tales in the young adult horror series of books by Alvin Schwartz, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s also one of the several  writers, set at  Halloween 1968  in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (though any political point is never clear)  and opening to the strains of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, this sees three friends, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who feels she’s to blame for her mom leaving, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with Latino drifter in town Ramon (Michael Garza) who helps protect them from Tommy (Austin Abrams), the local bully, sneak into a creepy abandoned old house. The former home of a paper mill baron and his family, legend has it that the daughter, Sarah Bellows poisoned several of the town’s children and wrote scary stories in their blood, before hanging herself.

Exploring, they stumble upon  a secret room, where Sarah was kept confined, along with her book of stories, which Stella, herself as aspiring writer takes away with her. The creepiness begins when Tommy finds himself being stalked by Harold, the scarecrow on the farm, which he constantly batters with a baseball bat, and being transformed into a man of straw himself. Events which Stella witnesses being written in red in Sarah’s book as they unfold.  Tommy’s just the first. Next comes a story in which Auggie is beset by a female corpse looking for her missing toe (it’s in his stew), Chuck’s sister has an infestation of spiders grow inside her cheek and, during a visit to the hospital to research Sarah’ background,  her brother is cornered in the ‘Red Room’ by a white faced female ghoul.

This just leaves Ramon and Stella, the latter realising that the book reads them and writes their stories, and, naturally, the local cop refuses to believe a word. Until another creature turns up looking for Ramon. All of which means, Stella has to somehow put an end to things by telling the hidden truth of Sarah’s own story, although at this point the film seems rather confused as to the link between them.

Stories hurt and stories heal is the film’s motto and the episodic screenplay (structured much like Final Destination) doggedly unfolds how both work, playing rather like a Scooby-Doo yarn without the dog and, despite some chilling moments, and, unfortunately largely with about the same degree of scariness. (Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the  Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes),  returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and  recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that  has Ned christening him Night Monkey.

Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.

Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a  poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a  drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.

Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless  boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 13-Thu Sept 19

 

NEW RELEASES

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Night Hunter (15)

Critically slated and playing on one just out of city screen, writer-director David Raymond’s debut, originally titled Nomis, is nevertheless a watchable police procedural that, if nothing else affords Henry Cavill a chance to do some effective brooding,

Here, he’s Marshall, a bedraggled, insomniac divorced Minneapolis’ detective who’s lost custody of his tweenage daughter (Emma Tremblay) and, in a plot thread that is swiftly forgotten, is concerned about her Facebook friends. Investigating the death of a young woman found on the back of a truck,  her gets caught up in a case involving Simon (Brendan Fletcher), a white paranoid schizophrenic man-child with mother issues and an apparent multiple personality disorder, who  has abducted, mutilated and murdered a whole string of women.

While novice police profiler Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) tries to get inside Simon’s head, Marshall, with the assistance of Cooper (Ben Kingsley), a retired judge turned vigilante who, using his mouthy female assistant Lara (Eliana Jones) as bait, tracks down and castrates convicted but released paedophiles, is led to dig further when it becomes clear, through the murder of several cops, that Simon wasn’t acting alone.

With Stanley Tucci as the increasingly exasperated Police Commissioner, it’s  a complex narrative that hinges on a logically implausible twist as it heads to its frozen lake climax with Marshall seeking to save both Rachel and Lara. Patently drawing on the likes of Se7en, Split and  The Silence of the Lambs, it never comes close to such benchmarks, but you won’t feel you want your money back afterwards. (Reel)

Photograph (15)

His family fallen into a heavy debt, Rafi (The Lunchbox star Nawazuddin Siddiqui) works as a street photographer at Mumbai  tourist hotspot the Gateway of India. He delivers his standard pitch to Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a young middle class woman lacking in self-confidence and studying to become an accountant. She agrees, but runs off when her family calls without taking the photo with her.  It’s a chance encounter that brings the together when, in an attempt to stop his grandmother, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffer),  going  on about him getting married, sends her the photo and he tells her he’s engaged, but then she turns up to approve the union, leading Rafi to ask Miloni to play along.

She too is under pressure from her relatives to find a husband (giving rise to an amusing scene where she gives one suitor the brush off) , on top of studying late into the night.  Directed by Ritesh Batra, it’s fairly obvious where this is going to go, but, taking in themes of India’s case system, Mumbai’s contrasting economic levels (Rafi shares a flop house with a number of other men) and, framed through doorways and windows,  how it’s possible to be isolated in a city full of people, it meanders gently long with low key performances as the two not as yet lovers come to learn more about themselves and each other. Cinnamon rather than cumin,, the flavours are subtle but they still linger.  (MAC)

The Souvenir (15)

Critically touted but as yet to make her breakthrough, British writer-director Joanna Hogg may have finally had her eureka moment  with this quasi-autobiographical 80s set (seemingly mostly over Christmas though the chronology of background events is inconsistent) tale of an aspirant film student from a  well-to-do background  about which she feels uncomfortable embarking on her first feature. Living in a  flat in Knightsbridge, owned by her wealthy grandparents, a stone’s throw from Harrods (the 1983 bombing of which is heard at one point), she’s Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and she wants to make a documentary about working-class communities in Sunderland in the wake of the shipyards collapse, though she’s not having much luck pitching it to prospective backers. At a party with her Bohemian flatmates, she gets into conversation with the coolly supercilious, sceptical but highly cultured Anthony (Tom Burke), who, apparently holding down a job at the Foreign Office about which he can’t talk, declares a passion for Powell and Pressburger, dismisses the film school of social realism (“We don’t want to see life played out as it is, we want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine”) and  takes her to the Wallace Collection to see Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir and tells her “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost”  as part of his seduction routine.

Next thing, he’s moved in and is buying her sexy lingerie and taking her off to Venice, putting her filmmaking on hold. However, as it turns out, he always seem to be short of money, quite possibly because, as she’s warned a little too late,  he’s a parasitical heroin addict.

Slow, chilled, austere and measured, it offers a non-judgemental look at the class system and a distancing between art and real-life that calls to mind the work of Visconti and Jarman , enfolding into a tale of doomed romance. Swinton Byrne possesses the same inscrutable fragility and reserves her mother Tilda, who plays her mother here, but, in a hint of Princess Diana, with more a suggestion of vulnerability and insecurity behind her eyes while Burke’s underplayed performance delivers a creepy calculated arrogance to perfection. There’s also an amusing cameo from Richard Ayoade as a fellow filmmaker declaring his dismay that, as home of the Stones, the Kinks and the Small Faces, Britain till hasn’t come up with a decent screen musical.

In the search for clarity, “Sincerity isn’t enough,” Anthony  tells Julie at one point, but, as Hogg’s film reveals, honesty can be. A sequel is already in the works. (Electric)

 

Transit (15)

Adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel  about a German concentration camp survivor seeking passage to North America in Nazi-occupied France, but unfolding as a sort of anachronistic timeless Casablanca that includes  reference to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, German director Christian Petzold offers a  conceptually daring look at the refugee crisis in the story of a Georg (Juaquin Phoenix-lookalike Franz Rogowski), a young Jewish audio-visual technician who agrees to deliver two letters to a writer’s hotel room in fascist occupied Paris only to find he’s committed suicide, leaving behind a manuscript and two letters from his estranged wife about meeting up in Marseilles (a place where you’re only welcome to stay if you can prove you’re leaving) to take passage to Mexico.

It’s his firm intention to deliver these and the bad news when he gets there, but he’s purpose is distracted when the injured friend accompanying him dies and Georg strikes up a  bond with the dead man’s young Northern African immigrant son (Lilien Batman) in the local ghetto. Arriving at the American Embassy, before he has chance to explain he’s assumed to be the writer and told his transit papers were being arranged. He also, although he’s not aware at the time, keeps bumping into and gradually falling for the man’s widow (Paula Beer),who has taken up with a German doctor (Godehard Giese), with whom  she was originally going to travel to America, but disembarked to look for her husband and now cannot leave, although her lover can. Georg too  has the choice of leaving and abandoning the boy and his mother to their fate as the occupying forces get closer or staying and putting the transit papers to altruistic use.

A Kafka-esque portrait of purgatory in a never-ending loop (underscored by the use of  the Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere over the end credits), it doesn’t always make literal sense, but it exercises a compelling magnetism. (Sun-Wed: MAC)

 

ALSO PLAYING

The Vinyl Revival (12A)

A follow-up to Last Shop Standing about the demise of the traditional record store, Pip Piper’s new documentary, as the title suggests, looks at the revival of interest in vinyl records and features interviews with many of the new indie record shops owners, the die-hards,  as musicians and industry and cultural pundits to discuss the resurgence and the importance of the record shop and vinyl as a whole. Though quite possibly not why they cost such an exorbitant amount.   (Thu: MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Crawl (15)

Basically Lake Placid reinvented as a home invasion movie, or Jaws in the basement with alligators rather than a shark, although characters seem perfectly capable of surviving having limps mangled or ripped off by the swamp killers, this is a perfectly respectable and tension-packed thriller.  With a Category 5 hurricane on the way and everyone being evacuated, when he doesn’t answer his phone , collegiate swimmer (and yes, that proves a crucial plot element) Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) heads out to her demanding ex-coach dad Dave’s (Barry Pepper), southern Florida home and finds the neighbourhood deserted and him badly injured in the crawlspace.  She revives and patches him up but, bad news, the rising flood waters have not just swamped the town, but they’ve brought with them dozens of murderous gators, at least two of whom are in the cellar. So, somehow, she’s got to get herself, dad and the obligatory family dog, to safety before they’re either drowned or eaten.

Virtually, save for some gator fodder, a two-hander (and four paws), it’s a simple B-movie set-up, one which  director Alexandre Aja mines for maximum effect as he piles on the suspense and injury and still finds room to throw in some surprises and character background regarding the father-daughter relationship. It’s popcorn, but it’s well-buttered and salted.  And don’t worry about the dog. (Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister,  Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake,  a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs  and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw  are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner  Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.

All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a  cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).

Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team,  the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Good Boys (15)

Far better than you might expect from a film touted as being from the people who brought you Superbad and Bad Neighbours, this is essentially a tweenage coming of age cocktail of Stand By Me, South Park and, well, Superbad.  Twelve-year olds Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) are the Bean Bag Boys, best buddies since kindergarten who, while they may regularly drop the f word and talk up how sussed they are about sex and beer, are in fact clueless as to the ways of the world, as evidenced by their disgust and horror at seeing a porno and thinking the sex toys found in Thor’s parents’ bedroom are weapons. An innocence that throws up multiple amusing misinterpretations of the grown up world.

As in all good movies of its kind, they have a mission. Well, two actually. First, they have to recover Max’s dad’s drone which is being held to ransom by two high-schoolers (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) on whom they were spying. The reason they were spying links to the other mission, they need to learn how to kiss before they can go to one of the cool kids’  kissing party, not so much Thor and Lucas, but Max wants to plant lips on his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis, and doesn’t want to mess up. Especially since he’s not yet even summoned up the courage to talk to her.

Somehow these two objectives end up with them having to score sex drug MDMA, much to the earnest Lucas’s horror, to replace the bottle (which they can’t unscrew) they stole from the girls and wound up leaving in the hands of a cop. Which means entering a frat house to hook up with the dealer, and ends up in a mass battle with the resident slackers. And, by way of a comic sidebar, Max gets the money he needs to buy a new drone/replace the drugs by selling Thor’s parents’  blow up sex doll to the guy (Stephen Merchant) who just turned up to buy a collectable gaming card off  Lucas.

Needless to say, the screenplay’s peppered with sex and drug gags, machismo challenges and, but there’s also a sweetness and poignancy to the trio, Thor has given up singing, which he loves, because he thinks it makes him seen uncool and the target of the class bully, Lucas has discovered that his folks are divorcing and Max, well he’s struggling to come to terms with nascent puberty and first love inarticulacy. Friendships are tested, bonds renewed, life lessons learnt and, almost inevitably, the ending includes a school musical.

Ultimately, the amusement in kids swearing is overworked and begins to wear out its welcome, but by then the film is on track for its big emotional finish about growing up and all that means. The boys done good.  (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Informer (15)

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, clearly taking cues from Michael Mann and Antoine Fuqua, it’s an adaptation (part written by Roland Joffe) of a Swedish crime thriller relocated from Stockholm to New York  and, while fairly generic in a  90s sort of way, it never fails to grip.

An ex-con who got early parole by becoming an FBI informant, Polish former sniper Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is recruited by handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to help in a  sting to nail Polish drugs lord The General (Eugene Lipinski). However, when one of the underlings decides to improvise a deal on the side, things go awry  when a cop gets killed, Pete finds himself being pressured by Wilcox’s boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen), to go along with The General’s demand that, as penance, he break parole so he can get sent back to prison and to act as The General’s inside , but, in fact, work for the FBI to bring down the behind bars networks. Knowing he has the tapes to show what he was doing, he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, NYPD cop Grens (Common) is investigating his buddy’s murder and has Pete pinned as prime suspect. Somewhat inevitably, at some point, cold fish Montgomery orders Wilcox to pull the plug and burn her contact, leaving Pete to survive, unsure of who wants to kill him most, the Polish inmates or the rival African American drug boss.

Throw in supportive Pete’s wife (Ana de Armas) and young daughter, who find themselves caught between Gens, the duplicitous FBI and the General’s goons and there’s plenty of fuse to keep the tangled plot burning.

Between the grim and grimy New York streets and a prison wall to wall with heavily tattooed thugs, the film is high on visual atmosphere and adopts a suitably cynical view of how the FBI use and throw away informants when the situation demands. Kinnaman does strong and soulfully silent to good effect while the supporting cast provide just what the screenplay asks, ranging from cold pragmatism to troubled conscience and doggedly loyal support as it builts to an implausible but nevertheless gripping hostage stand-off climax. There’s enough loose ends for the coda to suggest a sequel. Hopefully the box office will warrant one.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mrs. Lowry And Son (PG)

Ask a member of the general public to name three outstanding British painters and the chances are the only ones they’ll know are Constable, Turner and Lowry. Tim Spall as now played two of them. However, unlike Mr. Turner, this, directed by Adrian Noble, is less about the work and more the relationship with his domineering mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). Having fallen on hard times thanks to her late husband’s impecunious way, she and her son were forced to move from high society to the Lancashire mill town of Pendlebury where, he’s taken up his father’s job as a rent collector and, invalided and taken to her bed, she bitterly spends her time either bemoaning her lot or deriding her son’s ‘hobby’. Cruel to a fault (she tells him no woman would ever have him), she takes great pleasure in  reading him a scathing review of one of his paintings  and telling him that he’ll never be an artist. At one dramatic point she snaps that she’s never liked any of his work, that is until their new neighbour (Wendy Morgan), another woman who’s suffered a decline in her fortunes, remarks that she thinks Yachts, a work he painted in 1959 for his mother’s birthday, is very pleasant, prompting her to change her tune, at least in regard to this painting, and asks for it to be brought to her bedroom to admire.

All this the modest Laurie (“I’m just a man who paints”) endures with good grace, Spall’s consummate performance constrained to nuanced facial expressions and sighs that speak volumes,  comforted by the possibility of a London exhibition,  until, realising he’ll never be good enough for her,  he can take no more and finally, but briefly, snaps.

Visually muted in its tones, narratively, it’s a slight affair but the way Noble and his leads explore the emotional dynamics is compelling, especially in suggesting, from childhood flashbacks and the opening scene of Lowry playing a game with the children following him up the street, that he’d have been a different, happier man without his mother around. Ending with a credits sequence exploring Lowry’s paintings that now hang in the Manchester gallery dedicated to his work, it’s a slow but ultimately fascinating film. (Empire Sutton Coldfield)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (12)

Based on assorted tales in the young adult horror series of books by Alvin Schwartz, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s also one of the several  writers, set at  Halloween 1968  in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (though any political point is never clear)  and opening to the strains of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, this sees three friends, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who feels she’s to blame for her mom leaving, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with Latino drifter in town Ramon (Michael Garza) who helps protect them from Tommy (Austin Abrams), the local bully, sneak into a creepy abandoned old house. The former home of a paper mill baron and his family, legend has it that the daughter, Sarah Bellows poisoned several of the town’s children and wrote scary stories in their blood, before hanging herself.

Exploring, they stumble upon  a secret room, where Sarah was kept confined, along with her book of stories, which Stella, herself as aspiring writer takes away with her. The creepiness begins when Tommy finds himself being stalked by Harold, the scarecrow on the farm, which he constantly batters with a baseball bat, and being transformed into a man of straw himself. Events which Stella witnesses being written in red in Sarah’s book as they unfold.  Tommy’s just the first. Next comes a story in which Auggie is beset by a female corpse looking for her missing toe (it’s in his stew), Chuck’s sister has an infestation of spiders grow inside her cheek and, during a visit to the hospital to research Sarah’ background,  her brother is cornered in the ‘Red Room’ by a white faced female ghoul.

This just leaves Ramon and Stella, the latter realising that the book reads them and writes their stories, and, naturally, the local cop refuses to believe a word. Until another creature turns up looking for Ramon. All of which means, Stella has to somehow put an end to things by telling the hidden truth of Sarah’s own story, although at this point the film seems rather confused as to the link between them.

Stories hurt and stories heal is the film’s motto and the episodic screenplay (structured much like Final Destination) doggedly unfolds how both work, playing rather like a Scooby-Doo yarn without the dog and, despite some chilling moments, and, unfortunately largely with about the same degree of scariness. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sometimes Always Never (15)

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the  Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes),  returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and  recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that  has Ned christening him Night Monkey.

Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.

Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a  poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a  drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.

Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless  boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Comedy Festival announces 2019 award shortlist

Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2019

Five of the very best new and emerging comedians from across the West Midlands are in the running for the sixth Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award.

The coveted annual prize aims to recognise and support ‘breaking talent’ from the region, offering the winner a much-valued career boost.

A collaboration between the long-running festival and The Glee Club, the award show officially kicks off the 10-day festival on Friday 4 October 2019, at The Glee.

The nominated acts are Celya AB, Jay Droch, Adam Elmi, Doug Carter and Mary Flanigan.

Originally from the outskirts of Paris, Ceyla AB now calls Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter home. Performing since February 2017, she cites Dylan Moran, David Mitchell and Maria Bamford, as well as Les inconnus and Desproges, as comedy influences. Combining work in customer service with stand-up, she recently made it through to the Funny Women 2019 finals. Celya describes her humour as “warm, daft, strange …”

Having made his stand-up debut at Stirling’s Bar, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, just 18 months ago, Erdington’s Jay Droch has gone on to open for Guz Khan and perform at a BBC Asian Network Comedy Night. Working in logistics, he’s also a member of improv’ troupe Jumprov, and cites Robin Williams as his number one comedy idol.

From tentative steps back in 2015, Adam Elmi started focusing more heavily on stand-up during 2017, developing a “dark and self-depreciating” style. With three part-time jobs (including one as “a bouncer”), he lives in Edgbaston, Birmingham, and recently opened for Tom Stade on his UK tour.

Born in Coventry, and now living in Bedworth, Doug Carter made his debut at Birmingham’s The Roadhouse in the spring of 2017, though it was it was nearly nine months later before he decided to continue pursuing stand-up. He works in the construction industry, and his comedy combines observational humour with real-life stories.

A TV researcher and member of BBC Northern Ireland’s Comedy Writers Room, Mary Flanigan started doing stand-up in her native Belfast, and has continued since moving to Kings Heath, Birmingham, at the beginning of the year. Name-checking Tina Fey, Josie Long, Ross Noble and Maria Bamford as key inspirations, she says her approach to comedy is “constantly changing.”

All five short-listed acts were selected by a panel of comedy professionals based on live performances over the last 12 months.

Celya, Doug, Jay, Mary and Adam
Left to right: The nominees – Celya AB, Doug Carter, Jay Droch, Mary Flanigan and Adam Elmi.

A spokesperson for Birmingham Comedy Festival said: “Our annual award continues to go from strength to strength, with no shortage of potential nominees. But after some heated debate, we’ve eventually whittled down a long list to Celya, Adam, Jay, Doug and Mary.

“We with them all the very best of luck at The Glee Club. It’s a great way to start the festival, and is an exciting opportunity for audiences to see some of the best acts from the region before they break through.”

Birmingham Comedy Festival runs across the city from Friday 4 to Sunday 13 October 2019, with over 80 performances, including appearances from James Acaster, Josh Widdicombe, Impractical Jokers, Henning Wehn, Reginald D Hunter, Jay Rayner, and much more.

The Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award takes place at The Glee Club, The Arcadian, Birmingham, on Friday 4 October 2019. The night is compered by James Cook and features a closing set by rising Scottish star Fern Brady. Tickets £11 (£8 NUS) from 0871 472 0400. For more information see: www.bhamcomfest.co.uk

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 6-Thu Sept 12

 

 

NEW RELEASES

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Shiny Shrimps (15)

Inspired by the real-life underperforming French gay water polo team of the same name (of which co-director Cedric Le Gallo is a member), this puts a spin on the usual underdog sports movie and basically plays like Cool Runnings in a swimming pool, or a Gallic Swimming With Men with more cock jokes. A divorced former Olympic swimming champ who’s past his prime, Matthias Le Goff (Nicolas Gob) is ordered to coach the Shrimps so they qualify for the upcoming  Gay Games in Croatia in restitution for making a homophobic remark to a TV journalist. As you might imagine, he’s not best pleased to be stuck with a bunch of gay amateurs who range from  outrageous queens to shy types just out of the closet,  among them a father (Michael Abiteboul) of two (named Gaspard and Noé as a French art house joke) who has to keep his participation secret from his other half,  thirty-something Jean (Alban Lenoir) who’s hiding the fact his cancer has returned and the grumpy former activist older team ‘daddy’ Joël (Roland Menou) who reckons that his minority privilege means he make as many homophobic slurs as he likes. And then, much to his resentment, there’s the flamboyant Fred (Romain Brau), returned to the team as a woman.

Initially, Le Goff, who’s desperate to qualify for the national team but whose timing is shot,  just does the bare minimum to comply with orders but, partly inspired by the way his teen daughter takes to his charges, he begins to relate to their struggles and gets more involved, getting them through the qualifier up against the tough  Lumberjack Lesbians and eventually accompanying them to Croatia in the team open top bus (cue Priscilla nod) where everyone lets their hair (and trunks down), there’s camp musical numbers and tragedy rising out the flames of success as prejudices (of which the Shrimps are no less guilty) are abandoned, life lessons are embraced and it all ends with a spectacular song and dance funeral number while the moment when, on the bus to the games, one declares “I’ve got my anus tattooed”, reveals it’s the face of  Ryan Gosling is one of the year’s most memorable moments. An engaging, colourfully vibrant cocktail of comedy and drama that embraces its stereotypes with affection, it deserves to make real splash. (Cineworld NEC)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Million Little Pieces (15)

Gathering dust for the past year, this pairs director Sam Taylor-Johnson (her first since Fifty Shades of Grey) and husband Aaron in an adaptation of James Frey autobiographical account of his crack addiction, a book which prompted huge controversy when it was revealed he’d made much of it up. Of course, Hollywood’s never let truth get in the way of a good story, and, Taylor-Johnson’s voiceover announcing “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life.  Some of which actually happened”,  this initially starts out as a solid account of  addiction and excess, opening in 1993 with an out of it, stark naked, partying Frey falling over a balcony onto the roof of the car and waking up to find himself on a plane to Minneapolis. Here, his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam) packs him off to rehab where his motherly counsellor (Juliette Lewis) and a fellow long-serving father figure inmate (Billy Bob Thornton) attempt to help him get clean while he falls in love with a fellow patient (Odessa Young) who gives him purpose, and another, the over-the-top gay John (Giovanni Ribisi), keeps throwing himself at him.

Punctuated with surreal sequences such as Frey wading through a corridor of walls leaking shit or his food shrivelling up, there are some inspired visual moments but, essentially reheating old narrative coals  and platitudes, the film (opening  here on a  single screen) offers little narratively new that you haven’t seen before and done better.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (U)

The game may have long since peaked, but with the first film having raked in $350 million, a sequel was inevitable. With erstwhile social outsider  Red (Jason Sudeikis) having become the local hero after having saved Bird Island from the pigs who wanted to steal their eggs, the two islands are now pretty much at peace, Red and his crew, superfast canary Chuck (Josh Gad) and the aptly named Bomb (Danny McBride) protecting the place from the occasional prank launched by oafish pig leader Leonard  (Bill Hader). However, when a giant ice-meteor comes crashing own on Pig Island and Leonard discovers there’s  a third island, populated by eagles,  birds and bacon have to join forces to prevent deranged purple-plumed tropical eagle Zeta (Leslie Jones) who, tired of life on a paradoxically ice-bound volcanic island with  molten lava core, is intending to  drive out her neighbours so she can rebuild their islands as her own twin paradises.

Rehashing the first film’s themes of  family, friendship, self-doubt, repressed feelings, isolationism and teamwork, the follow-up introduces a new character – and some female empowerment – into the mix in the form of Chuck’s science savvy genius sister  and amateur shrink Silver (Rachel Bloom),  she and Red (after meeting on speed dating session) naturally spend their time denying any mutual attraction. Meanwhile, making a return appearance is Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) who, in turns out, has history with Zeta, prompting an amusing  flashback to his days as  a sort of eagle Danny Zuko from Grease

As the birds and pigs, including Leonard’s female teen assistant Courtney (Awkafina)  and his nerdy gadget man Garry (Sterling K. Brown), team up to find a way into Eagle Island and Zeta’s supervillain lair, there’s also a subplot in which three fluffy hatchlings try to recover the unhatched eggs they borrowed for their dress up game which, joined by three piglets, eventually links into the climax as well as provides a mid-credits sequence.

Also featuring the voices of Tiffany Haddish , Nicki Minaj  and the assorted sprogs of Nicole Kidman, Gal Godot and Viola Davis, as well as such feathery puns as a Flockbusters video store and a book called Crazy Rich Avians, it flaps along  in suitably brightly coloured and sugar rush kiddie friendly fashion complete with poop and snot jokes (though parents might wonder where the urinals scene is going) and a knockabout breakdance battle involving Zeta’s guards and several team members hidden, Trojan Horse-style,  inside an eagle costume.  Coming in the wake of the Secret Life of Pets and Toy Story sequels, it’s decidedly featherweight, but even so, the plumage makes for an entertaining display. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Animals (15)

Adapted from her own novel by Emma Jane Unsworth, but relocated from Manchester to Dublin, director Sophie Hyde essentially offers up a female version of Withnail and I as, turning thirty and  marriage sees the bonds of a hitherto inseparable friendship between two party hard women start to unravel.

At 32, reluctant barista Laura (Holliday Grainger) isn’t so much a  failed writer as a stillborn one, constantly jotting down notes,  but not having written more than ten pages in ten years. None of which she’s kept. She shares a flat with her landlady and best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat), the Withnail of the two, a somewhat feckless American  come to Ireland to escape  an abusive father and always ready to accompany Laura on her booze-fuelled jaunts round the city’s clubs and bars, and then to push her further.

However, when Laura’s younger sister Jean (Amy Molloy), once a wild child herself, announces she’s expecting, it sounds some sort of alarm bells and when she starts dating Jim (Fra Fee), a far more straitlaced, classical pianist on the rise, she’s the one who proposes.  Her nights she spends with Jim, who gives up drinking (for reasons of guilt revealed later), but still carries on her partying lifestyle. All of which  leaves confirmed caustic singleton and rebel Tyler not just bemused, but confused, resentful and angry, to the extent that, afraid of losing her,  she attempts to break them up by nudging Laura towards an affair with Marty (Dermot Murphy), a soulful poet professor. At the same time, Laura finds herself uncertain that she actually wants the settled and safe lives of Jim, Jean and her parents, yet nor is she sure she can continue down the same hedonistic path as Tyler.

Someone observes that Laura drinks “with a real sense of mortality”, and it’s very much this that the film explores, the search to find something to give life meaning when staring into the abyss, but always doubting if it really does, or if you’re going to go self-destructive  and ruin everything.  While they may be social animals, of a feral nature, Tyler and Laura have created their own hermetic world and are scared of leaving it, or, in Tyler’s case, of being left there on her own.  Liked Laura’s writing, both women’s lives are blocked and neither can move forward, always scribbling but never forming full paragraphs.

The supporting cast are solid and the two leads are terrific, both prickly and riddled with self-doubt, whether they acknowledge it or not, both fearful of being alone. The screenplay and the actresses make no attempt to render them especially likeable, indeed both can be cruelly hurtful and vindictive, ruthlessly selfish and manipulative, lashing out and yet at the same time are achingly vulnerable in their palpable hurt. The important thing is that they feel real and true,

Working with cinematographer Bryan Mason, Hyde and create an atmosphere so thick you can almost smell the streets and the bars, but equally overdoes her ‘animal’ symbolism  with shots of foxes prowling the alleyways looking for scraps to survive. Even so, this is up thre with Booksmart as one of the most  compelling, insightful and emotionally involving female friendship films in many a  year. (MAC)

Blinded By The Light (12A)

Easily director Gurinder Chadha’s best work since Bend It Like Beckham, this may be predictable and clichéd, but its feelgood crowd pleaser vibe about the power of music to transform lives is impossible to resist. Co-penned by Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges with British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, it’s based on his book about how the music of Bruce Springsteen spoke to him and as a Luton teenager and rescued him from the late 80s austerity and mass unemployment of Thatcher’s Britain with its riots in response to the rise of neo-Nazi National Front

Here, Javed (star in the making Viveik Kalra) is an Anglicised  Pakistani British teenager with no sense of purpose or direction, he’s never had a girlfriend, writes songs for his best mate neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is into the emergent synth pop (the soundtrack also features Pet Shop Boys and Cutting Crew) and politically-charged poetry for himself. He wants to be a writer, but his traditionalist factory worker father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is determined he get a proper job as a doctor or lawyer while his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) takes in piecework so the family, which also includes similarly-Anglicized older sister  Shazia (Nikita Mehta), can scrape by.

Three things happen that turn his life around. His supportive English teacher (Hayley Atwell) is taken with his writing and enters him for a competition. He starts dating activist classmate Eliza (Nell William). And, most importantly, Roops (Aaron Phagura), the only Sikh at his school, introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen by way of Born in the U.S.A and Darkness on the Edge of Town. While others, including Matt And the school’s amateur radio presenter, reckon the Boss is old news, it hits Javed like a thousand volts of electricity as he hears Springsteen expressing his own blue collar frustration and dreams (“I check my look in the mirror, I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face”).  Soon he’s wearing check shirts with torn sleeves and his room is full of Springsteen posters.

But then his dad gets laid off, and suddenly any hopes of becoming a writer, even though he’s given a chance to intern at the local newspaper (where he goes on write a front page lead about an attack on a mosque), seem even more remote.

In similar fashion to Sunshine on Leith and, to some extent, Sing Street (and, if you must, Mamma Mia), Chadha uses Springsteen’s songs often projecting the lyrics on screen, to both propel the narrative and mirror both Javed’s personal issues (such as Independence Day reflecting his relationship with his father) and the state of the nation, such as backdropping the 1987 riots to Jungleland. Naturally, they also serve as a romance booster as in both Prove It All Night and an obligatory crowd song and dance sequence where  he sings Thunder Road to Eliza in the local outdoor market, Matt’s dad (Rob Bryden) and everyone else  singing along. Rather inevitably, the highlight comes with Born To Run as Javed, Roos, and Eliza dance through the city streets and out into the fields.

Evoking thoughts of Nick Hornby and East Is East, it sets Javed’s struggle to claim his own identity against such familiar tropes as fractured friendships, immigrant generational clashes (those ties that bind!) and triumphing over the odds, giving the film an anthemic thematic and narrative quality that echoes the songs. The various narrative strands are deftly woven together, including a sequence where Shazia reveals an unexpected side to her dutiful daughter image and Javed and Roops stand up to a bunch of NF yobs, variously inducing laughter, tears and, above all, inspiration as it climaxes in speech about family, forgiveness and rock n roll that will have you reaching for the tissues and punching the air at the same time. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Crawl (15)

Basically Lake Placid reinvented as a home invasion movie, or Jaws in the basement with alligators rather than a shark, although characters seem perfectly capable of surviving having limps mangled or ripped off by the swamp killers, this is a perfectly respectable and tension-packed thriller.  With a Category 5 hurricane on the way and everyone being evacuated, when he doesn’t answer his phone , collegiate swimmer (and yes, that proves a crucial plot element) Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) heads out to her demanding ex-coach dad Dave’s (Barry Pepper), southern Florida home and finds the neighbourhood deserted and him badly injured in the crawlspace.  She revives and patches him up but, bad news, the rising flood waters have not just swamped the town, but they’ve brought with them dozens of murderous gators, at least two of whom are in the cellar. So, somehow, she’s got to get herself, dad and the obligatory family dog, to safety before they’re either drowned or eaten.

Virtually, save for some gator fodder, a two-hander (and four paws), it’s a simple B-movie set-up, one which  director Alexandre Aja mines for maximum effect as he piles on the suspense and injury and still finds room to throw in some surprises and character background regarding the father-daughter relationship. It’s popcorn, but it’s well-buttered and salted.  And don’t worry about the dog. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister,  Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake,  a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs  and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw  are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner  Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.

All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a  cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).

Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team,  the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Good Boys (15)

Far better than you might expect from a film touted as being from the people who brought you Superbad and Bad Neighbours, this is essentially a tweenage coming of age cocktail of Stand By Me, South Park and, well, Superbad.  Twelve-year olds Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) are the Bean Bag Boys, best buddies since kindergarten who, while they may regularly drop the f word and talk up how sussed they are about sex and beer, are in fact clueless as to the ways of the world, as evidenced by their disgust and horror at seeing a porno and thinking the sex toys found in Thor’s parents’ bedroom are weapons. An innocence that throws up multiple amusing misinterpretations of the grown up world.

As in all good movies of its kind, they have a mission. Well, two actually. First, they have to recover Max’s dad’s drone which is being held to ransom by two high-schoolers (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) on whom they were spying. The reason they were spying links to the other mission, they need to learn how to kiss before they can go to one of the cool kids’  kissing party, not so much Thor and Lucas, but Max wants to plant lips on his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis, and doesn’t want to mess up. Especially since he’s not yet even summoned up the courage to talk to her.

Somehow these two objectives end up with them having to score sex drug MDMA, much to the earnest Lucas’s horror, to replace the bottle (which they can’t unscrew) they stole from the girls and wound up leaving in the hands of a cop. Which means entering a frat house to hook up with the dealer, and ends up in a mass battle with the resident slackers. And, by way of a comic sidebar, Max gets the money he needs to buy a new drone/replace the drugs by selling Thor’s parents’  blow up sex doll to the guy (Stephen Merchant) who just turned up to buy a collectable gaming card off  Lucas.

Needless to say, the screenplay’s peppered with sex and drug gags, machismo challenges and, but there’s also a sweetness and poignancy to the trio, Thor has given up singing, which he loves, because he thinks it makes him seen uncool and the target of the class bully, Lucas has discovered that his folks are divorcing and Max, well he’s struggling to come to terms with nascent puberty and first love inarticulacy. Friendships are tested, bonds renewed, life lessons learnt and, almost inevitably, the ending includes a school musical.

Ultimately, the amusement in kids swearing is overworked and begins to wear out its welcome, but by then the film is on track for its big emotional finish about growing up and all that means. The boys done good.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Informer (15)

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, clearly taking cues from Michael Mann and Antoine Fuqua, it’s an adaptation (part written by Roland Joffe) of a Swedish crime thriller relocated from Stockholm to New York  and, while fairly generic in a  90s sort of way, it never fails to grip.

An ex-con who got early parole by becoming an FBI informant, Polish former sniper Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is recruited by handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to help in a  sting to nail Polish drugs lord The General (Eugene Lipinski). However, when one of the underlings decides to improvise a deal on the side, things go awry  when a cop gets killed, Pete finds himself being pressured by Wilcox’s boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen), to go along with The General’s demand that, as penance, he break parole so he can get sent back to prison and to act as The General’s inside , but, in fact, work for the FBI to bring down the behind bars networks. Knowing he has the tapes to show what he was doing, he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, NYPD cop Grens (Common) is investigating his buddy’s murder and has Pete pinned as prime suspect. Somewhat inevitably, at some point, cold fish Montgomery orders Wilcox to pull the plug and burn her contact, leaving Pete to survive, unsure of who wants to kill him most, the Polish inmates or the rival African American drug boss.

Throw in supportive Pete’s wife (Ana de Armas) and young daughter, who find themselves caught between Gens, the duplicitous FBI and the General’s goons and there’s plenty of fuse to keep the tangled plot burning.

Between the grim and grimy New York streets and a prison wall to wall with heavily tattooed thugs, the film is high on visual atmosphere and adopts a suitably cynical view of how the FBI use and throw away informants when the situation demands. Kinnaman does strong and soulfully silent to good effect while the supporting cast provide just what the screenplay asks, ranging from cold pragmatism to troubled conscience and doggedly loyal support as it builts to an implausible but nevertheless gripping hostage stand-off climax. There’s enough loose ends for the coda to suggest a sequel. Hopefully the box office will warrant one.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mrs. Lowry And Son (PG)

Ask a member of the general public to name three outstanding British painters and the chances are the only ones they’ll know are Constable, Turner and Lowry. Tim Spall as now played two of them. However, unlike Mr. Turner, this, directed by Adrian Noble, is less about the work and more the relationship with his domineering mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). Having fallen on hard times thanks to her late husband’s impecunious way, she and her son were forced to move from high society to the Lancashire mill town of Pendlebury where, he’s taken up his father’s job as a rent collector and, invalided and taken to her bed, she bitterly spends her time either bemoaning her lot or deriding her son’s ‘hobby’. Cruel to a fault (she tells him no woman would ever have him), she takes great pleasure in  reading him a scathing review of one of his paintings  and telling him that he’ll never be an artist. At one dramatic point she snaps that she’s never liked any of his work, that is until their new neighbour (Wendy Morgan), another woman who’s suffered a decline in her fortunes, remarks that she thinks Yachts, a work he painted in 1959 for his mother’s birthday, is very pleasant, prompting her to change her tune, at least in regard to this painting, and asks for it to be brought to her bedroom to admire.

All this the modest Laurie (“I’m just a man who paints”) endures with good grace, Spall’s consummate performance constrained to nuanced facial expressions and sighs that speak volumes,  comforted by the possibility of a London exhibition,  until, realising he’ll never be good enough for her,  he can take no more and finally, but briefly, snaps.

Visually muted in its tones, narratively, it’s a slight affair but the way Noble and his leads explore the emotional dynamics is compelling, especially in suggesting, from childhood flashbacks and the opening scene of Lowry playing a game with the children following him up the street, that he’d have been a different, happier man without his mother around. Ending with a credits sequence exploring Lowry’s paintings that now hang in the Manchester gallery dedicated to his work, it’s a slow but ultimately fascinating film. (Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC)

 

The Mustang (12A)

Produced by Robert Redford (who, it should be remembered starred in and directed The Horse Whisperer) and helmed by first timer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, this draws on the real-life facts that 100,000 wild horses still roam America and many are rounded up and used as occupational therapy for prisoners who break and train them ready to be auctioned. As such, it’s not hard to see where the story is going when, serving time in a remote prison compound in the Nevada desert for a crime not revealed until a scene towards the end, sporting shaved head and goatee, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a brooding loner (“I’m not good with people”) inmate with anger management issues encounters an equally wilful new equine arrival.

Initially assigned by the grizzled programme manager (Bruce Dern)  to shovel up horse shit, he’s then given a chance to assist fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) in the training (although he briefly blows it when he loses his temper and punches the horse) and comes to bond with the animal he names  Marquis, each taming the rage within the other.

The narrative is  expanded with subplots involving a cellmate who gets Roman to smuggle drugs out of the horse infirmary, scenes between inmates and the prison counsellor (Connie Britton)  and three sequences between Roman and his estranged, pregnant young daughter (Gideon Adlon) that climax in a powerful emotional catharsis, but otherwise this focuses on the dynamic between man and horse. It’s less well-rounded than The Rider, to which it inevitably bears comparison,  but Schoenart’s soulful performance, always threatening to erupt, ensures the humanism at the film’s heart is never dimmed, the first sequence when the horse nuzzles up to him in his isolation profoundly moving. (Cineworld 5 WaysVue Star City)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pain and Glory (15)

Acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar reunites with his muse and frequent screen avatar Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mello, a Madrid-based filmmaker whose best days are behind him and who is afflicted  is by both physical ailments and crippling depression and anxiety that have left him no longer willing to write or able to direct, declaring “Without filming, my life is meaningless.”

Somewhat of a recluse, his only regular contacts being with his housemaid and his devoted assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas), he constantly turns down invitations to attend events or give talks. However, having seen the restoration of one of his classic films, Sabor, put back in touch through a chance meeting with an old actress friend (Cecilia Roth), he’s prompted to reach out to its lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) to whom he hasn’t spoken in 30 years having quarrelled over the way he enacted the character. Now, having reassessed his opinion (“It’s your eyes that have changed. The film is the same”, remarks Mercedes), he wants him to be part of a Q&A on the film.  Although unsurprisingly initially hostile at Salvador’s reappearance in his life, the pair are reconciled, Alberto introducing Salvador to his heroin habit (another cause of the earlier falling out), as a way to ease his pain. The drug also serves to prompt reflections on his past in a search for reasons to move forward.

As such, the ruminative film is regularly punctuated by flashbacks to his childhood (played by Asier Flores) with his mother (Penelope Cruz), initially introduced in a scene with other village women singing while washing clothes in a stream, before moving to a new home which turns out to be a cave dwelling in Paterna, which an aspiring young artist (César Vicente), she befriends helps to decorate in return for her son teaching him to read, inadvertently awakening the lad’s sexual desires in the process and serving to connect past and present in the final stretch.

Although Salvador and Alberto’s relationship hits another bump in the road during the Q&A (by telephone, high on heroin!), it does bring the director back into contact with his longtime former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), himself an ex- heroin junkie who features in Salvador’s  abandoned autobiographical  one-man play Addiction, which Alberto persuade him to let him perform.

Clearly heavy on the autobiography and  often serving as  a love letter apology to his late mother (“I’m sorry I haven’t been the son you wanted”), who in the film admonishes Salvador for  taking inspiration from real life, declaring  in her dying older incarnation (Julieta Serrano) “I don’t like autofiction”  and insisting he never writes about her, it’s a warm and quietly moving work about memory, insecurity, reconciliation, self-acceptance  and redemption, beautifully shot and vibrantly designed (including several animated sequences), peppered with cinematic references and flawlessly acted by its entire cast, Banderas in particular giving one of the best performances of his career in a film that celebrates the power of cinema to connect with the soul. (Electric; Showcase Walsall)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the  Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes),  returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and  recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that  has Ned christening him Night Monkey.

Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.

Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a  poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a  drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.

Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless  boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (12)

Based on assorted tales in the young adult horror series of books by Alvin Schwartz, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s also one of the several  writers, set at  Halloween 1968  in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (though any political point is never clear)  and opening to the strains of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, this sees three friends, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who feels she’s to blame for her mom leaving, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with Latino drifter in town Ramon (Michael Garza) who helps protect them from Tommy (Austin Abrams), the local bully, sneak into a creepy abandoned old house. The former home of a paper mill baron and his family, legend has it that the daughter, Sarah Bellows poisoned several of the town’s children and wrote scary stories in their blood, before hanging herself.

Exploring, they stumble upon  a secret room, where Sarah was kept confined, along with her book of stories, which Stella, herself as aspiring writer takes away with her. The creepiness begins when Tommy finds himself being stalked by Harold, the scarecrow on the farm, which he constantly batters with a baseball bat, and being transformed into a man of straw himself. Events which Stella witnesses being written in red in Sarah’s book as they unfold.  Tommy’s just the first. Next comes a story in which Auggie is beset by a female corpse looking for her missing toe (it’s in his stew), Chuck’s sister has an infestation of spiders grow inside her cheek and, during a visit to the hospital to research Sarah’ background,  her brother is cornered in the ‘Red Room’ by a white faced female ghoul.

This just leaves Ramon and Stella, the latter realising that the book reads them and writes their stories, and, naturally, the local cop refuses to believe a word. Until another creature turns up looking for Ramon. All of which means, Stella has to somehow put an end to things by telling the hidden truth of Sarah’s own story, although at this point the film seems rather confused as to the link between them.

Stories hurt and stories heal is the film’s motto and the episodic screenplay (structured much like Final Destination) doggedly unfolds how both work, playing rather like a Scooby-Doo yarn without the dog and, despite some chilling moments, and, unfortunately largely with about the same degree of scariness. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly Dolls (PG)

The creation of now husband and wife team David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, the Uglydolls line of plush toys was launched in 2001 and became an overnight sensation. It’s unlikely that this film based on them will follow suit. Factory rejects who get pulled off the production line and tossed down the disposal chute, the Ugly Dolls have formed their own community in Uglyville where, headed up by green one-eyed Ox (Blake Shelton), they are content and oblivious to their imperfections. However, the resolutely upbeat Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a gap-toothed blob of pink, doesn’t believe that the Big World  is just  myth and, as the opening song announces, forever dreams of one day finding the child she’s intended for. Realising that new arrivals always come from a portal high up in the walls, she persuades a bunch of fellow dolls, among them canine cyclops Ugly Dog (Pitbull), and two-fanged Wage (Wanda Sykes), to  join her in a quest to the other side.

Which is where the find the Institute of Perfection, a place where human-like dolls are prepared in readiness to follow their toy destinies in the human world, overseen by preening blond-haired pop star-like guru Lou (Nick Jonas), who tosses dolls into a washing machine as punishment, with the help of a trio of mean girls (Janelle Monae among them) each with their own insecurities. Needless to say, the arrival of the Ugly Dolls causes consternation and pits them against the tyrannical Lou.

The notion that every doll needs a child plays like a watered down Toy Story and, indeed, from the songs to the characters, everything about the film feels like a diluted version of kiddie movies you’ve already seen. The message about loving your imperfections because your flaws make you who you are is commendable, but, it just comes across like one  of the Fortune Cookie mottos served up by Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), to be read and thrown away. Pretty much like the film. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Aug 30-Thu Sept 5

 

The Informer (15)

When there’s no screenings until just before a film opens, it’s usually a sign of a turkey. This, however, is an exception that proves the rule. Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, clearly taking cues from Michael Mann and Antoine Fuqua, it’s an adaptation (part written by Roland Joffe) of a Swedish crime thriller relocated from Stockholm to New York  and, while fairly generic in a  90s sort of way, it never fails to grip.

An ex-con who got early parole by becoming an FBI informant, Polish former sniper Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is recruited by handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to help in a  sting to nail Polish drugs lord The General (Eugene Lipinski). However, when one of the underlings decides to improvise a deal on the side, things go awry  when a cop gets killed, Pete finds himself being pressured by Wilcox’s boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen), to go along with The General’s demand that, as penance, he break parole so he can get sent back to prison and to act as The General’s inside , but, in fact, work for the FBI to bring down the behind bars networks. Knowing he has the tapes to show what he was doing, he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, NYPD cop Grens (Common) is investigating his buddy’s murder and has Pete pinned as prime suspect. Somewhat inevitably, at some point, cold fish Montgomery orders Wilcox to pull the plug and burn her contact, leaving Pete to survive, unsure of who wants to kill him most, the Polish inmates or the rival African American drug boss.

Throw in supportive Pete’s wife (Ana de Armas) and young daughter, who find themselves caught between Gens, the duplicitous FBI and the General’s goons and there’s plenty of fuse to keep the tangled plot burning.

Between the grim and grimy New York streets and a prison wall to wall with heavily tattooed thugs, the film is high on visual atmosphere and adopts a suitably cynical view of how the FBI use and throw away informants when the situation demands. Kinnaman does strong and soulfully silent to good effect while the supporting cast provide just what the screenplay asks, ranging from cold pragmatism to troubled conscience and doggedly loyal support as it builts to an implausible but nevertheless gripping hostage stand-off climax. There’s enough loose ends for the coda to suggest a sequel. Hopefully the box office will warrant one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Million Little Pieces (15)

Gathering dust for the past year, this pairs director Sam Taylor-Johnson (her first since Fifty Shades of Grey) and husband Aaron in an adaptation of James Frey autobiographical account of his crack addiction, a book which prompted huge controversy when it was revealed he’d made much of it up. Of course, Hollywood’s never let truth get in the way of a good story, and, Taylor-Johnson’s voiceover announcing “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life.  Some of which actually happened”,  this initially starts out as a solid account of  addiction and excess, opening in 1993 with an out of it, stark naked, partying Frey falling over a balcony onto the roof of the car and waking up to find himself on a plane to Minneapolis. Here, his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam) packs him off to rehab where his motherly counsellor (Juliette Lewis) and a fellow long-serving father figure inmate (Billy Bob Thornton) attempt to help him get clean while he falls in love with a fellow patient (Odessa Young) who gives him purpose, and another, the over-the-top gay John (Giovanni Ribisi), keeps throwing himself at him.

Punctuated with surreal sequences such as Frey wading through a corridor of walls leaking shit or his food shrivelling up, there are some inspired visual moments but, essentially reheating old narrative coals  and platitudes, the film (opening  here on a  single screen) offers little narratively new that you haven’t seen before and done better.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Hail Satan? (15)

Directed by Penny Lane, this is a fascinating, witty and insightful documentary about The Satanic Temple, a devil-worshipping religion that in the space of just a few years has grown from a handful of member to some 50,000 spread across both America and the rest of the world. Although Lane playfully inserts movie clips echoing the stereotypical image of Satanists (indeed, some play up to this as pranksters by wearing Halloween robes for rallies), Lucien Greaves founded the moment in response to what he saw as America’s  increasing Christian theocracy, emblemised by a monument of the 10 Commandments in the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol which he and the Temple successfully campaigned to have removed when they refused to also erect a statue of the goat-headed Baphomet, thereby breaching their constitutional rights of the freedom of religion.

Throughout the film, the central theme is how, in America, state and church, at least the Christian one, have become increasingly linked over recent years and that, despite the motto In God We Trust (inspire by Billy Graham) that appears everywhere, the constitution does not explicitly manifest Christianity as the nation’s religion nor, as they point out, are the 10 Commandments ever referenced in it or the Declaration of Independence.

Although the central issue is the argument of the assorted 10 Commandment monuments (which one interviewee remarks originated as a promotional stunt for the Charlton Heston movie) on political sites across America, specifically confronting Florida Governor, Rick Scott, the film also explores the various other activities of the Temple members, among them anti-litter patrols (with pitchforks) and protesting against homophobia and anti-abortionists.

Refuting suggestions of evil and declaring themselves free thinker rebels seeking social and political justice, at times their methods can seem extreme (the fetish babies incident, for example), at others knowingly provocative such as introducing an After-School Satanist Club for kids, but there is always a persuasive argument behind their actions. And, when Jax Blackmore, the leader of the Detroit temple, advocated that Trump should be assassinated, she was expelled for bringing the movement into disrepute.

Although some of its members, which include former Muslims, atheists and disillusioned Christians, might come across as   misfits or just plain weirdoes, the film is at pains to show many are equally articulate professionals and intellectuals such as practising attorneys filing anti-discrimination lawsuits. One remark how he gave up on Christianity when his Sunday School told him Ghandi would go to hell as he was a Hindu.

It makes some interesting points, such as suggesting the 1980s Satanic Panic that gripped America was initiated as a smokescreen for the systematic abuse of children by the Catholic Church, while the Temple’s Seven Tenets, which include doing no harm, the inviolability of one’s body and that “one should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs”, seem more relevant today than the Commandments themselves. A thoughtful and hugely entertaining two fingers (the first and last) to America’s fundamentalist right wing. (Electric)

Mrs. Lowry And Son (PG)

Ask a member of the general public to name three outstanding British painters and the chances are the only ones they’ll know are Constable, Turner and Lowry. Tim Spall as now played two of them. However, unlike Mr. Turner, this, directed by Adrian Noble, is less about the work and more the relationship with his domineering mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). Having fallen on hard times thanks to her late husband’s impecunious way, she and her son were forced to move from high society to the Lancashire mill town of Pendlebury where, he’s taken up his father’s job as a rent collector and, invalided and taken to her bed, she bitterly spends her time either bemoaning her lot or deriding her son’s ‘hobby’. Cruel to a fault (she tells him no woman would ever have him), she takes great pleasure in  reading him a scathing review of one of his paintings  and telling him that he’ll never be an artist. At one dramatic point she snaps that she’s never liked any of his work, that is until their new neighbour (Wendy Morgan), another woman who’s suffered a decline in her fortunes, remarks that she thinks Yachts, a work he painted in 1959 for his mother’s birthday, is very pleasant, prompting her to change her tune, at least in regard to this painting, and asks for it to be brought to her bedroom to admire.

All this the modest Laurie (“I’m just a man who paints”) endures with good grace, Spall’s consummate performance constrained to nuanced facial expressions and sighs that speak volumes,  comforted by the possibility of a London exhibition,  until, realising he’ll never be good enough for her,  he can take no more and finally, but briefly, snaps.

Visually muted in its tones, narratively, it’s a slight affair but the way Noble and his leads explore the emotional dynamics is compelling, especially in suggesting, from childhood flashbacks and the opening scene of Lowry playing a game with the children following him up the street, that he’d have been a different, happier man without his mother around. Ending with a credits sequence exploring Lowry’s paintings that now hang in the Manchester gallery dedicated to his work, it’s a slow but ultimately fascinating film. (Cineworld NEC)

 

The Mustang (15)

Produced by Robert Redford (who, it should be remembered starred in and directed The Horse Whisperer) and helmed by first timer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, this draws on the real-life facts that 100,000 wild horses still roam America and many are rounded up and used as occupational therapy for prisoners who break and train them ready to be auctioned. As such, it’s not hard to see where the story is going when, serving time in a remote prison compound in the Nevada desert for a crime not revealed until a scene towards the end, sporting shaved head and goatee, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a brooding loner (“I’m not good with people”) inmate with anger management issues encounters an equally wilful new equine arrival.

Initially assigned by the grizzled programme manager (Bruce Dern)  to shovel up horse shit, he’s then given a chance to assist fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) in the training (although he briefly blows it when he loses his temper and punches the horse) and comes to bond with the animal he names  Marquis, each taming the rage within the other.

The narrative is  expanded with subplots involving a cellmate who gets Roman to smuggle drugs out of the horse infirmary, scenes between inmates and the prison counsellor (Connie Britton)  and three sequences between Roman and his estranged, pregnant young daughter (Gideon Adlon) that climax in a powerful emotional catharsis, but otherwise this focuses on the dynamic between man and horse. It’s less well-rounded than The Rider, to which it inevitably bears comparison,  but Schoenart’s soulful performance, always threatening to erupt, ensures the humanism at the film’s heart is never dimmed, the first sequence when the horse nuzzles up to him in his isolation profoundly moving. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Amazing Grace (U)       

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

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (U)

The game may have long since peaked, but with the first film having raked in $350 million, a sequel was inevitable. With erstwhile social outsider  Red (Jason Sudeikis) having become the local hero after having saved Bird Island from the pigs who wanted to steal their eggs, the two islands are now pretty much at peace, Red and his crew, superfast canary Chuck (Josh Gad) and the aptly named Bomb (Danny McBride) protecting the place from the occasional prank launched by oafish pig leader Leonard  (Bill Hader). However, when a giant ice-meteor comes crashing own on Pig Island and Leonard discovers there’s  a third island, populated by eagles,  birds and bacon have to join forces to prevent deranged purple-plumed tropical eagle Zeta (Leslie Jones) who, tired of life on a paradoxically ice-bound volcanic island with  molten lava core, is intending to  drive out her neighbours so she can rebuild their islands as her own twin paradises.

Rehashing the first film’s themes of  family, friendship, self-doubt, repressed feelings, isolationism and teamwork, the follow-up introduces a new character – and some female empowerment – into the mix in the form of Chuck’s science savvy genius sister  and amateur shrink Silver (Rachel Bloom),  she and Red (after meeting on speed dating session) naturally spend their time denying any mutual attraction. Meanwhile, making a return appearance is Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) who, in turns out, has history with Zeta, prompting an amusing  flashback to his days as  a sort of eagle Danny Zuko from Grease

As the birds and pigs, including Leonard’s female teen assistant Courtney (Awkafina)  and his nerdy gadget man Garry (Sterling K. Brown), team up to find a way into Eagle Island and Zeta’s supervillain lair, there’s also a subplot in which three fluffy hatchlings try to recover the unhatched eggs they borrowed for their dress up game which, joined by three piglets, eventually links into the climax as well as provides a mid-credits sequence.

Also featuring the voices of Tiffany Haddish , Nicki Minaj  and the assorted sprogs of Nicole Kidman, Gal Godot and Viola Davis, as well as such feathery puns as a Flockbusters video store and a book called Crazy Rich Avians, it flaps along  in suitably brightly coloured and sugar rush kiddie friendly fashion complete with poop and snot jokes (though parents might wonder where the urinals scene is going) and a knockabout breakdance battle involving Zeta’s guards and several team members hidden, Trojan Horse-style,  inside an eagle costume.  Coming in the wake of the Secret Life of Pets and Toy Story sequels, it’s decidedly featherweight, but even so, the plumage makes for an entertaining display. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Blinded By The Light (12A)

Easily director Gurinder Chadha’s best work since Bend It Like Beckham, this may be predictable and clichéd, but its feelgood crowd pleaser vibe about the power of music to transform lives is impossible to resist. Co-penned by Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges with British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, it’s based on his book about how the music of Bruce Springsteen spoke to him and as a Luton teenager and rescued him from the late 80s austerity and mass unemployment of Thatcher’s Britain with its riots in response to the rise of neo-Nazi National Front

Here, Javed (star in the making Viveik Kalra) is an Anglicised  Pakistani British teenager with no sense of purpose or direction, he’s never had a girlfriend, writes songs for his best mate neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is into the emergent synth pop (the soundtrack also features Pet Shop Boys and Cutting Crew) and politically-charged poetry for himself. He wants to be a writer, but his traditionalist factory worker father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is determined he get a proper job as a doctor or lawyer while his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) takes in piecework so the family, which also includes similarly-Anglicized older sister  Shazia (Nikita Mehta), can scrape by.

Three things happen that turn his life around. His supportive English teacher (Hayley Atwell) is taken with his writing and enters him for a competition. He starts dating activist classmate Eliza (Nell William). And, most importantly, Roops (Aaron Phagura), the only Sikh at his school, introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen by way of Born in the U.S.A and Darkness on the Edge of Town. While others, including Matt And the school’s amateur radio presenter, reckon the Boss is old news, it hits Javed like a thousand volts of electricity as he hears Springsteen expressing his own blue collar frustration and dreams (“I check my look in the mirror, I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face”).  Soon he’s wearing check shirts with torn sleeves and his room is full of Springsteen posters.

But then his dad gets laid off, and suddenly any hopes of becoming a writer, even though he’s given a chance to intern at the local newspaper (where he goes on write a front page lead about an attack on a mosque), seem even more remote.

In similar fashion to Sunshine on Leith and, to some extent, Sing Street (and, if you must, Mamma Mia), Chadha uses Springsteen’s songs often projecting the lyrics on screen, to both propel the narrative and mirror both Javed’s personal issues (such as Independence Day reflecting his relationship with his father) and the state of the nation, such as backdropping the 1987 riots to Jungleland. Naturally, they also serve as a romance booster as in both Prove It All Night and an obligatory crowd song and dance sequence where  he sings Thunder Road to Eliza in the local outdoor market, Matt’s dad (Rob Bryden) and everyone else  singing along. Rather inevitably, the highlight comes with Born To Run as Javed, Roos, and Eliza dance through the city streets and out into the fields.

Evoking thoughts of Nick Hornby and East Is East, it sets Javed’s struggle to claim his own identity against such familiar tropes as fractured friendships, immigrant generational clashes (those ties that bind!) and triumphing over the odds, giving the film an anthemic thematic and narrative quality that echoes the songs. The various narrative strands are deftly woven together, including a sequence where Shazia reveals an unexpected side to her dutiful daughter image and Javed and Roops stand up to a bunch of NF yobs, variously inducing laughter, tears and, above all, inspiration as it climaxes in speech about family, forgiveness and rock n roll that will have you reaching for the tissues and punching the air at the same time. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Electric; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Crawl (15)

Basically Lake Placid reinvented as a home invasion movie, or Jaws in the basement with alligators rather than a shark, although characters seem perfectly capable of surviving having limps mangled or ripped off by the swamp killers, this is a perfectly respectable and tension-packed thriller.  With a Category 5 hurricane on the way and everyone being evacuated, when he doesn’t answer his phone , collegiate swimmer (and yes, that proves a crucial plot element) Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) heads out to her demanding ex-coach dad Dave’s (Barry Pepper), southern Florida home and finds the neighbourhood deserted and him badly injured in the crawlspace.  She revives and patches him up but, bad news, the rising flood waters have not just swamped the town, but they’ve brought with them dozens of murderous gators, at least two of whom are in the cellar. So, somehow, she’s got to get herself, dad and the obligatory family dog, to safety before they’re either drowned or eaten.

Virtually, save for some gator fodder, a two-hander (and four paws), it’s a simple B-movie set-up, one which  director Alexandre Aja mines for maximum effect as he piles on the suspense and injury and still finds room to throw in some surprises and character background regarding the father-daughter relationship. It’s popcorn, but it’s well-buttered and salted.  And don’t worry about the dog. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister,  Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake,  a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs  and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw  are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner  Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.

All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a  cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).

Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team,  the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Good Boys (15)

Far better than you might expect from a film touted as being from the people who brought you Superbad and Bad Neighbours, this is essentially a tweenage coming of age cocktail of Stand By Me, South Park and, well, Superbad.  Twelve-year olds Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) are the Bean Bag Boys, best buddies since kindergarten who, while they may regularly drop the f word and talk up how sussed they are about sex and beer, are in fact clueless as to the ways of the world, as evidenced by their disgust and horror at seeing a porno and thinking the sex toys found in Thor’s parents’ bedroom are weapons. An innocence that throws up multiple amusing misinterpretations of the grown up world.

As in all good movies of its kind, they have a mission. Well, two actually. First, they have to recover Max’s dad’s drone which is being held to ransom by two high-schoolers (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) on whom they were spying. The reason they were spying links to the other mission, they need to learn how to kiss before they can go to one of the cool kids’  kissing party, not so much Thor and Lucas, but Max wants to plant lips on his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis, and doesn’t want to mess up. Especially since he’s not yet even summoned up the courage to talk to her.

Somehow these two objectives end up with them having to score sex drug MDMA, much to the earnest Lucas’s horror, to replace the bottle (which they can’t unscrew) they stole from the girls and wound up leaving in the hands of a cop. Which means entering a frat house to hook up with the dealer, and ends up in a mass battle with the resident slackers. And, by way of a comic sidebar, Max gets the money he needs to buy a new drone/replace the drugs by selling Thor’s parents’  blow up sex doll to the guy (Stephen Merchant) who just turned up to buy a collectable gaming card off  Lucas.

Needless to say, the screenplay’s peppered with sex and drug gags, machismo challenges and, but there’s also a sweetness and poignancy to the trio, Thor has given up singing, which he loves, because he thinks it makes him seen uncool and the target of the class bully, Lucas has discovered that his folks are divorcing and Max, well he’s struggling to come to terms with nascent puberty and first love inarticulacy. Friendships are tested, bonds renewed, life lessons learnt and, almost inevitably, the ending includes a school musical.

Ultimately, the amusement in kids swearing is overworked and begins to wear out its welcome, but by then the film is on track for its big emotional finish about growing up and all that means. The boys done good.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Only You (15)

Meeting when they both hail  taxi on New Year’s Eve, Spanish arts administrator Elena (Laia Costa) takes English PhD student Jake (Josh O’Connor) back to her Glasgow flat where dancing to Elvis Coszello’s I Want You leads to sex and a subsequent relationship, he moving in from his house share.  He’s 26 and, although she doesn’t initially admit it, she’s 35, the age at which Jake reckons women are at their sexual peak. But also, as she’s all too aware, when the biological clock starts counting down.  That her circle of friends are either expecting or already mothers, inevitably makes her broody, prompting Jake to suggest they have a baby. Which is where the problems start.  After six months, she’s still not conceived and, after some debate, they turn to IVF; however, that too proves unsuccessful which, in turn, puts a further train on the relationship with Elena feeling that being unable to fulfil the belief that having a  child is the key to happiness  makes her less of a person, less of a woman, and, as such, unworthy of Jake.

The debut feature by female writer-director Harry Wootliff, it’s very much a film driven by long stretches of dialogue between the two protagonists as they share or seek to disguise their confused feelings, although these are punctuated by scenes involving Elena’s friends (and their babies), from whose maternal happiness she feels increasingly isolated, and a visit to Jake’s dad (Peter Wight), widowed when his wife was 38, which adds further resonance to his son’s  search for the ideal romance. Dealing with disappointment, immaturity, self-loathing, insecurity but also the potential for an enduring love and partnership that, while Elena fears “this crazy gap in our future”, doesn’t have to – or can’t – conform to nuclear family stereotypes, honest, compassionate and deeply affecting, fuelled by two very natural  and engaging lead turns who handle the laughs and the anguish with genuine chemistry, drawing you into their relationship in the hope that it can survive. (Electric)

Pain and Glory (15)

Acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar reunites with his muse and frequent screen avatar Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mello, a Madrid-based filmmaker whose best days are behind him and who is afflicted  is by both physical ailments and crippling depression and anxiety that have left him no longer willing to write or able to direct, declaring “Without filming, my life is meaningless.”

Somewhat of a recluse, his only regular contacts being with his housemaid and his devoted assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas), he constantly turns down invitations to attend events or give talks. However, having seen the restoration of one of his classic films, Sabor, put back in touch through a chance meeting with an old actress friend (Cecilia Roth), he’s prompted to reach out to its lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) to whom he hasn’t spoken in 30 years having quarrelled over the way he enacted the character. Now, having reassessed his opinion (“It’s your eyes that have changed. The film is the same”, remarks Mercedes), he wants him to be part of a Q&A on the film.  Although unsurprisingly initially hostile at Salvador’s reappearance in his life, the pair are reconciled, Alberto introducing Salvador to his heroin habit (another cause of the earlier falling out), as a way to ease his pain. The drug also serves to prompt reflections on his past in a search for reasons to move forward.

As such, the ruminative film is regularly punctuated by flashbacks to his childhood (played by Asier Flores) with his mother (Penelope Cruz), initially introduced in a scene with other village women singing while washing clothes in a stream, before moving to a new home which turns out to be a cave dwelling in Paterna, which an aspiring young artist (César Vicente), she befriends helps to decorate in return for her son teaching him to read, inadvertently awakening the lad’s sexual desires in the process and serving to connect past and present in the final stretch.

Although Salvador and Alberto’s relationship hits another bump in the road during the Q&A (by telephone, high on heroin!), it does bring the director back into contact with his longtime former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), himself an ex- heroin junkie who features in Salvador’s  abandoned autobiographical  one-man play Addiction, which Alberto persuade him to let him perform.

Clearly heavy on the autobiography and  often serving as  a love letter apology to his late mother (“I’m sorry I haven’t been the son you wanted”), who in the film admonishes Salvador for  taking inspiration from real life, declaring  in her dying older incarnation (Julieta Serrano) “I don’t like autofiction”  and insisting he never writes about her, it’s a warm and quietly moving work about memory, insecurity, reconciliation, self-acceptance  and redemption, beautifully shot and vibrantly designed (including several animated sequences), peppered with cinematic references and flawlessly acted by its entire cast, Banderas in particular giving one of the best performances of his career in a film that celebrates the power of cinema to connect with the soul. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; MAC; Showcase Walsall)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the  Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes),  returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and  recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that  has Ned christening him Night Monkey.

Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.

Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a  poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a  drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.

Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless  boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up.  (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (12)

Based on assorted tales in the young adult horror series of books by Alvin Schwartz, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s also one of the several  writers, set at  Halloween 1968  in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (though any political point is never clear)  and opening to the strains of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, this sees three friends, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who feels she’s to blame for her mom leaving, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with Latino drifter in town Ramon (Michael Garza) who helps protect them from Tommy (Austin Abrams), the local bully, sneak into a creepy abandoned old house. The former home of a paper mill baron and his family, legend has it that the daughter, Sarah Bellows poisoned several of the town’s children and wrote scary stories in their blood, before hanging herself.

Exploring, they stumble upon  a secret room, where Sarah was kept confined, along with her book of stories, which Stella, herself as aspiring writer takes away with her. The creepiness begins when Tommy finds himself being stalked by Harold, the scarecrow on the farm, which he constantly batters with a baseball bat, and being transformed into a man of straw himself. Events which Stella witnesses being written in red in Sarah’s book as they unfold.  Tommy’s just the first. Next comes a story in which Auggie is beset by a female corpse looking for her missing toe (it’s in his stew), Chuck’s sister has an infestation of spiders grow inside her cheek and, during a visit to the hospital to research Sarah’ background,  her brother is cornered in the ‘Red Room’ by a white faced female ghoul.

This just leaves Ramon and Stella, the latter realising that the book reads them and writes their stories, and, naturally, the local cop refuses to believe a word. Until another creature turns up looking for Ramon. All of which means, Stella has to somehow put an end to things by telling the hidden truth of Sarah’s own story, although at this point the film seems rather confused as to the link between them.

Stories hurt and stories heal is the film’s motto and the episodic screenplay (structured much like Final Destination) doggedly unfolds how both work, playing rather like a Scooby-Doo yarn without the dog and, despite some chilling moments, and, unfortunately largely with about the same degree of scariness. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly Dolls (PG)

The creation of now husband and wife team David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, the Uglydolls line of plush toys was launched in 2001 and became an overnight sensation. It’s unlikely that this film based on them will follow suit. Factory rejects who get pulled off the production line and tossed down the disposal chute, the Ugly Dolls have formed their own community in Uglyville where, headed up by green one-eyed Ox (Blake Shelton), they are content and oblivious to their imperfections. However, the resolutely upbeat Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a gap-toothed blob of pink, doesn’t believe that the Big World  is just  myth and, as the opening song announces, forever dreams of one day finding the child she’s intended for. Realising that new arrivals always come from a portal high up in the walls, she persuades a bunch of fellow dolls, among them canine cyclops Ugly Dog (Pitbull), and two-fanged Wage (Wanda Sykes), to  join her in a quest to the other side.

Which is where the find the Institute of Perfection, a place where human-like dolls are prepared in readiness to follow their toy destinies in the human world, overseen by preening blond-haired pop star-like guru Lou (Nick Jonas), who tosses dolls into a washing machine as punishment, with the help of a trio of mean girls (Janelle Monae among them) each with their own insecurities. Needless to say, the arrival of the Ugly Dolls causes consternation and pits them against the tyrannical Lou.

The notion that every doll needs a child plays like a watered down Toy Story and, indeed, from the songs to the characters, everything about the film feels like a diluted version of kiddie movies you’ve already seen. The message about loving your imperfections because your flaws make you who you are is commendable, but, it just comes across like one  of the Fortune Cookie mottos served up by Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), to be read and thrown away. Pretty much like the film. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Yesterday (12A)

Another film that comes with an inspired idea but struggles to find anything much to do with it beyond the initial premise and singularly fails to navigate the plot holes it opens up. That premise is that, after 10 years, talented but struggling 27-year-old Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is fed up of playing the same round of Sussex bars to people who don’t want to listen. So, he tells Ellie (Lily James in uber girl next door mode), his childhood best friend and manager (naturally, neither tells the other they love them) that he’s going to pack it in and return to teaching. On the way home, the entire country has a blackout (art mirroring in Argentinean life) and he collides with bus in the dark. He wakes up in hospital missing a tooth. That’s not the only thing that’s gone missing. Down the pub he strums a song on his new guitar his mates and is gobsmacked when they’re greatly impressed with what he’s written. Except he hasn’t. The song is Yesterday, but they’ve never heard it before. Nor have they ever heard of The Beatles. Indeed, racing home to his computer, Jack discovers that, in this new reality, they’ve never existed. He’s the only one who remembers them. And, more importantly, their songs. So, next thing you know he’s scrabbling to remember all the lyrics (he goes to Liverpool to visit Strawberry Fields and Eleanor Rigby’s grave) and passing them off as his own. This first gets him the attention of a smalltime producer and studio owner who invites him to record some demos, which leads to an interview and airing on the in-house TV channel of the supermarket where he works  and, subsequently, none other than Ed Sheeran turning on his doorstep asking him to play  some support slots and, from there, it’s just a short step to Ed’s supercilious, sarcastic American manager, Debra (Kate McKinnon in broad but very funny music exec send-up mode) to sign him up, dollar signs and beachside mansions flashing in her eyes, as she prepares to groom him for superstardom, leaving Ellie behind nursing heartbreak in a rebound romance.

Does Jack get to realise fame built on a lie means nothing? Does he get to realise that wants he really wants his Ellie? Well, since this is written by Richard Curtis of course he does. But, while getting there has its sweet and amusing moments, this is far from his best work. Nor is it a highpoint in director Danny Boyle’s career either.

The narrative is all over the place and, throwing logic to the wind, frequently makes no sense. Jack’s stalked by an elderly couple carrying plastic yellow submarine who, it turns out also remember The Beatles, though quite how or why is never explained.  In this new reality, the Fab Four aren’t the only thing that have vanished. Nobody’s heard of Coca Cola or Harry Potter, or indeed Oasis, which makes nonsense of Ellie’s flashback to watching Jack perform Wonderwall at the school talent show.

There’s a wholly misguided moment when Jack meets a now elderly John Lennon, an artist who, in a telegraphed wake up to call to Jack, got to spend his life with the woman he loved, but there’s no hint of George, Ringo or Paul. Though Jack does get to wear a very familiar cardigan.

Naturally, there’s a generous helping of Beatles hits performed by Jack, including an amusing scene where he attempts to play Let It Be to his distracted parents (Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar) and a self-effacing moment from Sheeran, who declares himself Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, when he suggests Jack should call his new song Hey Dude while, alongside a pointless James Cordon cameo, Joel Fry offers some running comic relief as Jack’s idiot roadie. But, even in its confess the truth and true love comes together moment, the underwritten screenplay has simply none of the emotional spark Curtis brought to Notting Hill or Love, Actually. A Twilight Zone romcom that ferries across the Merseybeat but never gets to port, this Yesterday’s not here to stay.  (Empire Great Park)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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