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

NEW RELEASES

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, whileAlun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

120 Beats Per Minute (15)

Taking its title from the electronic music to which the characters dance as well as the measuring of heartbeats, French writer-director Robin Campillo’s subtitled film is compelling  ensemble drama about the late 80s campaign by the Paris-based Act Up movement to raise awareness of AIDS, especially among a largely  apathetic gay community,  and to pressure the complacent government and pharmaceutical giants, here represented by Big Pharma, a company withholding results of trials until a major conference almost a year hence, into action.

The activists, mostly HIV-positive males, are an eclectic mixed group from different walks of life and social classes, the weekly gatherings, at which everyone gets the chance to speak, chaired by Thibault (Antoine Reinartz)l whose authority rankles with some, especially  the militant Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one never backward in challenging what he sees as the far too moderate and diplomatic actions favoured by the likes of Sophie (Adèle Haenel).

The film opens with a misjudgement involving fake blood and handcuffs during a protest disrupting a medical convention that results in  Act Up being seen as a violent faction, something Thibault and some of the other organisers are anxious to rectify, and  continues as they plan further actions to confront Big Pharma and get them to the table Running alongside this is the inevitably doomed love story between Sean and the more retiring, and HIV-negative, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a sub-plot that provides the film’s emotional anchor  and context.

Taking a  resolutely  unsentimental approach (though not without being emotionally affecting), it trades equally in anger, frustration, tenderness and acceptance, the protest and rally scenes such as the invasion of Big Pharma’s offices and the Gay Pride march, vividly enacted while, in contrast, Campillo brings a poignant low key tone to the final moments as Sean’s friends gather at his mother’s home to bid farewell following the inevitable. He also brings a distinct poetic visual resonance to certain moments, such as the transitions from the dust created by the dancers to the molecules reacting to the virus inside the body and the dreamlike coda of a Seine turned red.  There’s also a particularly striking moment of defiance and tenderness as Nathan masturbates the hospitalised and dying Sean. At 140  minutes, it’s considerably overlong and there’s far too many characters to provide most of them with more than sketchy background and personality, but, even so,  this is compelling and important stuff. (Electric; MAC)

Every Day (12A)

A novel spin on the body swap genre, and with an intelligence that belies its offbeat premise, based on David Levithan’s young-adult novel this entails a high school girl falling in love with a bodiless spirit that calls itself A who, every day, wakes up in a different person’s body, always of the same age and in the same area (most of them seem to go to the same school), but of different gender and race. However, Cinderella-like, at the stroke midnight, A has to leave ready to wake up in the next day’s body. A first shows up in the body of Justin (Justice Smith), the  mixed-race boyfriend of Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) who’s surprised to find he’s acting a lot nicer towards her as they skip school to spend the day together. The next day, however, he’s back to his old self and can’t remember anything about the previous 24 hours.  A, however, has been smitten and, breaking his own rule to never leave a trace,  over the course of the film and different bodies, among them a white cheerleader, a portly Asian boy (Jacob Batalon), a transgender student, a black boy (Rory McDonald) with a domineering mother and a dance happy guy at a party who turns out to be a devout Christian who subsequently believes he’s been possessed by the devil, he forms a friendship with an understandably initially sceptical Rhiannon. At one point, A even wakes up as Rhiannon. Having pushed himself (let’s assume A is male) to remain in the body of suicidal Asian girl long enough to get her (through ‘him’) to ask for help, he’s then able to extend his stay in  the body of another of  Rhiannon’s classmates, a shy but sensitive sort (Owen Teague) who is clearly a far more suitable match than Justin.

The subplot involving the troubled marriage of Rhiannon’s parents (Maria Bello, Michael Cram) following her father’s manic episode’ and subsequent depressive funk where he spends his time painting faces feels somewhat redundant other than in allowing for an epiphany, while her snooty but caring sister, Jo (Debbie Ryan) seems to have no story at all.

However, despite this, what emerges is a sweet, funny, tender fantasy about diversity, sexuality and pure romantic love, one which encourages its teenage audiences to look beyond the externals and find the soul of the person within. Ultimately, a sort of two-legged version of A Dog’s Purpose by way of Groundhog Day, it  ably compensate sin originality and heart for what it lacks in depth.

(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park)

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Leisure Seeker (15)

The title refers to an ancient Winnebago camper van in which an elderly married Massachusetts couple, southern belle Ella and her distinguished husband John Spencer (Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland), he a retired English professor, she, well it’s never really clear what she did, take off for a nostalgic cross state road trip, much to the consternation of their  son  and daughter (Christian McKay, Janel Moloney). That’ll be because dad has advancing Alzheimer’s and mom is in the late stages of terminal cancer, and she wants them to take one last trip together to finally visit the  Hemingway house (John’s an Ernest Hemingway obsessive) in Key West before it’s too late.

Making his English language debut, Italian director Paolo Virzi’s tragicomedy piles on the sentimentality and nostalgia  (the soundtrack includes Dylan, Carol King and Joplin) while largely soft-pedalling the physical pain (Mirren spews on a  couple of occasions) and anguished frustration of having your loved one’s memories of the kids or awareness of who you are come and go as lucid moments give way to the fog.   Inevitably episodic as the pair have assorted encounters and incidents along the way (a Syrian couple running a gas station, a traffic cop, an ex-pupil, being held up by two chancers when they get a  flat and, in a throwaway political comment, a Trump election rally by a bunch of rednecks calling to make America  great again), John constantly returning to his nagging belief that Ellen still has a thing for an old boyfriend, the film delivering an ironic twist when he inadvertently reveals something during a dementia event. Mirren and Sutherland deliver decent enough performances that resist overplaying the drama, a particularly amusing moment coming when she, touting a shotgun, sends the two muggers packing and he tells them to take lessons in grammar, but as it winds its way to the fairly predictable finale, you feel yourself wishing they’d taken a much shorter route.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Wildling (15)

Liv Tyler may take top billing, but her’s is very much a supporting role in this involving if frustratingly uneven fairy tale-like horror. The star turn comes from Bel Powney as Anna, a young girl who has been raised from childhood in total isolation in a woodland cabin by the man she calls daddy (Brad Dourif) who warns her she cannot venture outside lest she be killed and eaten by creatures he calls the Wildlings. When Anna (played by Arlo Mertz and Aviva Winick as her younger selves) starts to menstruate, he gives her injections designed to slow down puberty. When that no longer seems to be working, he takes a gun and, rather than shooting her, blasts himself in the head (clearly a lousy shot, he’s later seen in hospital and is soon up and walking, going about his sinister intent).

At this point, Anna’s rescued by kindly cop Ellen (Tyler), who takes her in while DNA tests are run to establish her parentage and, after initial hostility, is befriended by her younger brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a relationship that gradually develops into something more intimate. Meanwhile, fish out of water Anna’s trying to adapt to her new environment, taking an instant liking to hamburgers, but also struggling with changes that seem to be taking place in her body. She also reveals hidden anger and strength when she thumps a fellow pupil who’s roughing up Lawrence, culminating in a bloody end for another bully who tries to rape her in the woods following a party.

At which point, it’s already pretty clear where the revelations about her true nature and the subject of Wildlings are going, the film looking to emulate similar body horror and hormonal parables as Carrie and Ginger Snaps as Anna and Lawrence go on the run, tracked by Emma and a rather less benevolent posse looking to finish what they started some years earlier.

The expressive Powney is excellent as, increasingly feral, she tries to come to terms with her confusion, fears and turbulent emotions, and first time director Fritz Böhm skilfully engineers the mounting tension, but he’s let down by night-time scenes that are so dark it’s virtually impossible to discern what’s going on as well as a sloppy screenplay that gives Tyler pretty much nothing to do and, out of nowhere, introduces an enigmatic mountain man (James Le Gros) who wears a wolf pelt, complete with head, with no explanation, connection or any real purpose  other than facilitating a key moment towards the end.  The more the horror overwhelms the narrative, the more incoherent it all becomes, the plot spending far too much time having Anna running barefoot through the woods and simply ignoring the multiple glaring plot holes and lack of real-world logic, but, when it’s good, it very good indeed. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Also Opening

The Ice King (12A)

A documentary about 1970s ice skating star John Curry whose 1976 Olympic win not only transformed the sport into art form, but also served for his coming out as the first gay Olympian at a time before homosexuality had been decriminalised. The documentary offers both sides, his charm as well as his poisonous capabilities, his superior attitude and air of privilege that sat awkwardly alongside his rebellious nature, a  man who was both emotionally aloof and yet ferociously needy. On the run from any number of ghosts and demons, but especially himself, he was driven by both ambition and self-destruction and the firm affords a fascinating portrait of  athlete and artist who became a victim of his own political battleground. (Fri-Mon:MAC)

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blockers (15)

The directorial debut  of  Pitch Perfect co-writer Kay Cannon,  the title a cinema billboard friendly  shortening of Cock Blockers, this slots comfortably into the same crude rude but funny box in a line that stretches back from  Bridesmaid and  Trainwreck  to  Porkys and American Pie.   Meeting on their first day at a Chicago primary  school,  preppy Julie (Kathryn Newton),  socially awkward  Sam (Gideon Adlon) and acerbic athlete Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) become inseparable friends, although their respective parents, clingy single mom (Leslie Mann), ultra-sensitive overprotective jock Mitchell (John Cena) and  disreputable absent father divorcee  Hunter (Ike Barinholtz channelling Mark Whalberg) haven’t maintained the same bonds.

Prom Night is looming and  Julie (who’s not told mom she’s moving to college in a different state) has determined to lose her virginity to nice guy boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) and, having detailed how this is going to happen, Kayla decides she’s going to pop her cherry too, targeting the school’s gourmet drugs chemist Connor (Miles Robbins) as the lucky recipient.  Despite being secretly gay, with a  crush on Japanese lesbian, Sam signs up for the sex pact too, her prom date being her friend Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a chubby dork in a  pork pie hat.

Unfortunately,  Julie accidentally leaves her message app running on her  tablet and all their texts  are read by her mother who immediately enlists Mitchell in her mission to prevent her daughter making a mistake she’ll regret (cue echoes of her own life). Mitchell’s wife (Sarayu Blue) tells them they should be ashamed of themselves while Hunter, who’s unexpectedly turned up for the get together to mark  the girls’ graduations, also  reckons this is a bad idea but, on learning Sam’s in on it, and aware that she’s gay, enthusiastically  tags along to stop her doing something she doesn’t want to do.

Of course daughters and parents all get to learn life lessons about themselves and each other, about responsibility, trust and letting go, but not before a series of hilarious moments that range from the parents crashing a prom party and Mitchell chugging beer through his arse (don’t ask), a disastrous car chase and  Lisa finding herself trapped in a hotel bedroom with Julie and Austin as they get frisky to Kayla  getting out of her head on Connor’s concoctions and Mitchell and Hunter caught up in Connor’s parents naked, blindfold sex  games.

Hopping between parents and daughters, there’s some unnecessary vulgarity, scrotum  clutching included, barfing but also considerable more sweetness and observations about parents’ paranoia  about their daughters’ sex lives and the need to let them make their own decisions. The leads are all terrific, Mann getting to show off her physical comedy skills. And there’s real chemistry between the three girls but, a combination of some of the best line, her delivery, timing and facial expressions, it’s  Viswanathan  who steals the film and clearly has a very bright comedy future ahead of her.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

Death Wish (15)

Given the current heightened debate about gun control in America with calls to arm teachers and protests about police ineffectuality, Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante thriller is either right on the zeitgeist button or incredibly ill-timed. Either way, it’s pretty rubbish. Updating the set up to contemporary Chicago it has Bruce Willis sleepwalking his way through the role of Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon who, when his wife (Elizabeth Shue) is killed and his daughter (Camila Morrone) left in a coma after when a burglary goes wrong (they’re attacked at home while baking him a birthday cake, no less), frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, he decides to follow his father-in-law’s advice and, getting a gun (from a  dead gangbanger) and a hoodie (from the hospital trash bins),  take matters into his own hands.

Unlike Bronson’s pacifist, who had to persuade himself to take action,  Kersley here has no qualms, indeed, he rather turned on by it judging by his smile after his first killing, foiling a carjacking by being in the right place at the right time. When a witness’s phone video of the incident goes viral, he’s dubbed the Grim Reaper and, when, during surgery, he gets a link to those involved in the bloody robbery, rather than share with the cops, he tools up and goes after them, one scene having him indulge in some graphic torture, utilising his surgeon skills, to get the name of the actual killer. Meanwhile, the cops, represented by Detective Rains (Dean Norris) aren’t overly concerned at the bad guy body count and seems almost reluctant to follow up when the clues point to Kersley.

If that’s what you want, the violence is well-handled, but there’s no soul and no sense of moral conflict about what Kersley does and, should you miss the irony of his two chosen career paths, the opening credits helpfully spell it out with a split screen featuring different shots showing his hands handling his twin power tools, a scalpel and bullets. There’s also a scene when Kersley visits a gun store and the gung ho female sales assistant runs him through the merchandise, assuring him everyone passes the safety checks, but it’s more about a joke than any pointed social satire, and, with the somewhat pointless addition of Vincent D’Onofrio as his screw-up brother and repetitive cutaways to assorted TV and radio debates about vigilante justice (“You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people, you don’t have a problem with that?”), it feels unnecessarily padded out.

Willis, in his first proper lead role in ages, goes through the motions with his trademark smirk and dead-eyed routine, unaffected by the carnage he wreaks or inspired (when he sees a news report of a copycat family man being killed he has zero response), a description that could well apply to film itself. (Vue Star City)

 

Ghost Stories (15)

Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.

Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV  hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.

The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.

Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.

The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator,  is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and  a clever if illogical final reveal. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Isle Of Dogs (PG)

Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees. (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.

Following a  Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever  threaten to cross species and infect humans,.  With elections looming,  Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical  and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of  Science Party political rival  Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking  a cure.

However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.

Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast  that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and  Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart,  who is instrumental in prompting  his  eventual bond with Atari, alongside  Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant  called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English.  With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!),  thrilling and at times very  touching, this is an absolute mutts see  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman)

Love, Simon (12A)

The first teenage gay coming out movie for mainstream audience, adapted from a young adult novel, director Greg Berlanti strikes a pioneering moment for cinema. And, even if it lacks the emotional nuances of something like Call Me By Your Name it also happens to be very good. As the opening voice over (subsequently revisited later in the film) announces,  Simon (Nick Robinson) is your average all round decent high school teenage son of white liberal middle-class professionals (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and supportive brother to his younger sister. The only person he’s told is another anonymous gay classmate calling himself Blue, who’s been posting on a school blog and with whom he he’s virtually fallen in love, except, of course, he’s not used his real name either, calling himself Jacques. Intrigued and looking for clues, Simon starts fantasising who Blue might be – school jock Bram (Kelynan Lonsdale), soulful Cal (Miles Heizer) or perhaps Lyle (Joey Pollari), the ex-student who now works down the local burger joint, but ultimately none seem to fit the bill.

Simon’s also one of a quartet of best buddies that includes Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), feisty recent school transfer Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and doting childhood chum Leah (Katherine Langford). It’s pretty clear from the start that she has a secret crush on him, while Nick would like his relationship with Abby to be more than platonic. However, she’s also the object of affection for opportunistic show-off weirdo, Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers Simon’s secret when he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer and threatens to out him unless he helps him get close to her. Naturally, when that doesn’t work out (in a gloriously romantic but excruciatingly embarrassing public declaration of his feelings), in a fit of pique he posts Simon’s and Blue’s emails, leading the latter to block communication and Simon’s lies to and manipulations of his friends to be exposed. And, while his folks are hugely supportive, it does of course, make him a target to the school’s resident homophobes.

Since this is a standard high school romcom feelgood funny and poignant crowd pleaser but given a gay slant, it’ll be no surprise that it all ends happily, gently massaging in messages about friendship and having the courage to be who you are along the way. Robinson is slightly bland for a central character, but nevertheless endearingly likeable while the supporting cast are solid, and, if a little of Tony Hale goes a long way as the wannabe down with the kids cool Vice Principal, Clark Moore as Ethan, the only openly out student, a flamboyant cross dresser with a sharp line in put downs, and Natasha Rothwell as the no bullshit drama teacher in charge of the school’s production of Cabaret are both scene stealers. The film’s been previewed to death, but, with its strong repeat watch factor (even when you know who Blue actually is), this should easily pull in both new and returning audiences, of all sexual orientations, to prove one of the year’s biggest hits. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

Pacific Rim Uprising (12A)

Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a  sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director  Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.

Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a  living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan  urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper,  the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.

The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton  Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.

It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s  former lab partner  Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them  last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either  film  seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote.  (Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Everyman; Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Thoroughbreds (15)

Disappointingly, the distributor declined to provide access to a screening, but  first time director Cory Finley’s adaptation of his stage play arrives as a  highly acclaimed  black comedy noir thriller in which estranged former schoolfriends, the psychologically troubled Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and the tight-laced Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), are reunited when the former’s mother pays the latter to come and tutor her daughter at their palatial mansion. Both sharing a lack of empathy (at one point Amada shows Lily how to fake it), as they re-establish whatever friendship they once had, Lily begins to open up about her hatred for her emotionally abusive macho stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), prompting Amanda to suggest they arrange to have him killed, to which end they bully local drug-dealing fuck-up Tim (the late Anton Yelchin’s final role) to help them pull it off.

Taking visual cues from The Shining alongside a blackly comic sensibility that evokes the teen nihilism of Heathers by way of Bret Easton Ellis, with all the razor sharp one-liners that implies, it reportedly builds to a jaw-dropping climax. (Electric)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Unsane (15)

Shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a smart psychological thriller that would have been considerably smarter had it not tipped its hand so early on.  Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini,  a take no shit data analyst  who now works in Pennsylvania having recently moved from Boston.  Although she’s told no one why, the reason was because she had a stalker. Now, following a Tinder hook-up that triggers a trauma, she thinks she’s hallucinating him and takes herself along to see a counsellor at the Highland Creek therapy clinic. Having admitted that she’s sometimes had a suicidal though, she unknowingly signs up for voluntary admission and treatment. It’s supposed to be just 24 hours but her understandable response seen sees this extended to seven days and increased medication as she tries to convince the staff that she’s not mentally unstable, something the doctor and administrator are not persuaded off given that she’s accusing George (Joshua Leonard), one of the volunteer nurses on her ward, of being her stalker, Daniel, who’s followed her here.

The cops aren’t interested and when, thanks to helpful, more rational, fellow patient  (Jay Pharoah) who lends  Sawyer his secret phone,  mom (Amy Irving)  turns up she’s given the brush off and run-around, leaving promising to return with her lawyers.  However, by this point, the entire Gaslighting set-up  (is she imaging it or is it all real) has been brushed aside and One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  has been replaced by Sleeping With The Enemy.

Even so, the film, which was largely inspired by news reports of how a chain of  American psychiatric hospitals was  running a scam by keeping patients unnecessarily until their insurance ran out, works efficiently enough as a trashy b-movie woman in peril thriller, Foy and Pharaoh’s solid work complemented by a suitably unhinged turn from Juno Temple as Sawyer’s bed neighbour as well as an uncredited A-list flashback cameo as Sawyer’s security assessor. It may be pushing it to tag its ‘woman’s claims disbelieved’ thread  as  the first psychothriller  of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t  have you biting the nails. (Sat-Wed:MAC)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

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

NEW RELEASES

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetics corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, and Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Titan (12A)

After delivering Annihilation, Alex Garland’s brilliant, thoughtful and provocative sci-fi meditation on the future of the human race starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Netflix now goes to the other extreme with this drab ponderous and drearily dull   that addresses a similar theme but with none of the same invention or class. It’s 2048 and the overpopulated world’s going to hell, the only future for humanity is colonising Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, to which end Professor Martin Collingwood (a hammy Tom Wilkinson) has set up a programme to genetically altering DNA to create a join a new superhuman race able to withstand the conditions. He’s recruited a bunch of soldiers as volunteers, among them Lieutenant Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington, displaying zero charisma), a traumatised combat veteran, who, along with ex-paediatrician wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) and their young son, has relocated to a secret NATO compound. Suffice to say, as the others either die or have to be taken down for turning violent, the surgeries and tests soon  reduce the guinea pigs to two, Rick and Tally (Nathalie Emmanuel),  as it becomes clear that Collington hasn’t exactly been upfront about the dangers.

It’s all a bit of a missed opportunity that never really explores any of the ideas it throws up, nor is there much by way of tension or action and, as Worthington’s skin turns blue, his features shift and he transforms into what looks like a rejected design for Avatar, the whole disaster limps to a bungled and baffling finale that suggests the screenwriters cared even less than the audience.(Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), the latter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-un who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Also Opening

HereTo Be Heard:The Story of the Slits (12A)

A documentary about the world’s first female punk rock group, originally formed in 1976 by Ari Up (Ariane Foster), Palmolive (Paloma Romero),  Kate Korus and Suzy Gutsy before the latter two left to be replaced by Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt. Gaining a  reputation supporting the Clash and championed by John Peel, they released their seminal debut album, Cut, in 1979, shortly after which Romero quit to join The Raincoats. The band split in 1982, reforming in 2005 but with only Up and Pollitt from the classic line-up.

The documentary follows both the band’s career and the struggles of the individual members up until 2010 when Ari Up died of cancer while trying to complete the film. Featuring archival footage, previously unseen images, and interviews with the Slits along with the likes of Dennis Bovell, Paul Cook, Don Letts and journalist Vivien Goldman, it’s followed by a Q&A with Pollitt and Palmolive. (Tue:MAC)

 

NOW PLAYING

Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blockers (15)

The directorial debut  of  Pitch Perfect co-writer Kay Cannon,  the title a cinema billboard friendly  shortening of Cock Blockers, this slots comfortably into the same crude rude but funny box in a line that stretches back from  Bridesmaid and  Trainwreck  to  Porkys and American Pie.   Meeting on their first day at a Chicago primary  school,  preppy Julie (Kathryn Newton),  socially awkward  Sam (Gideon Adlon) and acerbic athlete Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) become inseparable friends, although their respective parents, clingy single mom (Leslie Mann), ultra-sensitive overprotective jock Mitchell (John Cena) and  disreputable absent father divorcee  Hunter (Ike Barinholtz channelling Mark Whalberg) haven’t maintained the same bonds.

Prom Night is looming and  Julie (who’s not told mom she’s moving to college in a different state) has determined to lose her virginity to nice guy boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) and, having detailed how this is going to happen, Kayla decides she’s going to pop her cherry too, targeting the school’s gourmet drugs chemist Connor (Miles Robbins) as the lucky recipient.  Despite being secretly gay, with a  crush on Japanese lesbian, Sam signs up for the sex pact too, her prom date being her friend Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a chubby dork in a  pork pie hat.

Unfortunately,  Julie accidentally leaves her message app running on her  tablet and all their texts  are read by her mother who immediately enlists Mitchell in her mission to prevent her daughter making a mistake she’ll regret (cue echoes of her own life). Mitchell’s wife (Sarayu Blue) tells them they should be ashamed of themselves while Hunter, who’s unexpectedly turned up for the get together to mark  the girls’ graduations, also  reckons this is a bad idea but, on learning Sam’s in on it, and aware that she’s gay, enthusiastically  tags along to stop her doing something she doesn’t want to do.

Of course daughters and parents all get to learn life lessons about themselves and each other, about responsibility, trust and letting go, but not before a series of hilarious moments that range from the parents crashing a prom party and Mitchell chugging beer through his arse (don’t ask), a disastrous car chase and  Lisa finding herself trapped in a hotel bedroom with Julie and Austin as they get frisky to Kayla  getting out of her head on Connor’s concoctions and Mitchell and Hunter caught up in Connor’s parents naked, blindfold sex  games.

Hopping between parents and daughters, there’s some unnecessary vulgarity, scrotum  clutching included, barfing but also considerable more sweetness and observations about parents’ paranoia  about their daughters’ sex lives and the need to let them make their own decisions. The leads are all terrific, Mann getting to show off her physical comedy skills. And there’s real chemistry between the three girls but, a combination of some of the best line, her delivery, timing and facial expressions, it’s  Viswanathan  who steals the film and clearly has a very bright comedy future ahead of her.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Death Wish (15)

Given the current heightened debate about gun control in America with calls to arm teachers and protests about police ineffectuality, Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante thriller is either right on the zeitgeist button or incredibly ill-timed. Either way, it’s pretty rubbish. Updating the set up to contemporary Chicago it has Bruce Willis sleepwalking his way through the role of Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon who, when his wife (Elizabeth Shue) is killed and his daughter (Camila Morrone) left in a coma after when a burglary goes wrong (they’re attacked at home while baking him a birthday cake, no less), frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, he decides to follow his father-in-law’s advice and, getting a gun (from a  dead gangbanger) and a hoodie (from the hospital trash bins),  take matters into his own hands.

Unlike Bronson’s pacifist, who had to persuade himself to take action,  Kersley here has no qualms, indeed, he rather turned on by it judging by his smile after his first killing, foiling a carjacking by being in the right place at the right time. When a witness’s phone video of the incident goes viral, he’s dubbed the Grim Reaper and, when, during surgery, he gets a link to those involved in the bloody robbery, rather than share with the cops, he tools up and goes after them, one scene having him indulge in some graphic torture, utilising his surgeon skills, to get the name of the actual killer. Meanwhile, the cops, represented by Detective Rains (Dean Norris) aren’t overly concerned at the bad guy body count and seems almost reluctant to follow up when the clues point to Kersley.

If that’s what you want, the violence is well-handled, but there’s no soul and no sense of moral conflict about what Kersley does and, should you miss the irony of his two chosen career paths, the opening credits helpfully spell it out with a split screen featuring different shots showing his hands handling his twin power tools, a scalpel and bullets. There’s also a scene when Kersley visits a gun store and the gung ho female sales assistant runs him through the merchandise, assuring him everyone passes the safety checks, but it’s more about a joke than any pointed social satire, and, with the somewhat pointless addition of Vincent D’Onofrio as his screw-up brother and repetitive cutaways to assorted TV and radio debates about vigilante justice (“You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people, you don’t have a problem with that?”), it feels unnecessarily padded out.

Willis, in his first proper lead role in ages, goes through the motions with his trademark smirk and dead-eyed routine, unaffected by the carnage he wreaks or inspired (when he sees a news report of a copycat family man being killed he has zero response), a description that could well apply to film itself. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Duck Duck Goose (PG)

Named for an old children’s game and sharing its title with a couple of horror movies, not to mention a London Cantonese restaurant, this is a middling Anglo-Chinese-American animation  for the Easter toddler market. Peng (Jim Gaffigan) is a Chinese goose with a superiority complex who refuses to conform with flock rules (“do we always have to fly in a V formation” he demands), not least practising for the upcoming annual migration, which ruffles the feathers of the flock leader, who also happens to be his girlfriend’s dad, who consigns him to guiding the junior geese.

While showing off his speed and stunts, he accidentally hits a flock of duckling, separating brother and sister Chao and Chi (Zendaya) and ultimately damaging his wing. Unable to fly, reckoning they’ll be  a distraction for any potential predators, he offers to guide the ducklings back to the others en route to Paradise Valley, embarking on a long journey in which, pursued by a psychotic schizophrenic cat (Greg Proops), he’ll naturally learn lessons about unconditional love, responsibility and family.

Routinely animated and lurching from one slapstick moment and fart gag to another, it has its mildly amusing moments,  but lacks any sense of ambition or, ultimately, charm. Stephen Fry and Craig Ferguson voice a couple of supercilious flamingos, veteran actor  Carl Reiner  is a turtle and Jennifer Grey a mother hen, but there’s little here to stop your mind turning to phrases like ‘a l’orange’. (Cineworld 5 NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

Game Night (15)

The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.

With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.

However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.

Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.

So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’  place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.

Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.

And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.

Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston)  and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.

Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Vue Star City)

 

Ghost Stories (15)

Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.

Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV  hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.

The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.

Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.

The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator,  is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and  a clever if illogical final reveal. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Isle Of Dogs (PG)

Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees. (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.

Following a  Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever  threaten to cross species and infect humans,.  With elections looming,  Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical  and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of  Science Party political rival  Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking  a cure.

However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.

Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast  that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and  Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart,  who is instrumental in prompting  his  eventual bond with Atari, alongside  Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant  called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English.  With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!),  thrilling and at times very  touching, this is an absolute mutts see  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Vue Star City)

Love, Simon (12A)

The first teenage gay coming out movie for mainstream audience, adapted from a young adult novel, director Greg Berlanti strikes a pioneering moment for cinema. And, even if it lacks the emotional nuances of something like Call Me By Your Name it also happens to be very good. As the opening voice over (subsequently revisited later in the film) announces,  Simon (Nick Robinson) is your average all round decent high school teenage son of white liberal middle-class professionals (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and supportive brother to his younger sister. The only person he’s told is another anonymous gay classmate calling himself Blue, who’s been posting on a school blog and with whom he he’s virtually fallen in love, except, of course, he’s not used his real name either, calling himself Jacques. Intrigued and looking for clues, Simon starts fantasising who Blue might be – school jock Bram (Kelynan Lonsdale), soulful Cal (Miles Heizer) or perhaps Lyle (Joey Pollari), the ex-student who now works down the local burger joint, but ultimately none seem to fit the bill.

Simon’s also one of a quartet of best buddies that includes Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), feisty recent school transfer Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and doting childhood chum Leah (Katherine Langford). It’s pretty clear from the start that she has a secret crush on him, while Nick would like his relationship with Abby to be more than platonic. However, she’s also the object of affection for opportunistic show-off weirdo, Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers Simon’s secret when he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer and threatens to out him unless he helps him get close to her. Naturally, when that doesn’t work out (in a gloriously romantic but excruciatingly embarrassing public declaration of his feelings), in a fit of pique he posts Simon’s and Blue’s emails, leading the latter to block communication and Simon’s lies to and manipulations of his friends to be exposed. And, while his folks are hugely supportive, it does of course, make him a target to the school’s resident homophobes.

Since this is a standard high school romcom feelgood funny and poignant crowd pleaser but given a gay slant, it’ll be no surprise that it all ends happily, gently massaging in messages about friendship and having the courage to be who you are along the way. Robinson is slightly bland for a central character, but nevertheless endearingly likeable while the supporting cast are solid, and, if a little of Tony Hale goes a long way as the wannabe down with the kids cool Vice Principal, Clark Moore as Ethan, the only openly out student, a flamboyant cross dresser with a sharp line in put downs, and Natasha Rothwell as the no bullshit drama teacher in charge of the school’s production of Cabaret are both scene stealers. The film’s been previewed to death, but, with its strong repeat watch factor (even when you know who Blue actually is), this should easily pull in both new and returning audiences, of all sexual orientations, to prove one of the year’s biggest hits. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (12A)

Given the current stories flying around regarding Russian meddling in the last election and Trump’s alleged indiscretions with assorted female porn stars, this has a remarkably timely resonance, although it’s set several presidencies earlier, Felt being the FBI veteran who, as ‘Deep Throat’, gave Woodward and Bernstein the goods on  President Richard Nixon’s malfeasance.  Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, the screenplay goes behind the scenes to follow the FBI investigation and how the White House sought to shut down in the investigation into Watergate.

It stars Liam Neeson who gives a solid, complex performance as Felt,  but, since he’s not killing or rescuing anyone here, the film, also which features an impressive  raft of  classy supporting names such as Diane Lane, Tom Sizemore, Josh Lucas,  Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle and Bruce Greenwood,  is getting only a single screen  out of town release with zero promotion.

In the job for 30 years and now assistant FBI director, essentially running the bureau as the long standing  incumbent director J Edgar Hoover has grown old and infirm, he’s summoned to the White House for advice on how the Nixon administration than remove the old man, with the virtual promise that he’ll take his place.  Inflexibly loyal, he gives the short shrift, so, when, shortly after, Hoover dies of a stroke, he discovers that he’s not stepping into his shoes and, instead, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a man with no law-enforcement experience and more susceptible to White House control, is appointed temporary director instead.

The film doesn’t shy from suggesting that Felt’s initial whistleblowing is partly down to resentment at being passed over, but his driving motivation is his sense of duty and loyalty to the organisation and his horror at seeing it being prevented from doing its job and an attempt to turn it into a White House lapdog.

As such, Neeson exudes the necessary sense of moral righteousness, even if passing confidential information for the country and the Bureau’s greater good goes against everything he believes. As such the biopic  unfolds as a ticking lock political thriller, often shot in shadows with clandestine meeting, the central narrative complemented by a subplot involving Feldt’s  troubled marriage and his search for their missing estranged daughter, Joan, who may have run away to become an anti-Vietnam war activist, possibly with The Weather Underground domestic terrorist  movement. It’s not always subtle, but it is consistently engrossing and deserves far better than to be simply tossed away  as a  late night  weekend screening .  (Showcase Walsall)

Mary Magdalene (12A)

This year’s revisionist religious biopic sees Lion director Garth Davis put the focus on the other Mary and her relationship with Jesus, played respectively by Rooney Mara and Joaquin  Phoenix, the latter still sporting his You Were Never Really Here beard.

Though aimed more at the art house than the mainstream Christian market, naturally, it’s suitably respectful and lyrical in the way it deal with the story (no The Last Temptation of Christ sex scenes here), and, as such is all rather tastefully dull, opening with an underwater sequence and Magdalene voiceover about how Christ’s kingdom took root and grew and proceedings to offer a highly interiorised perspective on its central characters, the unwed Mary seeking a higher calling than tending the sheep and playing midwife in  a heavily  patriarchal community and Jesus musing why no one ever wonders how he feels about it all.

At heart, coming on the back of International Women’s Day,  it chimes with the zeitgeist about the empowerment of women, Jesus asking if she has the courage to follow what the voices are telling her (in effect, she becomes his flagbearer, explaining things to the less enlightened actual disciples) as it mirrors  religious awakening with  a feminist one. But, while the lead performances are suitably finessed, with Tahar Rahim especially impressive as Judas,  the screenplay is obvious and at times lifeless as it dutifully ticks off the required Biblical scenes en route to the Crucifixion.  (MAC)

 

Pacific Rim Uprising (12A)

Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a  sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director  Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.

Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a  living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan  urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper,  the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.

The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton  Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.

It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s  former lab partner  Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them  last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either  film  seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Sparrow (15)

Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic,  has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.

When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible,  Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a  state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested  and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.

Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets,  the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments  and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.

Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.

As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Vue Star City)

 

Tomb Raider (12A)

Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as  video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara  vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.

Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to  Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed  on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off  for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren  (Daniel Wu in a  largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the  lost island.

Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.

Punctuated by some  schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but  not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a  cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill.  Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast  any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate  need to rush for one. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Unsane (15)

Shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a smart psychological thriller that would have been considerably smarter had it not tipped its hand so early on.  Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini,  a take no shit data analyst  who now works in Pennsylvania having recently moved from Boston.  Although she’s told no one why, the reason was because she had a stalker. Now, following a Tinder hook-up that triggers a trauma, she thinks she’s hallucinating him and takes herself along to see a counsellor at the Highland Creek therapy clinic. Having admitted that she’s sometimes had a suicidal though, she unknowingly signs up for voluntary admission and treatment. It’s supposed to be just 24 hours but her understandable response seen sees this extended to seven days and increased medication as she tries to convince the staff that she’s not mentally unstable, something the doctor and administrator are not persuaded off given that she’s accusing George (Joshua Leonard), one of the volunteer nurses on her ward, of being her stalker, Daniel, who’s followed her here.

The cops aren’t interested and when, thanks to helpful, more rational, fellow patient  (Jay Pharoah) who lends  Sawyer his secret phone,  mom (Amy Irving)  turns up she’s given the brush off and run-around, leaving promising to return with her lawyers.  However, by this point, the entire Gaslighting set-up  (is she imaging it or is it all real) has been brushed aside and One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  has been replaced by Sleeping With The Enemy.

Even so, the film, which was largely inspired by news reports of how a chain of  American psychiatric hospitals was  running a scam by keeping patients unnecessarily until their insurance ran out, works efficiently enough as a trashy b-movie woman in peril thriller, Foy and Pharaoh’s solid work complemented by a suitably unhinged turn from Juno Temple as Sawyer’s bed neighbour as well as an uncredited A-list flashback cameo as Sawyer’s security assessor. It may be pushing it to tag its ‘woman’s claims disbelieved’ thread  as  the first psychothriller  of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t  have you biting the nails. (Vue Star City)

 

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (15)

Former fashion model Lorna Tucker’s documentary seeks to provide an insight on British fashion designer, punk era icon and sometime Malcolm McLaren collaborator Vivienne transformed  the punk aesthetic into popular culture . A rebel in the 70s, she became a Dame in 2006, but, now 76, she remains as spiky as ever , complaining about having to go over everything again at the start of the film. The film charts her upbringing from a working-class background  and  art school drop out, through marriage motherhood and a stint as a schoolteacher to her affair with McLaren and rebirth  and reinvention as a controversial designer.

There’s little doubt that Westwood’s notorious recalcitrance explains  why several areas, especially that whole punk scene and her relationship with McLaren, are covered in so little detail and depth,  but interviews with her more forthcoming second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and he present day footage of her, still working away, cycling to her headquarters and ruthlessly self-critical of her own designs , not to mention a brief look at her environmentalist work, including her Greenpeace mission to the Arctic,  still make this worth a look. (Wed: MAC)

 

A Wrinkle In Time  (PG)

Adapted from the 1962 tween novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Selma director Ava DuVernay’s big screen adaptation plays like a New Age trip for thirteen year olds. Four years after her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing while experimenting on bending time with something called the tesseract, science geek Meg Murry  (Storm Reid) has withdrawn into herself, her grades have slipped, she’s developed an attitude and ostracised pretty much everyone at school to the extent that her super-intelligent adoptive brother Charles Wallace  (Deric McCabe) takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her breaktimes.

Then, after the kid puts in an SOS call to the universe,  into her life comes, first dippy red-head Mrs Whatsit, (Reese Witherspoon), and subsequently Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) , who speaks using famous quotations (though ranking Outkast alongside Shakespeare’s a bit much), and, towering above them  in what looks like a Black Panther female warrior’s reject costume,  the diva-esque Mrs Which (Opra Winfrey) who are, apparently, magical angel  incarnations of the universe  who have come to help Meg find her dad. So, joined by her brother  and Calvin (Levi Miller), a classmate with a puppy-eyed crush, they tesser through a wrinkle in the fabric of time  to  another dimension with its dodgy CGI backdrops and freefloating sentient flowers where, taking to the skies as Witherspoon transforms into some sort of flying lettuce leaf,  they hope to find what happened to him.

However,  the reclusive resident seer (Zach Galifianakis) informs them that her father’s been taken by the It, an all consuming darkness that wants to envelop the universe. Apparently, since there’s no light in Camazotz, where It lives, although Meg’s determination is sufficient to get everyone there,  the gaudily overdressed threesome can’t  stay. But, before leaving each gives Meg a gift.  However, once they’ve gone, the darkness attacks and, in the figure of the gaudily dressed moustachioed  Red  (Michael Peña) abducts and  possesses Charles Wallace , so now Meg has to fight the It to rescue both him and her father and get back to Earth.

A  parable about overcoming insecurities and lack of self-esteem, confronting your flaws and weaknesses (the darkness within, if you like) and being an individual, it’s heart and message are clearly in the right place, but it’s all so saccharine and twee (at times it recalls Robin Williams’ head trip through What Dreams May Come) that  it feels like you’re trapped in some third rate videogame being suffocated with candyfloss and overdosing on smiles,. The dialogue is (surprisingly given the screenwriter is Frozen’s Jennifer Lee) unrelentingly cumbersome, the characters spouting huge chunks of exposition, and while Reid manages to rise above the mess to bring soulfulness to her insecurities (she finds it hard to take a compliment), everyone around her is coasting at best, Gugu Mbatha-Raw criminally wasted as Meg’s mom while Oprah Winfrey’s stellar performance in The Color Purple is now but a distant memory.

Sprawlingly uneven, almost totally devoid of tension and with none of the emotional clout you’d expect, not to mention featuring utterly unmemorable songs from Sia and Sade and some spectacularly shoddy special effects,  the biggest wrinkle here is likely to be your nose at the bad smell. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

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

NEW RELEASES

A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Death Wish (15)

Given the current heightened debate about gun control in America with calls to arm teachers and protests about police ineffectuality, Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante thriller is either right on the zeitgeist button or incredibly ill-timed. Either way, it’s pretty rubbish. Updating the set up to contemporary Chicago it has Bruce Willis sleepwalking his way through the role of Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon who, when his wife (Elizabeth Shue) is killed and his daughter (Camila Morrone) left in a coma after when a burglary goes wrong (they’re attacked at home while baking him a birthday cake, no less), frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, he decides to follow his father-in-law’s advice and, getting a gun (from a  dead gangbanger) and a hoodie (from the hospital trash bins),  take matters into his own hands.

Unlike Bronson’s pacifist, who had to persuade himself to take action,  Kersley here has no qualms, indeed, he rather turned on by it judging by his smile after his first killing, foiling a carjacking by being in the right place at the right time. When a witness’s phone video of the incident goes viral, he’s dubbed the Grim Reaper and, when, during surgery, he gets a link to those involved in the bloody robbery, rather than share with the cops, he tools up and goes after them, one scene having him indulge in some graphic torture, utilising his surgeon skills, to get the name of the actual killer. Meanwhile, the cops, represented by Detective Rains (Dean Norris) aren’t overly concerned at the bad guy body count and seems almost reluctant to follow up when the clues point to Kersley.

If that’s what you want, the violence is well-handled, but there’s no soul and no sense of moral conflict about what Kersley does and, should you miss the irony of his two chosen career paths, the opening credits helpfully spell it out with a split screen featuring different shots showing his hands handling his twin power tools, a scalpel and bullets. There’s also a scene when Kersley visits a gun store and the gung ho female sales assistant runs him through the merchandise, assuring him everyone passes the safety checks, but it’s more about a joke than any pointed social satire, and, with the somewhat pointless addition of Vincent D’Onofrio as his screw-up brother and repetitive cutaways to assorted TV and radio debates about vigilante justice (“You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people, you don’t have a problem with that?”), it feels unnecessarily padded out.

Willis, in his first proper lead role in ages, goes through the motions with his trademark smirk and dead-eyed routine, unaffected by the carnage he wreaks or inspired (when he sees a news report of a copycat family man being killed he has zero response), a description that could well apply to film itself. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Ghost Stories (15)

Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.

Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV  hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.

The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.

Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.

The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator,  is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and  a clever if illogical final reveal. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I Kill Giants (15)

A thematic and stylistic companion piece to A Monster Calls that uses a child’s fantasies as an escape from racing real world fears and suffering, debut director Anders Walters works magic with a screenplay adapted by Joe Kelly from his own graphic novel. He’s also graced with a terrific performance from Madison Wolfe as Barbara, a young girl who, living with her elder sister (Imogen Poots), doing the best to keep the family afloat, and a brother who seems to spend all his time on computer games, who wears rabbit ears (her animal spirit) and spends her time concocting potions and building traps to kill the giants she believes to be inhabiting the woods, waiting to wreak devastation.  Terrified of the monster that apparently lurks upstairs in her home, she also carries with her a pocket book inscribed with the name of a once famous baseball player and which she says contains the magical weapon that will help her in what she believes to be the coming final confrontation.

At school, she’s the target for bullying and has regular sessions with the school psychiatrist, Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana), who’s trying to get to the bottom of what’s troubling her. Striking up a friendship with Sophia (Sydney Wade), a new girl just arrived from Leeds, Barbara seeks to protect her too but, as with Molle, also keeps her at arm’s length when it comes to talking about her real world issues.  As events build to a climax, she spends more time skipping school, lashes out at her therapist and her friendship with Sophia becomes strained as she imagines the giants closing in, the film keeping it open as to whether they are a figment of her imagination or realer than they might seem.

There’s a major plot flaw concerning why no one, Molle especially, doesn’t put two and two together, but that only becomes evident in the last act when the truth behind Barbara’s fears and fantasies are revealed, but, otherwise, featuring brief cameos from Noel Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, Wolfe’s complex and deeply felt portrayal ensures the grip on your emotions is held firm. (Until Mon: Showcase Walsall)

Love, Simon (12A)

The first teenage gay coming out movie for mainstream audience, adapted from a young adult novel, director Greg Berlanti strikes a pioneering moment for cinema. And, even if it lacks the emotional nuances of something like Call Me By Your Name it also happens to be very good. As the opening voice over (subsequently revisited later in the film) announces,  Simon (Nick Robinson) is your average all round decent high school teenage son of white liberal middle-class professionals (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and supportive brother to his younger sister. The only person he’s told is another anonymous gay classmate calling himself Blue, who’s been posting on a school blog and with whom he he’s virtually fallen in love, except, of course, he’s not used his real name either, calling himself Jacques. Intrigued and looking for clues, Simon starts fantasising who Blue might be – school jock Bram (Kelynan Lonsdale), soulful Cal (Miles Heizer) or perhaps Lyle (Joey Pollari), the ex-student who now works down the local burger joint, but ultimately none seem to fit the bill.

Simon’s also one of a quartet of best buddies that includes Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), feisty recent school transfer Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and doting childhood chum Leah (Katherine Langford). It’s pretty clear from the start that she has a secret crush on him, while Nick would like his relationship with Abby to be more than platonic. However, she’s also the object of affection for opportunistic show-off weirdo, Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers Simon’s secret when he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer and threatens to out him unless he helps him get close to her. Naturally, when that doesn’t work out (in a gloriously romantic but excruciatingly embarrassing public declaration of his feelings), in a fit of pique he posts Simon’s and Blue’s emails, leading the latter to block communication and Simon’s lies to and manipulations of his friends to be exposed. And, while his folks are hugely supportive, it does of course, make him a target to the school’s resident homophobes.

Since this is a standard high school romcom feelgood funny and poignant crowd pleaser but given a gay slant, it’ll be no surprise that it all ends happily, gently massaging in messages about friendship and having the courage to be who you are along the way. Robinson is slightly bland for a central character, but nevertheless endearingly likeable while the supporting cast are solid, and, if a little of Tony Hale goes a long way as the wannabe down with the kids cool Vice Principal, Clark Moore as Ethan, the only openly out student, a flamboyant cross dresser with a sharp line in put downs, and Natasha Rothwell as the no bullshit drama teacher in charge of the school’s production of Cabaret are both scene stealers. The film’s been previewed to death, but, with its strong repeat watch factor (even when you know who Blue actually is), this should easily pull in both new and returning audiences, of all sexual orientations, to prove one of the year’s biggest hits. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maya The Bee: The Honey Games (U)

Although , as with the 2014 big screen debut, the  animated German version  is again cross-pollinated into English with an Australian cast, the follow up only features  Coco Jack Williams  and Richard Roxburgh from the original lead voices as the irrepressible bee Maya and bandleader grasshopper Flip. However, the charm remains in a hive version of The Hunger Games when, after the Empress of Buzztroplis demands half of Poppy Meadow’s meagre honey harvest as tribute,  dragging Willi along, Maya impulsively flies off to protest. Accidentally covering the Empress in honey and insisting Poppy Meadow is as good as any of  the other teams invited to compete, she’s told she can take part, but, if  they’re eliminated, the Empress will take all of the Poppy Meadow honey.

Given she and Willi have been landed with a motley misfit crew of no hoper bugs, including an emo spider and bumbling soldier ants Arnie and Barney, and that spoiled mean bee Violet, who leads team Buzztropolis and is the daughter of the Games Master, has it in for her, they’re most definitely the underbees in the contest. But, with a whole heap of courage and Maya learning a lesson in teamwork, they’re determined to win and save Poppy Meadow.  It’s no bees knees animation, like Pixar or DreamWorks, but, bright, colourful and with a solid message, for those of the right age  it buzzes along on enjoyable wings.  (Vue Star City)

 

Sweet Country (15)

Set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory, director Warwick Thornton’s Australian Western (significantly there’s Johnny Cash track over the end credits) is slow to the point of ponderous, but, despite the longeurs, still succeeds in involving with its understated combination of character study and observations on cultural erosion, colonialism and the injustices and hardships suffered by Aboriginals (not to mention other indigenous peoples reduced to slavery) at the hands of prejudiced whites that resulted in a still often unresolved cycle of violence and resentment.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Sent by his liberal-minded Christian preacher employer Fred (Sam Neill) to help Harry (Ewen Leslie), the bitter war veteran whose come to manage a neighbouring station, renovate his cattle yards,  middle-edged Aboriginal worker Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his wife do a good job despite Harry’s simmering hostility and unsettling interest in their niece. Sent packing when they’ve done, Harry, unbeknownst to Sam, having (in a scene shot in complete darkness) raped his wife, something he takes as a given privilege, a further run in occurs when, Harry and his Aboriginal foreman, come looking for Philomac (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), the young halfbreed son of Kennedy (Thomas Wright), another white settler,  who’d escaped and run off after being chained to a rock for theft.

Drunk and firing off his rifle, Harry bursts in on the house and  is duly shot and killed by Sam, forcing him and his wife to go on the run into the unforgiving, harsh outback as, wanted for murder, he’s hunted down by a  posse that includes Fred and Kennedy and is led by bloodlust consumed local police offer Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), culminating in a trial back in town where it remains to be seen if justice is served.

Although there’s burst of violence, this is a mostly muted, low key almost Old Testament affair that arguably spends far too long on the extended pursuit, including a lengthy sequence with Fletcher alone and without water on the salt flats. It also features  some brief memory flashbacks and premonition flashforwards that add to the at times visually poetic mood, but also serve to muddle the narrative. Hamilton is excellent as the quietly dignified and stoical Sam while Brown is a fierce study in self-loathing, repressed anger and obsession, the film ending with a fist to the gut that leaves you despairing for humanity.  (Fri-Sun: MAC)

Also Opening

Bombshell-The Hedy Lamarr Story (12A)

Documentary about the Austrian-Jewish  40s Hollywood star, the first actress  to depict the female orgasm on screen and on whose look Snow White was based, but whose most significant achievements lay in the fields of science. A pioneer in communications, she invented a covert communication system to help defeat the Nazis, only to have the pater rejected by the Navy and told to sell kisses for war bonds instead. However, towards the end of her life, her concept was  rediscovered and went on to form the basis for secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth. (Tue:MAC)

 

 

The Divine Order (12A)

Set in Switzerland in 1971, where women still didn’t have the vote, this addresses the issue of women’s suffrage in the story of housewife Nora (Marie Leuenberger), who, forbidden by her husband to take a part-time job, sees her become a symbol of the town’s suffragette movement. Despite confronting humiliation, threats and the potential collapse pf  her marriage, she refuses to give in and persuades the women in the village to go on strike in advance of the impending vote – by men – as to whether to extend votes to women. (Fri-Tue:MAC)

 

The Third Murder (15)

A Japanese police procedural wherein Shigemori, a leading attorney takes on the case of a previously convicted murderer who is accused of  a new killing. Despite the fact his client has pleaded guilty, knowing he faces the death penalty if convicted, Shigemori is not persuaded this is the open and shut case it seems, seeking justice while questioning his own faith in the law. (Mon-Thu: MAC)

Thoroughbreds (15)

A disappointingly small release for debut director Cory Finley’s adaptation of his stage play, highly acclaimed  black comedy noir thriller in which estranged former schoolfriends, the psychologically troubled Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and the tight-laced Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), are reunited when the former’s mother pays the latter to come and tutor her daughter at their palatial mansion. Both sharing a lack of empathy (at one point Amada shows Lily how to fake it), as they re-establish whatever friendship they once had, Lily begins to open up about her hatred for her emotionally abusive macho stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), prompting Amanda to suggest they arrange to have him killed, to which end they bully local drug-dealing fuck-up Tim (the late Anton Yelchin’s final role) to help them pull it off.

Taking visual cues from The Shining alongside a blackly comic sensibility that evokes the teen nihilism of Heathers by way of Bret Easton Ellis, with all the razor sharp one-liners that implies, it keeps to glued as it builds to a jaw-dropping climax. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blockers (15)

The directorial debut  of  Pitch Perfect co-writer Kay Cannon,  the title a cinema billboard friendly  shortening of Cock Blockers, this slots comfortably into the same crude rude but funny box in a line that stretches back from  Bridesmaid and  Trainwreck  to  Porkys and American Pie.   Meeting on their first day at a Chicago primary  school,  preppy Julie (Kathryn Newton),  socially awkward  Sam (Gideon Adlon) and acerbic athlete Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) become inseparable friends, although their respective parents, clingy single mom (Leslie Mann), ultra-sensitive overprotective jock Mitchell (John Cena) and  disreputable absent father divorcee  Hunter (Ike Barinholtz channelling Mark Whalberg) haven’t maintained the same bonds.

Prom Night is looming and  Julie (who’s not told mom she’s moving to college in a different state) has determined to lose her virginity to nice guy boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) and, having detailed how this is going to happen, Kayla decides she’s going to pop her cherry too, targeting the school’s gourmet drugs chemist Connor (Miles Robbins) as the lucky recipient.  Despite being secretly gay, with a  crush on Japanese lesbian, Sam signs up for the sex pact too, her prom date being her friend Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a chubby dork in a  pork pie hat.

Unfortunately,  Julie accidentally leaves her message app running on her  tablet and all their texts  are read by her mother who immediately enlists Mitchell in her mission to prevent her daughter making a mistake she’ll regret (cue echoes of her own life). Mitchell’s wife (Sarayu Blue) tells them they should be ashamed of themselves while Hunter, who’s unexpectedly turned up for the get together to mark  the girls’ graduations, also  reckons this is a bad idea but, on learning Sam’s in on it, and aware that she’s gay, enthusiastically  tags along to stop her doing something she doesn’t want to do.

Of course daughters and parents all get to learn life lessons about themselves and each other, about responsibility, trust and letting go, but not before a series of hilarious moments that range from the parents crashing a prom party and Mitchell chugging beer through his arse (don’t ask), a disastrous car chase and  Lisa finding herself trapped in a hotel bedroom with Julie and Austin as they get frisky to Kayla  getting out of her head on Connor’s concoctions and Mitchell and Hunter caught up in Connor’s parents naked, blindfold sex  games.

Hopping between parents and daughters, there’s some unnecessary vulgarity, scrotum  clutching included, barfing but also considerable more sweetness and observations about parents’ paranoia  about their daughters’ sex lives and the need to let them make their own decisions. The leads are all terrific, Mann getting to show off her physical comedy skills. And there’s real chemistry between the three girls but, a combination of some of the best line, her delivery, timing and facial expressions, it’s  Viswanathan  who steals the film and clearly has a very bright comedy future ahead of her.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Duck Duck Goose (PG)

Named for an old children’s game and sharing its title with a couple of horror movies, not to mention a London Cantonese restaurant, this is a middling Anglo-Chinese-American animation  for the Easter toddler market. Peng (Jim Gaffigan) is a Chinese goose with a superiority complex who refuses to conform with flock rules (“do we always have to fly in a V formation” he demands), not least practising for the upcoming annual migration, which ruffles the feathers of the flock leader, who also happens to be his girlfriend’s dad, who consigns him to guiding the junior geese.

While showing off his speed and stunts, he accidentally hits a flock of duckling, separating brother and sister Chao and Chi (Zendaya) and ultimately damaging his wing. Unable to fly, reckoning they’ll be  a distraction for any potential predators, he offers to guide the ducklings back to the others en route to Paradise Valley, embarking on a long journey in which, pursued by a psychotic schizophrenic cat (Greg Proops), he’ll naturally learn lessons about unconditional love, responsibility and family.

Routinely animated and lurching from one slapstick moment and fart gag to another, it has its mildly amusing moments,  but lacks any sense of ambition or, ultimately, charm. Stephen Fry and Craig Ferguson voice a couple of supercilious flamingos, veteran actor  Carl Reiner  is a turtle and Jennifer Grey a mother hen, but there’s little here to stop your mind turning to phrases like ‘a l’orange’. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)

Finding Your Feet  (12A)

This year’s bid for the grey pound audience comes with both an impressive ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of more senior British actors and a plot that hews comfortably closely to the genre’s familiar clichés. Reliably directed by Richard Loncraine, it has Imelda Staunton as  Sandra – Lady –  Abbott who, at the celebrations for his elevation of his enoblement  – discovers her husband Mike (John Sessions) has been having a five-year affair with her best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence). Understandably miffed, she storms out of their idyllic suburban mansion and fetches up at the council estate tenement London flat of  her erstwhile left-wing activist sister, Bif (Celia Imrie), whom she’s not seen for the past ten years after their lives went separate ways. The one a prim and proper  – and somewhat snobby – traditionalist, the other a free spirit who still enjoys sex and is part of  a local dance club with her friends, antique furniture restorer and odd job man Charlie (Timothy Spall), retired lawyer Jackie (Joanna Lumley who has the funniest – if hardly original – line) and Ted (David Heyman) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. Charlie and Ted live on barges, the latter’s wife having passed away, the former’s (Sian Thomas) in a nursing home suffering from dementia.

The relationship between the sisters is initially frosty, as is that between Sandra and Charlie, but, inevitably the chill thaws, bonds are renewed, new attractions formed. Equally inevitably, there’s a terminal illness waiting in someone’s wings as sure as the film carries a live life, be who you really are message.

In an unlikely development in order to provide some location colour, the dance club members are talent-spotted while performing a Christmas flash mob multi-style dance routine in aid of Age UK (cue some product placement proselytizing by Lumley) and invited to take part in a dance show in Rome. So, will Sandra loosen up, change her constipated hairstyle, dance while she vacuums  and bring music back into her life, will she and Charlie fall in love at the Trevi fountain, will Mike come asking for her to take him back, will there be life decisions to be made? Do you really need to ask.

Resolutely inoffensive (there’s jokes about laxatives and penises and one f word), the script predictably balances sobs and smiles, laughter and tears while, since the feelgood is the keyword,  only ever skirting the OAP issues of  ageing, loneliness, love and mortality.  With performances are as solid as you expect and the dance routines never unconvincingly slick, it’s warm, snuffly, bittersweet stuff that will appeal to those who found The Exotic Marigold Hotel a bit too demanding, but it totters rather than glides across the cinematic dance floor. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Game Night (15)

The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.

With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.

However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.

Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.

So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’  place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.

Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.

And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.

Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston)  and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.

Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Isle Of Dogs (PG)

Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees. (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.

Following a  Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever  threaten to cross species and infect humans,.  With elections looming,  Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical  and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of  Science Party political rival  Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking  a cure.

However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.

Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast  that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and  Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart,  who is instrumental in prompting  his  eventual bond with Atari, alongside  Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant  called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English.  With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!),  thrilling and at times very  touching, this is an absolute mutts see  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (12A)

Given the current stories flying around regarding Russian meddling in the last election and Trump’s alleged indiscretions with assorted female porn stars, this has a remarkably timely resonance, although it’s set several presidencies earlier, Felt being the FBI veteran who, as ‘Deep Throat’, gave Woodward and Bernstein the goods on  President Richard Nixon’s malfeasance.  Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, the screenplay goes behind the scenes to follow the FBI investigation and how the White House sought to shut down in the investigation into Watergate.

It stars Liam Neeson who gives a solid, complex performance as Felt,  but, since he’s not killing or rescuing anyone here, the film, also which features an impressive  raft of  classy supporting names such as Diane Lane, Tom Sizemore, Josh Lucas,  Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle and Bruce Greenwood,  is getting only a single screen  out of town release with zero promotion.

In the job for 30 years and now assistant FBI director, essentially running the bureau as the long standing  incumbent director J Edgar Hoover has grown old and infirm, he’s summoned to the White House for advice on how the Nixon administration than remove the old man, with the virtual promise that he’ll take his place.  Inflexibly loyal, he gives the short shrift, so, when, shortly after, Hoover dies of a stroke, he discovers that he’s not stepping into his shoes and, instead, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a man with no law-enforcement experience and more susceptible to White House control, is appointed temporary director instead.

The film doesn’t shy from suggesting that Felt’s initial whistleblowing is partly down to resentment at being passed over, but his driving motivation is his sense of duty and loyalty to the organisation and his horror at seeing it being prevented from doing its job and an attempt to turn it into a White House lapdog.

As such, Neeson exudes the necessary sense of moral righteousness, even if passing confidential information for the country and the Bureau’s greater good goes against everything he believes. As such the biopic  unfolds as a ticking lock political thriller, often shot in shadows with clandestine meeting, the central narrative complemented by a subplot involving Feldt’s  troubled marriage and his search for their missing estranged daughter, Joan, who may have run away to become an anti-Vietnam war activist, possibly with The Weather Underground domestic terrorist  movement. It’s not always subtle, but it is consistently engrossing and deserves far better than to be simply tossed away  as a contractual obligation.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

 

Midnight Sun (12A)

There’s not been a Nicholas Sparks  adaptation for some time, but this affords a useful surrogate for those in need of a cheesy tragic teenage love story.  Xeroderma pigmentosum is a rare but real immune-deficiency condition by which exposure to sunlight can be fatal, but that’s the only thing that rings remotely true in this mawkish and bland  rework of a far better Japanese film, Song to the Sun.

Bella Thorne is Katie, an 18-year-old who, on account of her disease, has to spend all day in the house with its tinted glass, where her widowed father Jack (Rob Riggle) is home schooling her, only venturing out at night.  Over the years, from her  bedroom window, she’s watched and fallen in love with super sensitive  near neighbour Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger), whose once promising swimming career was scuppered in a freak accident, as he skateboards past.

One evening they meet at the train station where she goes to play guitar (as you do) to the commuters and start talking, which develops into a romance.  The big plot engine here being that she doesn’t tell him about her condition and he, inexplicably, never seems to wonder much why she’s never free in the day. Even at weekends.  There again, he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Dad is, of course, pleased she’s found someone, especially since, in another unlikely contrivance,  Katie’s a bad case of  Nobby-no mates, with only one friend, oddball but loyal Morgan  (Quinn Shephard,) who pops by most days to chat, but thinks her not telling Charlie is a tad unfair. Naturally, in the  film’s Cinderella midnight moment, the truth comes out and, since Katie’s fate is pretty much a given from the start, the film proceeds to load up on memorable life moments, before that poignant end credits love song strums into view

Wholesome, well-scrubbed and sanitised,  existing in a  world where terminal illnesses  come without any pain or ugliness, it’s saccharine and banal, devoid of any genuine emotional impact and with an implausible script (at one point Charlie takes her on a surprise trip to Seattle and gets her to sing to an improbably appreciative crowd) and lifeless performances that that never rise above daytime soap level. At one point, Morgan pretty much says ‘what would Taylor Swift do. It’s that deep.  (Vue Star City)

Pacific Rim Uprising (12A)

Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a  sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director  Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.

Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a  living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan  urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper,  the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.

The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton  Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.

It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s  former lab partner  Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them  last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either  film  seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Sparrow (15)

Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic,  has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.

When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible,  Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a  state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested  and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.

Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets,  the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments  and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.

Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.

As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Vue Star City)

 

Tomb Raider (12A)

Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as  video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara  vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.

Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to  Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed  on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off  for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren  (Daniel Wu in a  largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the  lost island.

Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.

Punctuated by some  schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but  not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a  cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill.  Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast  any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate  need to rush for one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Unsane (15)

Shot entirely on an iPhone (well, three of them actually), Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a smart psychological thriller that would have been considerably smarter had it not tipped its hand so early on.  Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini,  a take no shit data analyst  who now works in Pennsylvania having recently moved from Boston.  Although she’s told no one why, the reason was because she had a stalker. Now, following a Tinder hook-up that triggers a trauma, she thinks she’s hallucinating him and takes herself along to see a counsellor at the Highland Creek therapy clinic. Having admitted that she’s sometimes had a suicidal though, she unknowingly signs up for voluntary admission and treatment. It’s supposed to be just 24 hours but her understandable response seen sees this extended to seven days and increased medication as she tries to convince the staff that she’s not mentally unstable, something the doctor and administrator are not persuaded off given that she’s accusing George (Joshua Leonard), one of the volunteer nurses on her ward, of being her stalker, Daniel, who’s followed her here.

The cops aren’t interested and when, thanks to helpful, more rational, fellow patient  (Jay Pharoah) who lends  Sawyer his secret phone,  mom (Amy Irving)  turns up she’s given the brush off and run-around, leaving promising to return with her lawyers.  However, by this point, the entire Gaslighting set-up  (is she imaging it or is it all real) has been brushed aside and One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  has been replaced by Sleeping With The Enemy.

Even so, the film, which was largely inspired by news reports of how a chain of  American psychiatric hospitals was  running a scam by keeping patients unnecessarily until their insurance ran out, works efficiently enough as a trashy b-movie woman in peril thriller, Foy and Pharaoh’s solid work complemented by a suitably unhinged turn from Juno Temple as Sawyer’s bed neighbour as well as an uncredited A-list flashback cameo as Sawyer’s security assessor. It may be pushing it to tag its ‘woman’s claims disbelieved’ thread  as  the first psychothriller  of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t  have you biting the nails. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Vue Star City)

 

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (15)

Former fashion model Lorna Tucker’s documentary seeks to provide an insight on British fashion designer, punk era icon and sometime Malcolm McLaren collaborator Vivienne transformed  the punk aesthetic into popular culture . A rebel in the 70s, she became a Dame in 2006, but, now 76, she remains as spiky as ever , complaining about having to go over everything again at the start of the film. The film charts her upbringing from a working-class background  and  art school drop out, through marriage motherhood and a stint as a schoolteacher to her affair with McLaren and rebirth  and reinvention as a controversial designer.

There’s little doubt that Westwood’s notorious recalcitrance explains  why several areas, especially that whole punk scene and her relationship with McLaren, are covered in so little detail and depth,  but interviews with her more forthcoming second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and he present day footage of her, still working away, cycling to her headquarters and ruthlessly self-critical of her own designs , not to mention a brief look at her environmentalist work, including her Greenpeace mission to the Arctic,  still make this worth a look. (Wed: MAC)

 

A Wrinkle In Time  (PG)

Adapted from the 1962 tween novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Selma director Ava r DuVernay’s big screen adaptation plays like a New Age trip for thirteen year olds. Four years after her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing while experimenting on bending time with something called the tesseract, science geek Meg Murry  (Storm Reid) has withdrawn into herself, her grades have slipped, she’s developed an attitude and ostracised pretty much everyone at school to the extent that her super-intelligent adoptive brother Charles Wallace  (Deric McCabe) takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her breaktimes.

Then, after the kid puts in an SOS call to the universe,  into her life comes, first dippy red-head Mrs Whatsit, (Reese Witherspoon), and subsequently Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) , who speaks using famous quotations (though ranking Outkast alongside Shakespeare’s a bit much), and, towering above them  in what looks like a Black Panther female warrior’s reject costume,  the diva-esque Mrs Which (Opra Winfrey) who are, apparently, magical angel  incarnations of the universe  who have come to help Meg find her dad. So, joined by her brother  and Calvin (Levi Miller), a classmate with a puppy-eyed crush, they tesser through a wrinkle in the fabric of time  to  another dimension with its dodgy CGI backdrops and freefloating sentient flowers where, taking to the skies as Witherspoon transforms into some sort of flying lettuce leaf,  they hope to find what happened to him.

However,  the reclusive resident seer (Zach Galifianakis) informs them that her father’s been taken by the It, an all consuming darkness that wants to envelop the universe. Apparently, since there’s no light in Camazotz, where It lives, although Meg’s determination is sufficient to get everyone there,  the gaudily overdressed threesome can’t  stay. But, before leaving each gives Meg a gift.  However, once they’ve gone, the darkness attacks and, in the figure of the gaudily dressed moustachioed  Red  (Michael Peña) abducts and  possesses Charles Wallace , so now Meg has to fight the It to rescue both him and her father and get back to Earth.

A  parable about overcoming insecurities and lack of self-esteem, confronting your flaws and weaknesses (the darkness within, if you like) and being an individual, it’s heart and message are clearly in the right place, but it’s all so saccharine and twee (at times it recalls Robin Williams’ head trip through What Dreams May Come) that  it feels like you’re trapped in some third rate videogame being suffocated with candyfloss and overdosing on smiles,. The dialogue is (surprisingly given the screenwriter is Frozen’s Jennifer Lee) unrelentingly cumbersome, the characters spouting huge chunks of exposition, and while Reid manages to rise above the mess to bring soulfulness to her insecurities (she finds it hard to take a compliment), everyone around her is coasting at best, Gugu Mbatha-Raw criminally wasted as Meg’s mom while Oprah Winfrey’s stellar performance in The Color Purple is now but a distant memory.

Sprawlingly uneven, almost totally devoid of tension and with none of the emotional clout you’d expect, not to mention featuring utterly unmemorable songs from Sia and Sade and some spectacularly shoddy special effects,  the biggest wrinkle here is likely to be your nose at the bad smell. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, 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 Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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 Mar 30-Thu Apr 5

 

NEW RELEASES

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Blockers (15)

The directorial debut  of  Pitch Perfect co-writer Kay Cannon,  the title a cinema billboard friendly  shortening of Cock Blockers, this slots comfortably into the same crude rude but funny box in a line that stretches back from  Bridesmaid and  Trainwreck  to  Porkys and American Pie.   Meeting on their first day at a Chicago primary  school,  preppy Julie (Kathryn Newton),  socially awkward  Sam (Gideon Adlon) and acerbic athlete Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) become inseparable friends, although their respective parents, clingy single mom (Leslie Mann), ultra-sensitive overprotective jock Mitchell (John Cena) and  disreputable absent father divorcee  Hunter (Ike Barinholtz channelling Mark Whalberg) haven’t maintained the same bonds.

Prom Night is looming and  Julie (who’s not told mom she’s moving to college in a different state) has determined to lose her virginity to nice guy boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) and, having detailed how this is going to happen, Kayla decides she’s going to pop her cherry too, targeting the school’s gourmet drugs chemist Connor (Miles Robbins) as the lucky recipient.  Despite being secretly gay, with a  crush on Japanese lesbian, Sam signs up for the sex pact too, her prom date being her friend Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a chubby dork in a  pork pie hat.

Unfortunately,  Julie accidentally leaves her message app running on her  tablet and all their texts  are read by her mother who immediately enlists Mitchell in her mission to prevent her daughter making a mistake she’ll regret (cue echoes of her own life). Mitchell’s wife (Sarayu Blue) tells them they should be ashamed of themselves while Hunter, who’s unexpectedly turned up for the get together to mark  the girls’ graduations, also  reckons this is a bad idea but, on learning Sam’s in on it, and aware that she’s gay, enthusiastically  tags along to stop her doing something she doesn’t want to do.

Of course daughters and parents all get to learn life lessons about themselves and each other, about responsibility, trust and letting go, but not before a series of hilarious moments that range from the parents crashing a prom party and Mitchell chugging beer through his arse (don’t ask), a disastrous car chase and  Lisa finding herself trapped in a hotel bedroom with Julie and Austin as they get frisky to Kayla  getting out of her head on Connor’s concoctions and Mitchell and Hunter caught up in Connor’s parents naked, blindfold sex  games.

Hopping between parents and daughters, there’s some unnecessary vulgarity, scrotum  clutching included, barfing but also considerable more sweetness and observations about parents’ paranoia  about their daughters’ sex lives and the need to let them make their own decisions. The leads are all terrific, Mann getting to show off her physical comedy skills. And there’s real chemistry between the three girls but, a combination of some of the best line, her delivery, timing and facial expressions, it’s  Viswanathan  who steals the film and clearly has a very bright comedy future ahead of her.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Duck Duck Goose (U)

Named for an old children’s game and sharing its title with a couple of horror movies, not to mention a London Cantonese restaurant, this is a middling Anglo-Chinese-American animation  for the Easter toddler market. Peng (Jim Gaffigan) is a Chinese goose with a superiority complex who refuses to conform with flock rules (“do we always have to fly in a V formation” he demands), not least practising for the upcoming annual migration, which ruffles the feathers of the flock leader, who also happens to be his girlfriend’s dad, who consigns him to guiding the junior geese.

While showing off his speed and stunts, he accidentally hits a flock of duckling, separating brother and sister Chao and Chi (Zendaya) and ultimately damaging his wing. Unable to fly, reckoning they’ll be  a distraction for any potential predators, he offers to guide the ducklings back to the others en route to Paradise Valley, embarking on a long journey in which, pursued by a psychotic schizophrenic cat (Greg Proops), he’ll naturally learn lessons about unconditional love, responsibility and family.

Routinely animated and lurching from one slapstick moment and fart gag to another, it has its mildly amusing moments,  but lacks any sense of ambition or, ultimately, charm. Stephen Fry and Craig Ferguson voice a couple of supercilious flamingos, veteran actor  Carl Reiner  is a turtle and Jennifer Grey a mother hen, but there’s little here to stop your mind turning to phrases like ‘a l’orange’. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)

Isle Of Dogs (PG)

Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.

Following a  Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever  threaten to cross species and infect humans,.  With elections looming,  Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical  and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of  Science Party political rival  Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking  a cure.

However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.

Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast  that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and  Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart,  who is instrumental in prompting  his  eventual bond with Atari, alongside  Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant  called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English.  With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!),  thrilling and at times very  touching, this is an absolute mutts see  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Midnight Sun (12A)

There’s not been a Nicholas Sparks  adaptation for some time, but this affords a useful surrogate for those in need of a cheesy tragic teenage love story.  Xeroderma pigmentosum is a rare but real immune-deficiency condition by which exposure to sunlight can be fatal, but that’s the only thing that rings remotely true in this mawkish and bland  rework of a far better Japanese film, Song to the Sun.

Bella Thorne is Katie, an 18-year-old who, on account of her disease, has to spend all day in the house with its tinted glass, where her widowed father Jack (Rob Riggle) is home schooling her, only venturing out at night.  Over the years, from her  bedroom window, she’s watched and fallen in love with super sensitive  near neighbour Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger), whose once promising swimming career was scuppered in a freak accident, as he skateboards past.

One evening they meet at the train station where she goes to play guitar (as you do) to the commuters and start talking, which develops into a romance.  The big plot engine here being that she doesn’t tell him about her condition and he, inexplicably, never seems to wonder much why she’s never free in the day. Even at weekends.  There again, he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Dad is, of course, pleased she’s found someone, especially since, in another unlikely contrivance,  Katie’s a bad case of  Nobby-no mates, with only one friend, oddball but loyal Morgan  (Quinn Shephard,) who pops by most days to chat, but thinks her not telling Charlie is a tad unfair. Naturally, in the  film’s Cinderella midnight moment, the truth comes out and, since Katie’s fate is pretty much a given from the start, the film proceeds to load up on memorable life moments, before that poignant end credits love song strums into view

Wholesome, well-scrubbed and sanitised,  existing in a  world where terminal illnesses  come without any pain or ugliness, it’s saccharine and banal, devoid of any genuine emotional impact and with an implausible script (at one point Charlie takes her on a surprise trip to Seattle and gets her to sing to an improbably appreciative crowd) and lifeless performances that that never rise above daytime soap level. At one point, Morgan pretty much says “what would Taylor Swift do?” It’s that deep.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Finding Your Feet  (12A)

This year’s bid for the grey pound audience comes with both an impressive ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of more senior British actors and a plot that hews comfortably closely to the genre’s familiar clichés. Reliably directed by Richard Loncraine, it has Imelda Staunton as  Sandra – Lady –  Abbott who, at the celebrations for his elevation of his enoblement  – discovers her husband Mike (John Sessions) has been having a five-year affair with her best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence). Understandably miffed, she storms out of their idyllic suburban mansion and fetches up at the council estate tenement London flat of  her erstwhile left-wing activist sister, Bif (Celia Imrie), whom she’s not seen for the past ten years after their lives went separate ways. The one a prim and proper  – and somewhat snobby – traditionalist, the other a free spirit who still enjoys sex and is part of  a local dance club with her friends, antique furniture restorer and odd job man Charlie (Timothy Spall), retired lawyer Jackie (Joanna Lumley who has the funniest – if hardly original – line) and Ted (David Heyman) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. Charlie and Ted live on barges, the latter’s wife having passed away, the former’s (Sian Thomas) in a nursing home suffering from dementia.

The relationship between the sisters is initially frosty, as is that between Sandra and Charlie, but, inevitably the chill thaws, bonds are renewed, new attractions formed. Equally inevitably, there’s a terminal illness waiting in someone’s wings as sure as the film carries a live life, be who you really are message.

In an unlikely development in order to provide some location colour, the dance club members are talent-spotted while performing a Christmas flash mob multi-style dance routine in aid of Age UK (cue some product placement proselytizing by Lumley) and invited to take part in a dance show in Rome. So, will Sandra loosen up, change her constipated hairstyle, dance while she vacuums  and bring music back into her life, will she and Charlie fall in love at the Trevi fountain, will Mike come asking for her to take him back, will there be life decisions to be made? Do you really need to ask.

Resolutely inoffensive (there’s jokes about laxatives and penises and one f word), the script predictably balances sobs and smiles, laughter and tears while, since the feelgood is the keyword,  only ever skirting the OAP issues of  ageing, loneliness, love and mortality.  With performances are as solid as you expect and the dance routines never unconvincingly slick, it’s warm, snuffly, bittersweet stuff that will appeal to those who found The Exotic Marigold Hotel a bit too demanding, but it totters rather than glides across the cinematic dance floor. (Empire Great Park,; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Game Night (15)

The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.

With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.

However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.

Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.

So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’  place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.

Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.

And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.

Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston)  and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.

Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Cineworld Solihull;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gringo (15)

The second film this year to feature a character known as the Black Panther, except this one isn’t an African superhero but a Mexican drug cartel boss. One who wants to get its hands on a formula for producing Cannabax, a legal cannabis-based drug  that’s been developed by the Chicago pharmaceutical company run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and his executive – and sexually  insatiable- partner  Elaine (Charlize Theron) and which is manufactured in Mexico.  It  transpires that, when cash flow was short,  they struck  deal to supply aforementioned Beatles-loving cartel boss with certain off-the-books products, but with a merger looming they need to call an end  to this before  the company audit. And he’s not at all happy with that.

Caught in the middle of this is their unwitting middle management pawn, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), who’s heard rumours of the merger and likely redundancies, but blissfully thinks Richard’s his buddy.  The film opens with the Rusk and Elaine relieving a call from Harold in Mexico saying he’s been kidnapped and his abductors want five million dollars. At which point, things flashback to a  couple of days earlier when the three went to Mexico to tie up loose ends, but Harold could not be found when it came to time leave. As the plot unfolds, it’s revealed that not only is Harold , who’s on the verge of bankruptcy, facing losing his job, but, in a Skype call to his wife (Thandie Newton), she says she’s been having an affair (no prizes for guessing with who)  and is leaving him.  Having rumbled that he’s going to be stitched up by Richard and Elaine,  he decides to fake the kidnapping call we heard earlier. However, things take a turn when the drug lord assumes he’s the boss with access to the formula, and so the body count rises and the twists, double crosses and misdirections pile up. The spiralling plot also involves Rusk enlisting his ex-mercenary turned aid worker brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to find Harold and, in a redundant subplot, Amanda Seyfried who’s blissfully unaware that her boyfriend, Harry Treadway, has only taken her to Mexico because he’s been hired by some rock chick (a single scene appearance by Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris) to smuggle some Cannabax tablets  back across the border.

Directed by Edgerton’s brother, Nash, it somersaults from dark comedy to brutal violence and back again in the blink of an eye without losing its traction , wading chest high through a cynical view of  the world and those who inhabit it, with Seyfried the only decent character  not  looking out for themselves here.  Despite a tendency to clown it up, Oyelowo does well enough with a character who’s written as something of an idiot not to mention a racial stereotype, but, disreputable as their characters are, it’s Edgerton’s alpha male prick and Theron’s self-made take no prisoners bitch  with her foul mouth,  scathing insults and willingness to turn on a dime that give the film its vibrancy.  When you get down to it, it’s B-movie pulp, but it relishes the fact. (Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

 

 

I, Tonya (15)

In  1991, figure-skater Tonya Harding was America’s darling, the US Champion, a World Silver Medallist and the first American woman to successfully land the incredibly difficult  triple axel in competition. Three years later, she was the most hated woman in America, at the centre of  sensational global trial by television when she was accused of being complicit with her ex-husband Jeff Gilhooly, a dimwit with a bad moustache,  and sleazy self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt in an attempt by hired thug Shane Stant  to break rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg.

Playing as a dark sardonic comedy about unbridled, ruthless ambition, screenwriter  Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie don’t offer themselves up as apologists for Harding, but  the film is more sympathetic and compassionate than you might expect.  As superbly played  by Margot Robbie, Harding is brash and unconventional working class background woman with little patience for the authority figures  who clearly regard her as upstart trash and mark her down because she doesn’t fit the American image they want to project.  But she’s also a woman who, from childhood, has constantly suffered under the physical, emotional and verbal abuse of her  foul-mouthed harridan waitress mother LaVona  (BAFTA and  Oscar Supporting Actress winner and Allison Janney), jumping at the chance to escape her home life offered by  the dim-witted mean-streak Gilhooley (Sebastian Stan), only to find she’s gone from one abusive set-up to another.

However, she becomes increasingly determined to be judged on her talent and not to allow others to define who she is by what she wears or where she comes from. Under the coaching of Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she proves her ability again and again, but remains unaccepted by the snobbish, conservative figure skating elite. Eventually ditching Rawlinson, she comes to rely on Gilhooley, even patching up their marriage to gain a veneer of respect, but, with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics approaching and Kerrigan the favourite, Jeff’s slobby, stoner conspiracy theory friend Eckhardt (a brilliantly surreal turn from Paul Walter Hauser), who still lives with his mom and has elected himself to the role of Harding’s bodyguard, suggests they send anonymous threatening letters to Kerrigan to put her off her game. By the time his two hired goons, get involved the plan has escalated to crippling her.

Part filmed as faux documentary to-camera interviews with Harding, Gilhooley, LaVona and Eckhardt (who actually did claim, as seen here, that he was an international terrorism expert) as well as recreating events on and off the ice, while never shying away from showing the abrasive, unlikeable side of  its subject, the film is at pains to stress that she (or indeed  Jeff) was never part of the plan to do Kerrigan any physical harm and is clearly on the side of those shocked by the court’s almost vengeful  punishment in banning her from figure skating forever,  Robbie’s courtroom scene begging not to not be deprived of the only thing she lived for  especially powerful.

Doing some of her own skating (her head digitally grafted to another’s body in other scenes), Robbie delivers a career-defining turn, but, even so, it’s Janney’s compelling, vitriolically funny performance as Harding’s scowling, misanthropic and toxic stage-mother who takes the gold. How  true it is  to what happened is irrelevant, it’s a great story and, as Tonya says in one the interviews, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”  (until Tue: MAC)

 

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (12A)

Given the current stories flying around regarding Russian meddling in the last election and Trump’s alleged indiscretions with assorted female porn stars, this has a remarkably timely resonance, although it’s set several presidencies earlier, Felt being the FBI veteran who, as ‘Deep Throat’, gave Woodward and Bernstein the goods on  President Richard Nixon’s malfeasance.  Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, the screenplay goes behind the scenes to follow the FBI investigation and how the White House sought to shut down in the investigation into Watergate.

It stars Liam Neeson who gives a solid, complex performance as Felt,  but, since he’s not killing or rescuing anyone here, the film, also which features an impressive  raft of  classy supporting names such as Diane Lane, Tom Sizemore, Josh Lucas,  Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle and Bruce Greenwood,  is getting only a single screen  out of town release with zero promotion.

In the job for 30 years and now assistant FBI director, essentially running the bureau as the long standing  incumbent director J Edgar Hoover has grown old and infirm, he’s summoned to the White House for advice on how the Nixon administration than remove the old man, with the virtual promise that he’ll take his place.  Inflexibly loyal, he gives the short shrift, so, when, shortly after, Hoover dies of a stroke, he discovers that he’s not stepping into his shoes and, instead, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a man with no law-enforcement experience and more susceptible to White House control, is appointed temporary director instead.

The film doesn’t shy from suggesting that Felt’s initial whistleblowing is partly down to resentment at being passed over, but his driving motivation is his sense of duty and loyalty to the organisation and his horror at seeing it being prevented from doing its job and an attempt to turn it into a White House lapdog.

As such, Neeson exudes the necessary sense of moral righteousness, even if passing confidential information for the country and the Bureau’s greater good goes against everything he believes. As such the biopic  unfolds as a ticking lock political thriller, often shot in shadows with clandestine meetings, the central narrative complemented by a subplot involving Feldt’s  troubled marriage and his search for their missing estranged daughter, Joan, who may have run away to become an anti-Vietnam war activist, possibly with The Weather Underground domestic terrorist  movement. It’s not always subtle, but it is consistently engrossing and deserves far better than to be simply tossed away  as a contractual obligation.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

 

Pacific Rim Uprising (12A)

Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a  sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director  Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.

Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a  living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan  urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper,  the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.

The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton  Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.

It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s  former lab partner  Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them  last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either  film  seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Sparrow (15)

Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic,  has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.

When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible,  Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a  state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested  and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.

Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets,  the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments  and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.

Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.

As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Tomb Raider (12A)

Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as  video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara  vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.

Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to  Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed  on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off  for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren  (Daniel Wu in a  largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the  lost island.

Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.

Punctuated by some  schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but  not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a  cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill.  Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast  any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate  need to rush for one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Unsane (15)

Shot entirely on an iPhone (well, three of them actually), Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a smart psychological thriller that would have been considerably smarter had it not tipped its hand so early on.  Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini,  a take no shit data analyst  who now works in Pennsylvania having recently moved from Boston.  Although she’s told no one why, the reason was because she had a stalker. Now, following a Tinder hook-up that triggers a trauma, she thinks she’s hallucinating him and takes herself along to see a counsellor at the Highland Creek therapy clinic. Having admitted that she’s sometimes had a suicidal though, she unknowingly signs up for voluntary admission and treatment. It’s supposed to be just 24 hours but her understandable response seen sees this extended to seven days and increased medication as she tries to convince the staff that she’s not mentally unstable, something the doctor and administrator are not persuaded off given that she’s accusing George (Joshua Leonard), one of the volunteer nurses on her ward, of being her stalker, Daniel, who’s followed her here.

The cops aren’t interested and when, thanks to helpful, more rational, fellow patient  (Jay Pharoah) who lends  Sawyer his secret phone,  mom (Amy Irving)  turns up she’s given the brush off and run-around, leaving promising to return with her lawyers.  However, by this point, the entire Gaslighting set-up  (is she imaging it or is it all real) has been brushed aside and One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  has been replaced by Sleeping With The Enemy.

Even so, the film, which was largely inspired by news reports of how a chain of  American psychiatric hospitals was  running a scam by keeping patients unnecessarily until their insurance ran out, works efficiently enough as a trashy b-movie woman in peril thriller, Foy and Pharaoh’s solid work complemented by a suitably unhinged turn from Juno Temple as Sawyer’s bed neighbour as well as an uncredited A-list flashback cameo as Sawywr’s security assessor. It may be pushing it to tag its ‘woman’s claims disbelieved’ thread as  the first psychothriller  of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t  have you biting the nails. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A Wrinkle In Time  (PG)

Adapted from the 1962 tween novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Selma director Ava r DuVernay’s big screen adaptation plays like a New Age trip for thirteen year olds. Four years after her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing while experimenting on bending time with something called the tesseract, science geek Meg Murry  (Storm Reid) has withdrawn into herself, her grades have slipped, she’s developed an attitude and ostracised pretty much everyone at school to the extent that her super-intelligent adoptive brother Charles Wallace  (Deric McCabe) takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her breaktimes.

Then, after the kid puts in an SOS call to the universe,  into her life comes, first dippy red-head Mrs Whatsit, (Reese Witherspoon), and subsequently Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) , who speaks using famous quotations (though ranking Outkast alongside Shakespeare’s a bit much), and, towering above them  in what looks like a Black Panther female warrior’s reject costume,  the diva-esque Mrs Which (Opra Winfrey) who are, apparently, magical angel  incarnations of the universe  who have come to help Meg find her dad. So, joined by her brother  and Calvin (Levi Miller), a classmate with a puppy-eyed crush, they tesser through a wrinkle in the fabric of time  to  another dimension with its dodgy CGI backdrops and freefloating sentient flowers where, taking to the skies as Witherspoon transforms into some sort of flying lettuce leaf,  they hope to find what happened to him.

However,  the reclusive resident seer (Zach Galifianakis) informs them that her father’s been taken by the It, an all consuming darkness that wants to envelop the universe. Apparently, since there’s no light in Camazotz, where It lives, although Meg’s determination is sufficient to get everyone there,  the gaudily overdressed threesome can’t  stay. But, before leaving each gives Meg a gift.  However, once they’ve gone, the darkness attacks and, in the figure of the gaudily dressed moustachioed  Red  (Michael Peña) abducts and  possesses Charles Wallace , so now Meg has to fight the It to rescue both him and her father and get back to Earth.

A  parable about overcoming insecurities and lack of self-esteem, confronting your flaws and weaknesses (the darkness within, if you like) and being an individual, it’s heart and message are clearly in the right place, but it’s all so saccharine and twee (at times it recalls Robin Williams’ head trip through What Dreams May Come) that  it feels like you’re trapped in some third rate videogame being suffocated with candyfloss and overdosing on smiles,. The dialogue is (surprisingly given the screenwriter is Frozen’s Jennifer Lee) unrelentingly cumbersome, the characters spouting huge chunks of exposition, and while Reid manages to rise above the mess to bring soulfulness to her insecurities (she finds it hard to take a compliment), everyone around her is coasting at best, Gugu Mbatha-Raw criminally wasted as Meg’s mom while Oprah Winfrey’s stellar performance in The Color Purple is now but a distant memory.

Sprawlingly uneven, almost totally devoid of tension and with none of the emotional clout you’d expect, not to mention featuring utterly unmemorable songs from Sia and Sade and some spectacularly shoddy special effects,  the biggest wrinkle here is likely to be your nose at the bad smell. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, 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 Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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

 

 

Cosmic jazz legends touch down at Town Hall

Sun Ra Arkestra

Legendary jazz big band the Sun Ra Arkestra are set to appear at Birmingham’s Town Hall on Wednesday 4 April 2018, supported by Leftfoot DJs.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, the late Sun Ra is one of the greatest jazz figures of the late 20th century. Garbed in flamboyant and colourful attire, Ra and cohorts combined space age and Egyptian iconography at a time of Black Power and civil rights.

With a bewildering back catalogue of releases (key works include Space Is The Place, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Cosmos, New Steps and Lanquidity), their influence has seeped across musical genres. Lady Gaga, Solange, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo are just some of the contemporary artists who’ve referenced Ra, while it’s hard to image Funkadelic or Earth Wind And Fire existing without Sun Ra.

A pianist and band leader, Ra’s style ranged from retro swing to avant free – often in the same piece. His band could play a swinging jazz standard and soar into a free cosmic jam without a pause.

Following the ascension of Sun Ra in 1993, and John Gilmore in 1995, the position of Arkestra Musical Director has been assumed by saxophonist Marshall Allen.

A member of the Arkestra for 60 years (20 years longer than Sun Ra himself), Marshall continues to be committed to the study, research, and development of Sun Ra’s musical precepts. Under his direction, the Sun Ra Arkestra moves forward with new music and new arrangements.

If you saw the Arkestra perform an incredible set at Lunar Festival in 2015, or Mostly Jazz way back in 2010, you’ll have an idea what to expect.

Jazzlines presents Sun Ra Arkestra, plus Leftfoot DJs, at Birmingham Town Hall, on Wednesday 4 April 2018.

For more information and tickets, see: www.thsh.co.uk

Delicious singer returns

rachel mayfield

Transports Of Delight is the latest release from Birmingham singer Rachel Mayfield.

In the early 1990s Mayfield fronted Brum indie guitar hopefuls Delicious Monster.

Praised by the music press of the day, the once great NME hailed her as the ‘Goddess of Indie Rock’, while Melody Maker were also confirmed fans. Their track Power Missy was Single Of The Week in both titles. Snuggle was another firm favourite. They toured with such bands as Suede and The Boo Radleys and were part of a vibrant Brum scene that also included such acts as Sweet Jesus. Though hotly tipped, the band never crossed over and split in the mid-90s after releasing one album, Joie De Vivre. 

Since the DM’s demise, Rachel has diversified into solo albums, film and art-based installations, and developed creative collectives.

Her latest release is the album Transports Of Delight (out now), for the Birmingham-based label Iron Man Records, recorded at Park Studios Amsterdam and at Woodbine Studios Leamington Spa, with Bonus Tracks recorded by Gavin at Magic Garden Studios, Wolverhampton, and at her home in North London with a portable studio.

[ Stream / Buy Transports of Delight (via Bandcamp) ]

Rachel Mayfield will be opening for fellow ’90s Brum scene survivor Micky Greaney at The Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham, on Friday 30 April 2018. Tickets/ details: kitchengardencafe.co.uk

Delicious Monster’s singles included Power Missy and Snuggle (below).

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Mar 23-Thu Mar 29

 

NEW RELEASES

 

A Fantastic Woman (15)

Winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s  downbeat drama is anchored by a knockout performance by transgender newcomer Daniela Vega as Marina/Daniel, a bar singer with bigger ambitions, who is in a relationship with  Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older divorcee into whose apartment she’s just moved. However, that night, following a celebration meal for her birthday, he has an aneurysm and dies after she rushes him to hospital. Although his brother Gapo (Luis Gnecco) is understanding, Marina now finds herself facing  the hostile  reactions of Orland’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and son (Nicolás Saavedra), as well as the police, as Orlando’s body was bruised and cut following his collapse down the stairs. The wife first demands the return of the car and then insists Marina has no right to remain in the apartment, while, given that she  fled in panic after Orlando died,  the  immediate response  from the coldly unfeeling officer (Amparo Noguera) from  Sexual Offences Unit is that she was a prostitute who struck out at Orlando after being abused.

The one, who can barely hide her disgust,  cruelly forbids her from attending her lover’s wake or funeral while the other insists on Marina undergoing a humiliating examination, none treat her as a person in grief who has lost someone they love or, indeed, with any sense of human compassion.

Told entirely from Marina’s perspective and both empathising with the suffering through which she goes and the courage with which she faces it and how she finally gets to say her last goodbyes,  it consistently emphasises her determination to cling to her identity (the film makes poignant use of Aretha Franklin’s You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman)in the face of others seeking to impose their own presumptions and attitudes.  It’s an often stark and painful film, one which, at times, flirts with noir thriller territory, but, with  Vega’s largely quite and internal  performance capturing her anguish and vulnerability, but also her spirits, ultimately (as in the final scene where she performs an in concert Handel aria) defiantly optimistic.   (Electric; MAC)

 

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (12A)

Given the current stories flying around regarding Russian meddling in the last election and Trump’s alleged indiscretions with assorted female porn stars, this has a remarkably timely resonance, although it’s set several presidencies earlier, Felt being the FBI veteran who, as ‘Deep Throat’, gave Woodward and Bernstein the goods on  President Richard Nixon’s malfeasance.  Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, the screenplay goes behind the scenes to follow the FBI investigation and how the White House sought to shut down in the investigation into Watergate.

It stars Liam Neeson who gives a solid, complex performance as Felt,  but, since he’s not killing or rescuing anyone here, the film, also which features an impressive  raft of  classy supporting names such as Diane Lane, Tom Sizemore, Josh Lucas,  Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle and Bruce Greenwood,  is getting only a single screen  out of town release with zero promotion.

In the job for 30 years and now assistant FBI director, essentially running the bureau as the long standing  incumbent director J Edgar Hoover has grown old and infirm, he’s summoned to the White House for advice on how the Nixon administration than remove the old man, with the virtual promise that he’ll take his place.  Inflexibly loyal, he gives the short shrift, so, when, shortly after, Hoover dies of a stroke, he discovers that he’s not stepping into his shoes and, instead, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a man with no law-enforcement experience and more susceptible to White House control, is appointed temporary director instead.

The film doesn’t shy from suggesting that Felt’s initial whistleblowing is partly down to resentment at being passed over, but his driving motivation is his sense of duty and loyalty to the organisation and his horror at seeing it being prevented from doing its job and an attempt to turn it into a White House lapdog.

As such, Neeson exudes the necessary sense of moral righteousness, even if passing confidential information for the country and the Bureau’s greater good goes against everything he believes. As such the biopic  unfolds as a ticking lock political thriller, often shot in shadows with clandestine meeting, the central narrative complemented by a subplot involving Felt’s  troubled marriage and his search for their missing estranged daughter, Joan, who may have run away to become an anti-Vietnam war activist, possibly with The Weather Underground domestic terrorist  movement. It’s not always subtle, but it is consistently engrossing and deserves far better than to be simply tossed away  as a contractual obligation.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

Pacific Rim: Uprising (12A)

 

Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a  sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director  Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.

Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a  living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan  urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper,  the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.

The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton  Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.

It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s  former lab partner  Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them  last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either  film  seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Proud Mary (15)

We’ve been down this path before, the hitman (or here hitwoman) who wants out but is in too deep to be let go. As an added ingredient, echoing Leon, it also throws in a feisty kid who the killer takes under wing as a sort of guardian angel. Produced by and starring Taraji P. Henson, it sets out  its genre influences from the start with opening credits firmly in the style of 70s Blaxploitation, compounding the association with a funky soul and disco soundtrack that includes The Temptation and, obviously, the eponymous title, as sung by Ike & Tina Turner.

Henson is Mary, an enforcer for a Boston crime mob who was taken in and trained by family head Benny (Danny Glover) and who used to have a thing with his son, Tom (Billy Brown). It opens with Mary, whose wardrobe hides a small arsenal of weapons, takes out a low life bookie in serious debt, only to discover the victim’s young son’s also in the apartment. Since she doesn’t ‘do’ kids, she leaves, taking with her the boy’s photo.  Some years later, the kid, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), is now a gun-toting 13-year-old mule for local drug lord Uncle (Xander Berkeley),  who regularly beats him whenever he slips up.

Discovering the boy unconscious in an alley after chasing down a mugger to stole his bag, Mary, who is transpired has been keeping an eye on him all these years, take him home and, seeing the marks on his back, sets out to have a few words with Uncle. Words turn into bullets, an act, since Mary can’t fess up to the killing, instantly threatens to spark a turf between Benny and a rival Russian mob run by Luka (Rade Serbedzijia). Benny offers to take out the prime suspect, but even before Mary pulls the trigger, Luka’s crew make a move on Benny,  and so everything escalates.

Meanwhile, Danny’s holed up at Mary’s, which makes Tom more than a little suspicious and, when the pieces are all put together, Mary clearly has the choice of  letting the kid be eliminated or taking on Benny and the pair of them trying to make a run for it.

It plays out pretty much as you would imagine, ticking off the clichés as it goes, director Babak Najafi as efficient but equally characterless as he was with London Has Fallen, seemingly forgetting all about the Luka narrative strand once Mary and Tom massacre the gang at their HQW, even though the boss escapes. Glover gives a calmly menacing performance, his ruthlessness masked by a smile and, as the gritty but troubled and guilt-wracked Mary,  Henson clearly has the makings of a morally ambiguous action star whose exploits you’d like to see continue. However, while watchable enough  the film – and especially the dialogue – never rises to her level to be able to compete with such similar franchises as John Wick, suggesting these big wheels aren’t likely to keep on turning.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Square (15)

The latest from Force Majeure Swedish director Ruben Östlund was his country’s Golden Gloves and Oscar nominee and picked up last year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes, a rambling and at times surreal and absurdist satire on contemporary art and self-identity. Christian (Claes Bang) is the director of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, the sort of place that exhibits small piles of gravel a major art work. In an opening interview with American TV presenter Anne (Elisabeth Moss), he responds to one of her questions by asking if he put her handbag in the museum would it become art. As such, the film seems set to take on philosophical questions as to what makes something art. This expands in regards to the latest work, which entails constructing a square in the courtyard within which  people have to behave responsibly to one another.  However, it needs a selling point to get the media’s attention. One which a couple of PR consultants  set about creating with a video involving blonde haired young refugee girl and an explosion that rather inevitably backfires.

Parallel to this is a storyline involving Christian looking to recover his wallet and phone, stolen from his earlier in an ingenious slight-of-hand scam. Using his findmyphone app, he tracks to a building in one of the city’s ghetto areas and, together with an employee, comes up with the idea of posting threatening letter demanding its return  through all of the apartment doors in the belief that the thieves must live in one of the flats. Indeed, his stolen wallet and phone are returned, but the letters also have another consequence.

The film’s  underlying notion is how individual  guilt can spread to a whole society and the consequences of not taking action and trying to keep up appearances , but you  can’t help feel it rather loses focus as Christian  enlists Oleg (Terry Notary), a performance artist to act as  a menacing primate, moving among the guests at a  sponsor’s dinner in an experiment in humiliation, something else that goes further than planned.  The ape reference also links back to a scene in which divorced commitment-phobic Christian has sex with Anne, who keeps an unusual pet in her apartment, and their argument about what to do with the used condom,  and who also flirts with him by impersonating the  Tourette’s sufferer who earlier interrupted an onstage discussion with another celebrated artist (Dominic West) .

A  brittle, dark comedy, there are some striking images and pierecing acerbic humour but, ultimately, even at two hours plus,  it feels somewhat thematically overstuffed  without leaving the audience with any real clarity. (Electric)

 

Unsane (15)

Shot entirely on an iPhone (well, three of them actually), Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a smart psychological thriller that would have been considerably smarter had it not tipped its hand so early on.  Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini,  a take no shit data analyst  who now works in Pennsylvania having recently moved from Boston.  Although she’s told no one why, the reason was because she had a stalker. Now, following a Tinder hook-up that triggers a trauma, she thinks she’s hallucinating him and takes herself along to see a counsellor at the Highland Creek therapy clinic. Having admitted that she’s sometimes had a suicidal though, she unknowingly signs up for voluntary admission and treatment. It’s supposed to be just 24 hours but her understandable response seen sees this extended to seven days and increased medication as she tries to convince the staff that she’s not mentally unstable, something the doctor and administrator are not persuaded off given that she’s accusing George (Joshua Leonard), one of the volunteer nurses on her ward, of being her stalker, Daniel, who’s followed her here.

The cops aren’t interested and when, thanks to helpful, more rational, fellow patient  (Jay Pharoah) who lends  Sawyer his secret phone,  mom (Amy Irving)  turns up she’s given the brush off and run-around, leaving promising to return with her lawyers.  However, by this point, the entire Gaslighting set-up  (is she imaging it or is it all real) has been brushed aside and One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  has been replaced by Sleeping With The Enemy.

Even so, the film, which was largely inspired by news reports of how a chain of  American psychiatric hospitals was  running a scam by keeping patients unnecessarily until their insurance ran out, works efficiently enough as a trashy b-movie woman in peril thriller, Foy and Pharaoh’s solid work complemented by a suitably unhinged turn from Juno Temple as Sawyer’s bed neighbour and an uncredited A-list flashback cameo as Sawyer’s security assessor. It may be pushing it to tag its ‘woman’s claims disbelieved’ thread as  the first psychothriller  of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t  have you biting the nails. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (15)

Former fashion model Lorna Tucker’s documentary seeks to provide an insight on British fashion designer, punk era icon and sometime Malcolm McLaren collaborator Vivienne transformed  the punk aesthetic into popular culture . A rebel in the 70s, she became a Dame in 2006, but, now 76, she remains as spiky as ever , complaining about having to go over everything again at the start of the film. The film charts her upbringing from a working-class background  and  art school drop out, through marriage motherhood and a stint as a schoolteacher to her affair with McLaren and rebirth  and reinvention as a controversial designer.

There’s little doubt that Westwood’s notorious recalcitrance explains  why several areas, especially that whole punk scene and her relationship with McLaren, are covered in so little detail and depth,  but interviews with her more forthcoming second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and he present day footage of her, still working away, cycling to her headquarters and ruthlessly self-critical of her own designs , not to mention a brief look at her environmentalist work, including her Greenpeace mission to the Arctic,  still make this worth a look. (Electric; Mockingbird)

A Wrinkle In Time  (PG)

Adapted from the 1962 tween novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Selma director Ava r DuVernay’s big screen adaptation plays like a New Age trip for thirteen year olds. Four years after her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing while experimenting on bending time with something called the tesseract, science geek Meg Murry  (Storm Reid) has withdrawn into herself, her grades have slipped, she’s developed an attitude and ostracised pretty much everyone at school to the extent that her super-intelligent adoptive brother Charles Wallace  (Deric McCabe) takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her breaktimes.

Then, after the kid puts in an SOS call to the universe,  into her life comes, first dippy red-head Mrs Whatsit, (Reese Witherspoon), and subsequently Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) , who speaks using famous quotations (though ranking Outkast alongside Shakespeare’s a bit much), and, towering above them  in what looks like a Black Panther female warrior’s reject costume,  the diva-esque Mrs Which (Opra Winfrey) who are, apparently, magical angel  incarnations of the universe  who have come to help Meg find her dad. So, joined by her brother  and Calvin (Levi Miller), a classmate with a puppy-eyed crush, they tesser through a wrinkle in the fabric of time  to  another dimension with its dodgy CGI backdrops and freefloating sentient flowers where, taking to the skies as Witherspoon transforms into some sort of flying lettuce leaf,  they hope to find what happened to him.

However,  the reclusive resident seer (Zach Galifianakis) informs them that her father’s been taken by the It, an all consuming darkness that wants to envelop the universe. Apparently, since there’s no light in Camazotz, where It lives, although Meg’s determination is sufficient to get everyone there,  the gaudily overdressed threesome can’t  stay. But, before leaving each gives Meg a gift.  However, once they’ve gone, the darkness attacks and, in the figure of the gaudily dressed moustachioed  Red  (Michael Peña) abducts and  possesses Charles Wallace , so now Meg has to fight the It to rescue both him and her father and get back to Earth.

A  parable about overcoming insecurities and lack of self-esteem, confronting your flaws and weaknesses (the darkness within, if you like) and being an individual, it’s heart and message are clearly in the right place, but it’s all so saccharine and twee (at times it recalls Robin Williams’ head trip through What Dreams May Come) that  it feels like you’re trapped in some third rate videogame being suffocated with candyfloss and overdosing on smiles,. The dialogue is (surprisingly given the screenwriter is Frozen’s Jennifer Lee) unrelentingly cumbersome, the characters spouting huge chunks of exposition, and while Reid manages to rise above the mess to bring soulfulness to her insecurities (she finds it hard to take a compliment), everyone around her is coasting at best, Gugu Mbatha-Raw criminally wasted as Meg’s mom while Oprah Winfrey’s stellar performance in The Color Purple is now but a distant memory.

Sprawlingly uneven, almost totally devoid of tension and with none of the emotional clout you’d expect, not to mention featuring utterly unmemorable songs from Elton John and Bernie Taupin and some spectacularly shoddy special effects,  the biggest wrinkle here is likely to be your nose at the smell of rotting turkey. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Coco (PG)                                              

Following 2014’s The Book of Life, it’s now Pixar’s turn to take animation audiences on an Oscar- winning  journey into the afterlife, as celebrated in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a lively, colourful festival to remember friends and family members who have passed on and who, at least here, cross over to (unseen) spend time with their relatives. As with all the best Pixar films, there’s a definite darkness as it delivers  familiar messages about family, friendship, passion and being true to yourself. Boldly, the title character, while pivotal to the story, isn’t actually the focus of the narrative. She’s an old Mexican woman drifting in and out of dementia and hovering around death’s door. As a child, her heart was broken when her father left to pursue his dream of being a musician, to which end her mother banned music from the home and family and went into the shoemaking business. Two generations later, the business is thriving, but ban still stands, much to the frustration of 12-year-old  Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who, having secretly taught himself to play guitar, wants to emulate his hero, the late legendary film and singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

When his gran smashes his guitar,  looking to take part in a talent show, Miguel ‘borrows’ the one that belonged to de la Cruz from his shrine and suddenly finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead where his assorted dead relatives, all friendly-looking skeletons,  offer to give him the blessing he needs (involving bright orange marigold petals) to return home before  he becomes a skeleton like them, but, his great-grandmother  insists it’s on the condition he renounces music. Miguel, however, decides to track down his idol, as huge a star in death as he was in life, and seek his blessing instead,  and who, to his surprise and delight, he’s discovered he was his great-great grandfather . To do so, however, he needs the help of Hector (Gael García Bernal), a skeleton and a bit of a con artists who says he knows Ernesto and wants to get back to the Land of the Living and see his daughter one last time before, with no one putting up his photo on the Day of the Dead, he’s forgotten and lost forever.

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar winner ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Fifty Shades Freed (18)

The adaptation of E.L.James’ trashy erotic trilogy finally reaches its climax, or maybe anti-climax would be a better term.  Opening with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) getting hitched, you’re then treated to a Cote d’Azur honeymoon example of glossy brochure cinema that sets the town for the opulence that follows, so that, at times, it seems you’re watching high end car, real estate or fashion commercials rather than an actual film about the psychological and personal problems of two obscenely rich and impossibly beautiful people, though, she naturally, wants to keep working so she has her own identity. As the ending to the previous film will have made you aware, this is supposedly the thriller chapter, as Anastasia’s embittered former boss, Hyde (Eric Johnson) sets about the home invasion and abduction route, neither, it must be said, with much apparent planning or foresight as to how things might screw up, blinded, perhaps, by the vendetta he has against Christian for reasons that are obvious long before they’re actually revealed.

It’s an utterly perfunctory narrative devoid of any sense of threat or tension, punctuated every now and again with some gratuitous soft porn sex –  bondage, vibrators, in the car, whatever – to rouse (as opposed to arouse) audiences from their slumber. The vague sexual politics of the first film were largely abandoned in the sequel and here they’re virtually non-existent, Grey’s an insecure control freak (but, since he sits at the piano crooning Maybe I’m Amazed, he’s obviously sensitive too) while masochistic Mrs. Grey, is willingly compliant, although there is one scene where he takes her to the Red Room of Pain session as punishment (he teases but withholds her from orgasm) for disobeying him rather than pleasure. The supposed dramatic moment in the relationship arrives with the prospect of parenthood, but even this barely scratches the highly polished emotional surface.

There’s a decent high speed car chase through Seattle, an amusing hands off my hubbie snap between Anastasia and a large-breasted architect, another chance to gasp at Rita Ora’s inability to act as Christian’s sister  and Marcia Gay Harden gets wheeled back on towards the end in a redundant cameo as Christian’s adoptive mom that feels like an agent’s insistence. Jennifer Ehle’s in it too, but you probably won’t realise that until the end credits.

Bland, lazy and devoid of any noticeable chemistry between the two leads, it ends with a montage of moments from the previous films, surely to be greeted by many reluctant partners with a  sigh of relief at being Freed from having to sit through any more of this  tosh. (Cineworld NEC;  Vue Star City)

 

Finding Your Feet  (12A)

This year’s bid for the grey pound audience comes with both an impressive ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of more senior British actors and a plot that hews comfortably closely to the genre’s familiar clichés. Reliably directed by Richard Loncraine, it has Imelda Staunton as  Sandra – Lady –  Abbott who, at the celebrations for his elevation of his enoblement  – discovers her husband Mike (John Sessions) has been having a five-year affair with her best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence). Understandably miffed, she storms out of their idyllic suburban mansion and fetches up at the council estate tenement London flat of  her erstwhile left-wing activist sister, Bif (Celia Imrie), whom she’s not seen for the past ten years after their lives went separate ways. The one a prim and proper  – and somewhat snobby – traditionalist, the other a free spirit who still enjoys sex and is part of  a local dance club with her friends, antique furniture restorer and odd job man Charlie (Timothy Spall), retired lawyer Jackie (Joanna Lumley who has the funniest – if hardly original – line) and Ted (David Heyman) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. Charlie and Ted live on barges, the latter’s wife having passed away, the former’s (Sian Thomas) in a nursing home suffering from dementia.

The relationship between the sisters is initially frosty, as it that between Sandra and Charlie, but, inevitably the chill thaws, bonds are renewed, new attractions formed. Equally inevitably, there’s a terminal illness waiting in someone’s wings as sure as the film carries a live life, be who you really are message.

In an unlikely development in order to provide some location colour, the dance club members are talent-spotted while performing a Christmas flash mob multi-style dance routine in aid of Age UK (cue some product placement proselytizing by Lumley) and invited to take part in a dance show in Rome. So, will Sandra loosen up, change her constipated hairstyle, dance while she vacuums  and bring music back into her life, will she and Charlie fall in love at the Trevi fountain, will Mike come asking for her to take him back, will there be life decisions to be made? Do you really need to ask.

Resolutely inoffensive (there’s jokes about laxatives and penises and one f word), the script predictably balances sobs and smiles, laughter and tears while, since the feelgood is the keyword,  only ever skirting the OAP issues of  ageing, loneliness, love and mortality.  With performances are as solid as you expect and the dance routines never unconvincingly slick, it’s warm, snuffly, bittersweet stuff that will appeal to those who found The Exotic Marigold Hotel a bit too demanding, but it totters rather than glides across the cinematic dance floor. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park,; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Game Night (15)

The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.

With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.

However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.

Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.

So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’  place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.

Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.

And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.

Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston)  and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.

Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gringo (15)

The second film this year to feature a character known as the Black Panther, except this one isn’t an African superhero but a Mexican drug cartel boss. One who wants to get its hands on a formula for producing Cannabax, a legal cannabis-based drug  that’s been developed by the Chicago pharmaceutical company run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and his executive – and sexually  insatiable- partner  Elaine (Charlize Theron) and which is manufactured in Mexico.  It  transpires that, when cash flow was short,  they struck  deal to supply aforementioned Beatles-loving cartel boss with certain off-the-books products, but with a merger looming they need to call an end  to this before  the company audit. And he’s not at all happy with that.

Caught in the middle of this is their unwitting middle management pawn, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), who’s heard rumours of the merger and likely redundancies, but blissfully thinks Richard’s his buddy.  The film opens with the Rusk and Elaine relieving a call from Harold in Mexico saying he’s been kidnapped and his abductors want five million dollars. At which point, things flashback to a  couple of days earlier when the three went to Mexico to tie up loose ends, but Harold could not be found when it came to time leave. As the plot unfolds, it’s revealed that not only is Harold , who’s on the verge of bankruptcy, facing losing his job, but, in a Skype call to his wife (Thandie Newton), she says she’s been having an affair (no prizes for guessing with who)  and is leaving him.  Having rumbled that he’s going to be stitched up by Richard and Elaine,  he decides to fake the kidnapping call we heard earlier. However, things take a turn when the drug lord assumes he’s the boss with access to the formula, and so the body count rises and the twists, double crosses and misdirections pile up. The spiralling plot also involves Rusk enlisting his ex-mercenary turned aid worker brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to find Harold and, in a redundant subplot, Amanda Seyfried who’s blissfully unaware that her boyfriend, Harry Treadway, has only taken her to Mexico because he’s been hired by some rock chick (a single scene appearance by Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris) to smuggle some Cannabax tablets  back across the border.

Directed by Edgerton’s brother, Nash, it somersaults from dark comedy to brutal violence and back again in the blink of an eye without losing its traction , wading chest high through a cynical view of  the world and those who inhabit it, with Seyfried the only decent character  not  looking out for themselves here.  Despite a tendency to clown it up, Oyelowo does well enough with a character who’s written as something of an idiot not to mention a racial stereotype, but, disreputable as their characters are, it’s Edgerton’s alpha male prick and Theron’s self-made take no prisoners bitch  with her foul mouth,  scathing insults and willingness to turn on a dime that give the film its vibrancy.  When you get down to it, it’s B-movie pulp, but it relishes the fact. (Cineworld NEC;  Vue Star City)

 

I, Tonya (15)

In  1991, figure-skater Tonya Harding was America’s darling, the US Champion, a World Silver Medallist and the first American woman to successfully land the incredibly difficult  triple axel in competition. Three years later, she was the most hated woman in America, at the centre of  sensational global trial by television when she was accused of being complicit with her ex-husband Jeff Gilhooly, a dimwit with a bad moustache,  and sleazy self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt in an attempt by hired thug Shane Stant  to break rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg.

Playing as a dark sardonic comedy about unbridled, ruthless ambition, screenwriter  Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie don’t offer themselves up as apologists for Harding, but  the film is more sympathetic and compassionate than you might expect.  As superbly played  by Margot Robbie, Harding is brash and unconventional working class background woman with little patience for the authority figures  who clearly regard her as upstart trash and mark her down because she doesn’t fit the American image they want to project.  But she’s also a woman who, from childhood, has constantly suffered under the physical, emotional and verbal abuse of her  foul-mouthed harridan waitress mother LaVona  (BAFTA and  Oscar Supporting Actress winner and Allison Janney), jumping at the chance to escape her home life offered by  the dim-witted mean-streak Gilhooley (Sebastian Stan), only to find she’s gone from one abusive set-up to another.

However, she becomes increasingly determined to be judged on her talent and not to allow others to define who she is by what she wears or where she comes from. Under the coaching of Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she proves her ability again and again, but remains unaccepted by the snobbish, conservative figure skating elite. Eventually ditching Rawlinson, she comes to rely on Gilhooley, even patching up their marriage to gain a veneer of respect, but, with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics approaching and Kerrigan the favourite, Jeff’s slobby, stoner conspiracy theory friend Eckhardt (a brilliantly surreal turn from Paul Walter Hauser), who still lives with his mom and has elected himself to the role of Harding’s bodyguard, suggests they send anonymous threatening letters to Kerrigan to put her off her game. By the time his two hired goons, get involved the plan has escalated to crippling her.

Part filmed as faux documentary to-camera interviews with Harding, Gilhooley, LaVona and Eckhardt (who actually did claim, as seen here, that he was an international terrorism expert) as well as recreating events on and off the ice, while never shying away from showing the abrasive, unlikeable side of  its subject, the film is at pains to stress that she (or indeed  Jeff) was never part of the plan to do Kerrigan any physical harm and is clearly on the side of those shocked by the court’s almost vengeful  punishment in banning her from figure skating forever,  Robbie’s courtroom scene begging not to not be deprived of the only thing she lived for  especially powerful.

Doing some of her own skating (her head digitally grafted to another’s body in other scenes), Robbie delivers a career-defining turn, but, even so, it’s Janney’s compelling, vitriolically funny performance as Harding’s scowling, misanthropic and toxic stage-mother who takes the gold. How  true it is  to what happened is irrelevant, it’s a great story and, as Tonya says in one the interviews, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Lady Bird (15)

Screenwriter and actress Greta Gerwig’s second directorial outing and her first flying solo, again taking screenwriting credits,  set across 2002/2003, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy about the search for self by suburban Sacramento senior high schooler Christine  (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by her given name (“I gave it to myself”, she tells her drama teacher),  Lady Bird.  She shares her small home (quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks) with her slacker brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) who works down the local supermarket, his girlfriend Shelley (Marielle Scott) and financially strapped parents, supportive but depressed Larry  (Tracy Letts) and psychiatric counsellor Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

She resentfully attends  Immaculate Heart, an expensive Catholic private school (because Miguel once witnessed violence at the local public school),  has only one friend,  equally poor Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and regularly quarrels with her ever critical mother, who she thinks doesn’t actually like her and whose concerns about her daughter getting a grip on the realities of life frequently clash with Lady Bird’s daydreaming about possible futures (including getting into a prestigious New York  college despite her thin academic record), her busy social life and an assortment of boys.  All of which have a habit of letting her down.

Her first boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), a fellow amdram  geek in the school production of Merrily We Roll Along, turns out to be gay and her next, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), to whom she loses her virginity, is a moody, self-absorbed musician.   The  friendship with Julie is strained too when, seeking to impress and live the life she fantasises,  Lady Bird falls in with the school’s queen bee, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), one of Kyle’s clique, lying to her about where she lives.

Over the course of her final school year, there are fall outs, hopes dashed, hopes raised, and a painful growth of self-discovery and a constant prickly interaction with Marion that, for reasons you need to find out for yourself,  climaxes in the latter refusing to talk to her. It’s beautifully written to balance the bitter barbs with the tenderness,  feeling true and honest even when it’s circling familiar genre clichés,  wildly funny and also piercingly poignant (at one point, in trying on prom dresses, Marion says she only wants Christine to be the best she can be, to which she replies, “what if this is the best?”).  Giving a  performance that ranks up there with her work in Atonement and Brooklyn, Ronan is outstanding while, in her  biggest feature role to date,  Metcalf fully deserves her nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Ultimately, though, also nominated for Best Film (which makes nonsense of its inexplicably  limited UK release) this is Gerwig’s defining moment , a film that joins the contemporary classic likes of  The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Thirteen   and Juno  in capturing the  sometimes messy business of  growing up  and discovering who you are. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

Mary Magdalene (12A)

This year’s revisionist religious biopic bid for the Easter audience sees Lion director Garth Davis put the focus on the other Mary and her relationship with Jesus, played respectively by Rooney Mara and Joaquin  Phoenix, the latter still sporting his You Were Never Really Here beard.

Though aimed more at the art house than the mainstream Christian market, naturally, it’s suitably respectful and lyrical in the way it deal with the story (no The Last Temptation of Christ sex scenes here), and, as such is all rather tastefully dull, opening with an underwater sequence and Magdalene voiceover about how Christ’s kingdom took root and grew and proceedings to offer a highly interiorised perspective on its central characters, the unwed Mary seeking a higher calling than tending the sheep and playing midwife in  a heavily  patriarchal community and Jesus musing why no one ever wonders how he feels about it all.

At heart, coming on the back of International Women’s Day,  it chimes with the zeitgeist about the empowerment of women, Jesus asking if she has the courage to follow what the voices are telling her (in effect, she becomes his flagbearer, explaining things to the less enlightened actual disciples) as it mirrors  religious awakening with  a feminist one. But, while the lead performances are suitably finessed, with Tahar Rahim especially impressive as Judas,  the screenplay is obvious and at times lifeless as it dutifully ticks off the required Biblical scenes en route to the Crucifixion.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Mom and Dad  (15)

Watching Nicolas Cage do the full-tilt, scenery-chewing demented gonzo routine is nothing new,  but rarely do the films match his craziness. Not so here with Crank writer-director Brian Taylor’s black comedy psycho-thriller  that, homaging the suburban angst films of the 70s,  takes the frustration that  stressed out parents often feel about their kids and gives it a murderous twist.  Set in a generic  middle class anywheresville USA, things  begin as usual, bickering around the breakfast table, cellphone millennial junkie Carly (Anne Winters)  telling mom Kendall (Selma Blair), who gave up her career as a journalist to raise the kids,  that she’s just so not with it, sneaking off to see her  black boyfriend Damon (Robert Cunningham) while her younger brother Joshua (Zackary Arthur) works on being as brattish as he can be. Understandably, even though he remembers his own wild, rebellious youth, bored office worker dad Brent (Cage) sometimes still feels he’d like to  throttle the pair of them.  And that’s the premise made flesh.

For some never explained reason, though it’s hinted it’s some neurological virus transmitted by TV and computer screen static, starting with a  mother abandoning her toddler in the car on the train tracks to be bulldozered by a  hurtling express,  suddenly moms and dads across the town and. indeed, the country, suddenly go berserk and start slaughtering their offspring, the scenes of them gathering at the school gates reminiscent of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead.

Hurrying home with  Damon in tow to ensure Joshua’s safe, when dad turns up early from work, Damon winds up unconscious on the kitchen floor with Carly and her brother barricaded in the basement while dad, later joined by mom, first try to talk them out and then resort to more drastic means. And that’s pretty much it as parents and kids try and outwit each other, things get bloody and then Brent’s parents (Lance Hendricksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank) turn up for dinner.

In the manner of such cult suburban  horrors like Heathers, Serial Mom and Brian Yuzna’s Society, the film weaves a stream of social commentary on materialism, racism,  self-absorption, generational divides,  social media and much more into its cocktail of wild comedy, deranged slapstick  and rampant violence, striking a  particularly hard to watch note as Kendall’s sister gives birth and immediately displays less than maternal instincts, all to the ironic backdrop of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love. See it with the kids. (Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

 

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Sparrow (15)

Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic,  has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.

When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible,  Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a  state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested  and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.

Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets,  the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments  and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.

Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.

As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Shape of Water (15)

Set in what could just as easily be some retro dystopian future as Cold War era Baltimore, 1962, Guillermo del Toro’s latest, his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth, won Oscars for Best Film and  Director . Sally Hawkins  plays Elisa, a  physically and mentally scarred mute cleaner who works the night shift alongside her friend Zelda (Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates through signing, at a secret government aerospace research facility to which is brought a new important asset. This turns out to be an amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones, who performed a similar role in del Toro’s Hellboy films), regarded as a god by the Amazonian natives where he was captured, kept chained in a tank to be experimented on and with whom, both being misunderstood and unable speak out, she soon forms first a bond (by feeding him hard-boiled eggs and playing jazz music) and, subsequently, a romantic interspecies attachment that eventually supplants her daily masturbation sessions in the bath.

The creature is in the charge of Strickland (Michael Shannon), the facility’s paranoid, sadistic – but psychologically complex and apparently wholesome, religious family man – head of security, who regularly tortures the creature (“an affront’) with an electric cattle prod and has been ordered by the military to discover its breathing secrets so they can be used in their space race and, at all costs, to keep the Russians from finding out. Naturally, that’s already too late, the base’s marine biologist, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), being a Russian agent who is told by his masters that, if he cannot acquire the merman, then he must destroy it to foil the Americans. However, Hoffstetler is a scientist first and a spy second, and refuses to comply. Instead, when Elisa seeks to free her scaly lover, he joins Zelda in the attempt.

Her accomplice in the rescue is Giles (Richard Jenkins who also provides the bookending narration), her ageing, balding neighbour, a recovering alcoholic advertising illustrator ‘let go’ from his full-time job after rumours regarding his sexuality (he has a crush on the assistant at  the local diner, regularly stocking up on sickly pies so he can see him) and with whom she shares evenings watching black and white musicals on TV, their feet dancing along as they sit on the sofa. They bring the unnamed amphibian back to her apartment, keeping him salinated in the bath and regularly having  passionate sex. Meanwhile, the increasingly enraged Strickland is relentlessly piecing together the clues to track down the fugitive and either dissect or dispose of him.

An unabashed romantic fantasy and allegory about segregation, understanding between different peoples, desires repressed by social pressures and just who are the real monsters (del Toro’s co-writer is Vanessa Taylor who scripted Divergent), it draws inspiration from the creature features of the 50s, specifically The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but also vintage noir, biblical epics (Elisa’s apartment is above a barely attended cinema) and 30s musicals, indeed, there’s a wholly unexpected and inspired fantasy sequence in which the film shades to black and white and Hawkins and Jones launch into a classic Hollywood song and dance routine set to  the standard You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You).

Perfectly marrying its fairytale nature with the darker, harsher shades of B-movie thrillers, finding room for swooning romance and humour (Elisa’s subtitled sign language response to Strickland after an interrogation of her and Zelda and his subsequent patronising dismissal of their unimportance  is a gem), the film enfolds you in its intoxicating embrace as it builds to a tense climax, Dan Laustsen’s  almost literal green screen cinematography, especially in the underwater scene in the flooded apartment, giving it all a  dreamlike quality. At the heart of it all are the outstanding silent, physical performances by its romantic leads, Hawkins, both fragile and strong, carrying her emotions in her eyes and hands, Jones (who surely also deserved a nomination) in his almost balletic gestures and movements, and bring to the film an enchantment that makes it the year’s oddest but best date movie. (Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

It won the BAFTA  Best Film but lucked out at the Oscar, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes (Oscar winner Frances McDormand) rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls,  decides to poke things back into life.

The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar winner Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye.  Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet also sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.

With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.

When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works,  as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.

McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Electric; Reel; Vue Star City)

Tomb Raider (12A)

Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as  video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara  vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.

Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to  Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed  on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off  for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren  (Daniel Wu in a  largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the  lost island.

Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.

Punctuated by some  schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but  not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a  cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill.  Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast  any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate  need to rush for one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, 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 Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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

Live review: Joe Bonamassa shows Birmingham the Blues’ many faces

Joe Bonamassa at Genting Arena Birmingham. Credit: Genting Arena

Blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa brought his ‘Guitar Event of the Year’ to Birmingham’s Genting Arena on Friday, kicking into set opener, ‘King Bee Shakedown’, on top form.

Second song – the as yet unreleased, ‘Evil Mama’ – launched with a drum intro that is an incontrovertible nod to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’.

Later in the song, more Zeppelin-esque vibes were clear in the low wails of Bonamassa’s guitar – textbook Jimmy Page almost. Given Joe’s 2016 UK tour where he examined a number of British guitar legends, its unsurprising that Page’s style has seeped into the US artist’s new material. 

The majority of Bonamassa’s recorded live performances take place in beautiful old theatres, which seem more fitting for the rich sound of the seven-piece band and Joe’s pricey guitar tone. It’s a small half or third of the Genting Arena being used tonight and the vacuous space behind the stage had a slightly subtractive impact on the sound.

The Symphony Hall – with its world-class and acclaimed acoustics would perhaps be a better albeit slightly smaller fit.

Nevertheless, the band sounded incredible – keys, brass, backing singers, drums and bass – it was a big sonic experience. 

Fourth of the new songs, ‘SelfInflicted Wounds’, was another standout track and boding well for a new release.

It was a big shift in mood from the previous three songs; atmospheric, foreboding and emotional, it flicked between a sighing bass line and an epic ascending chorus before concluding with an epic break down punctuated by trumpet and saxophone blasts.

Fans of Bonamassa will be familiar with his penchant for acquiring rare vintage guitars. Seeing him parade a small part of his private collection onstage is a highlight for some, and tonight didn’t disappoint them. I counted two Gibson Les Pauls, a Flying V, an ES335, two Fender Stratocasters and two Telecasters.

It’s a set that meandered through many of history’s blues-rock incarnations and showcased both the light and shade of one of the most important and influential musical genres.

A cover of Albert King song ‘I Get Evil’, ironically, offered the most fun of all the songs in the set, introducing jazzier rhythms. Whilst ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’ – which was played straight after – was textbook Bonamassa.

Coming from his most recent studio album, ‘Blues of Desperation’, it is sorrowful anthemic blues rock with progressive tendencies – from its pogoing riff to its massive chorus underpinned by heavenly gospel harmonies.

Though the set has been much the same across the U.K. tour, Birmingham’s show was not without its surprises. Midway through the gig, the guitarist welcomed longtime friend Bernie Marsden of UFO and Whitesnake fame to the stage. Not their first onstage duel, the pair riffed off each other with great playfulness and skill in a moment that was less a competition and more of a game of ‘catch’.

Whilst the star of tonight’s performance has a great voice, onstage he pushed his guitar playing harder than his vocals. Fan favourite ‘Slow Train’ showcased the immense vocal talent of the people behind him – his two backing singers to his right and saxophonist to his left taking on shared lead singing duties – and they held little back. 

Aside from Bernie’s introduction, Bonamassa refrained for the most part from interacting with the crowd. It’s at the 90-minute mark, and at long last, that Joe talked with the crowd: “For the first four songs we were playing new material from an album coming out in September. Now, people may say it’s too early to play new music but I stand here in proud indignation.”

Referencing huge fan favourite ‘Ballad of John Henry’ from the album of the same name – which doesn’t get an airing tonight – Bonamassa joked, “Though I know somewhere there’s a man saying to his wife ‘this ain’t no John Henry – I’m going to get me a f*****g hotdog’.”

What did make a frequent appearance, however, is the Billboard #1-artist’s incredible guitar playing prowess. His virtuoso talent, developed by BB King and honed over thousands of hours of practice is plain to see.

As the set drew to a close, Bonamassa made a point of introducing the band, member by member.

As this process unfolded it becomes apparent, and to no surprise, he’s selected the cream of the crop with musicians originating from across the globe complete with CVs that include work with Tom Petty and Stevie Ray Vaughan. 

The show highlight came during the set closer, Led Zeppelin track, How Many More Times’, during which Bonamassa demonstrated just how many sounds and expressions he could get out of his axe.

During one of his solos, he flicked between picking and rolling his guitar volume in and out – a technique known as ‘violining‘. What Bonamassa achieved in this moment is utterly breathtaking, and as he moved from this into a percussive succession of higher notes, the audience seemed to hang on every single one. 

Barely off the stage for 60 seconds, the band returned to play into set closer and cover of Leon Russell song, Hummingbird. Unfortunately the previous showcasemade this encore pale in comparison – and vocally it sounded as if Bonamassa may have bitten off a bit more than he could chew – but the intensity of Hummingbird’s crescendo was a fitting end to a masterclass from one of the world’s greatest guitar players.

Words: Gareth Griffiths

Bonamassa brings the blues to Birmingham

Joe Bonamassa by Laurence Harvey
Joe Bonamassa by Laurence Harvey

As part of a March UK tour, guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa will play Birmingham’s Genting Arena on Friday, March 16th.

Bonamassa will be rolling out material from his critically acclaimed studio album, Blues of Desperation, as well as fan favourites.

Now approaching his 30th year in the ‘Business of Blues’, the New York State-born artist started his professional music career at the tender age of 12, opening for BB King in 1989.

He is acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation with diverse playing skills demonstrated over 15 self-released solo albums in 13 years, and numerous collaborative albums during the same time period.

Bonamassa’s connections to Birmingham extend to his blues-rock band, Black Country Communion was formed with two West Midlands stars: former Deep Purple vocalist Glenn Hughes and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

The current Joe Bonamassa solo UK tour follows the release of recent studio album Blues of Desperation which reached #3 in the Official UK Album Chart, and acoustic album ‘Joe Bonamassa: Live at Carnegie Hall’.

Tickets for Joe Bonamassa at Genting Arena, Birmingham on Friday 16 March 2018 are available from the venue’s official site.

Words: Gareth Griffiths

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 15-Thu Mar 22

 

NEW RELEASES

Tomb Raider (12A)

Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as  video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara  vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.

Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to  Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed  on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off  for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren  (Daniel Wu in a  largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the  lost island.

Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.

Punctuated by some  schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but  not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a  cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill.  Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast  any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate  need to rush for one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mary Magdalene (12A)

This year’s revisionist religious biopic bid for the Easter audience sees Lion director Garth Davis put the focus on the other Mary and her relationship with Jesus, played respectively by Rooney Mara and Joaquin  Phoenix, the latter still sporting his You Were Never Really Here beard.

Though aimed more at the art house than the mainstream Christian market, naturally, it’s suitably respectful and lyrical in the way it deal with the story (no The Last Temptation of Christ sex scenes here), and, as such is all rather tastefully dull, opening with an underwater sequence and Magdalene voiceover about how Christ’s kingdom took root and grew and proceedings to offer a highly interiorised perspective on its central characters, the unwed Mary seeking a higher calling than tending the sheep and playing midwife in  a heavily  patriarchal community and Jesus musing why no one ever wonders how he feels about it all.

At heart, coming on the back of International Women’s Day,  it chimes with the zeitgeist about the empowerment of women, Jesus asking if she has the courage to follow what the voices are telling her (in effect, she becomes his flagbearer, explaining things to the less enlightened actual disciples) as it mirrors  religious awakening with  a feminist one. But, while the lead performances are suitably finessed, with Tahar Rahim especially impressive as Judas,  the screenplay is obvious and at times lifeless as it dutifully ticks off the required Biblical scenes en route to the Crucifixion.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Peter Rabbit (U)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complain, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Walk Like A Panther (12A)

Already one of the year’s biggest turkeys and down to just one local screen in its second week, this is a jaw-droppingly awful  variation on the done to death let’s put on a show to save the youth club plot, here the performers a bunch of former local  wrestlers, known as the Panthers,  back from the days of ITV’s World of Sport and names like Big Daddy, Jackie Pallo and Giant Haystacks (clips of which  provide the prologue nostalgia) and the  venue being the local Yorkshire pub, named, naturally, The Half-Nelson.

Originally run by Ginger Frost (Jason Flemyng), one of the Panthers,  the landlord’s now Mark Bolton (Stephen Graham), who took over when Ginger, who was more a father to him than  his own dad,  became ill.  The Scouser son of Trevor ‘Bulldog’ Bolton (Dave Johns), Mark was an aspirant wrestler who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but missed his chance when his planned match was cancelled and World of Sport was canned.

When Ginger dies,  a video of the mourners showing their old wrestling moves when the local knobhead (Michael Socha) disrupts the wake goes viral, prompting weaselly promoter Poppy Wilson (Steve Furst) to suggest a one-off Panthers reunion of, among others Jamaican transsexual Zulu Dawn (Robbie Gee), deluded security guard Cliff ‘Edge’ Morris (Neil Fitzmaurice) who runs a  personal protection agency , and Lara ‘Liplock’ Anderson (Jill Halfpenny) . Mark ‘s keen, seeing this as a chance to finally get in the ring, his dad less so.  Which is when brewery manager Paul Paterson (a scenery chewing smarmy Stephen Tompkinson) announces he intends to close the pub and knock it down for redevelopment. At which point, the film take a plot swerve and the reunion  now becomes about saving the Half-Nelson.

That ‘shift in narrative is pretty symptomatic of  the entire ungainly mess, in which subplots are introduced but either forgotten about or never developed, the cast looking as if they haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on, most especially Julian Sands who, in gold lycra as, Sweet Cheeks, Smith, seems to spend the entire film trying to make sense of his love triangle storyline.

The cast, which also includes Sue Johnstone and,  in the Kendo Nagasaki masked wrestler boo hiss  role,  Christopher Fairbank,  mug gamely and energetically. But faced with caricatures rather than characters, incompetent direction and a clichéd and wildly inconsistent script, not to mention a dearth of actual jokes, audiences will be banging the canvas to submit long before the before Lena Headey  appears as the deus ex machine brewery owner to save the day. (Empire Great Park)

 

 

 

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Black Panther (12A)

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Coco (PG)                                              

Following 2014’s The Book of Life, it’s now Pixar’s turn to take animation audiences on an Oscar- winning  journey into the afterlife, as celebrated in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a lively, colourful festival to remember friends and family members who have passed on and who, at least here, cross over to (unseen) spend time with their relatives. As with all the best Pixar films, there’s a definite darkness as it delivers  familiar messages about family, friendship, passion and being true to yourself. Boldly, the title character, while pivotal to the story, isn’t actually the focus of the narrative. She’s an old Mexican woman drifting in and out of dementia and hovering around death’s door. As a child, her heart was broken when her father left to pursue his dream of being a musician, to which end her mother banned music from the home and family and went into the shoemaking business. Two generations later, the business is thriving, but ban still stands, much to the frustration of 12-year-old  Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who, having secretly taught himself to play guitar, wants to emulate his hero, the late legendary film and singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

When his gran smashes his guitar,  looking to take part in a talent show, Miguel ‘borrows’ the one that belonged to de la Cruz from his shrine and suddenly finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead where his assorted dead relatives, all friendly-looking skeletons,  offer to give him the blessing he needs (involving bright orange marigold petals) to return home before  he becomes a skeleton like them, but, his great-grandmother  insists it’s on the condition he renounces music. Miguel, however, decides to track down his idol, as huge a star in death as he was in life, and seek his blessing instead,  and who, to his surprise and delight, he’s discovered he was his great-great grandfather . To do so, however, he needs the help of Hector (Gael García Bernal), a skeleton and a bit of a con artists who says he knows Ernesto and wants to get back to the Land of the Living and see his daughter one last time before, with no one putting up his photo on the Day of the Dead, he’s forgotten and lost forever.

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar winner ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Den Of Thieves  (15) 

Featuring a  decidedly take and bake performance from Gerard Butler as a stereotypical gruff, hard-bitten rules-bending rogue cop, at nearly two and a half hours, this Heat cum To Live And Die In L.A. wannabe is ridiculously overlong and peppered with genre clichés.  Set in LA, apparently the bank robbery capital of the world according to the opening statistics, it opens with a donut store assault on an armoured truck carried out with military precision until a minor mishap escalates into a full blown shoot out leaving assorted cops and one of the robbers dead. Enter “Big” Nick Davis (Butler) from the Major Crimes division and his team of self-styled ‘Regulators’ who immediately butts heads with the guy from the FBI (a running antagonism that surfaces a couple of times for no particularly necessary reason), who can’t figure out, given the clearly well-planned operation, the gang ended up hijacking an empty truck. At this point anyone with even a vague familiarity with crime thrillers will be well ahead of  Davis, but it still takes forever to get to the core of the film, an attempt to steal a fortune in bills due for shredding  – and hence no longer having the serial numbers registered – from the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve, the city’s most impenetrable and never robbed bank.

It’s all being masterminded by former elite soldier Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) in the surrogate DeNiro role who, although the bad guy, does at least have reservations about killing people – especially cops – during their jobs, unlike Davis and his crew who have no reservations about beating up suspects to get the information they need.  Case in point being bartender Donnie (O’ Shea Jackson, Jr, the best thing here), who he quickly fingers as the driver and forces to be his inside man. However, the cool and clear-thinking Merriman’s not an idiot and equally uses Donnie in turn.

When it gets to the big heist and the subsequent shoot-out in heavy traffic, the film ignites as a cracking high octane thriller, Merriman’s sleight of hand strategy in its execution cleverly written, even if it does borrow somewhat from the Ocean’s 11 remake. However, you have to wade through a lot to get there, including a perfunctory subplot involving Davis’s collapsing marriage and being served with divorce papers and some mirror daddy and daughter scenes with Davis talking to his youngest at the school fence and Merriman’s second in command, Levi Enson (Curtis ’50 Cents’ Jackson), scaring the life out of his daughter’s prom date which I’d assume writer and first-time director Christian Gudegast introduced for some ‘comic relief’. There’s also a sequence in which cop and criminal both wind up at the latter’s apartment after Davis has bedded Merriman’s club dancer girlfriend, the payoff to which comes much later.

There’s an attempt to introduce some moral ambiguity to the characters, forcing audiences, as in Michael Mann’s classic, to question who they should be rooting for, but, failing to much humanise either of the opposing protagonists (Butler crying over being an estranged daddy is about as convincing as his generic tough cop bluster) the script never really pulls it off, just as a clumsily written Japanese restaurant, where Davis pretends to bump into Donnie as he’s eating with the gang and, as Merriman susses, is patently obviously a cop, makes no logical sense.  There’s a final unexpected twist, but that too is stolen from another crime classic, suggesting that while Gudegast may make a decent thief, he’s a pretty poor fence.  (Vue Star City)

 

Early Man  (PG)

Opening in the Neo-Pleistocene era, at the site of future Manchester, with a meteor that both wipes out dinosaurs and leads cavemen to invent football, this endearingly crudely-fashioned if somewhat bland stop-motion animation from director Nick Park and Aardman fast forwards to the time when the Stone Age was about to give way to the Bronze Age. The former’s represented by Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his somewhat dim-witted tribe who live in a secluded valley and hunt rabbits, mainly because they’re scared of anything bigger. The latter’s represented by Lord Nooth (voiced with a Pythonesque French accent by Tom Hiddleston) who, armed with his bronze war machines, invades and kicks out Dug’s tribe in his search for metal.

Managing to sneak his way into the fortified city, Dug accidentally winds up at one of the soccer games the avaricious Nooth stages to fleece the locals with the mandatory voluntary entrance and, when his true identity’s revealed, challenges the Real Bronzio champion team, captained by the preening Dino (Kayvan Novak), to a match with his tribe; if they win they get the valley back, if they lose they have to go and work in the mines. All he has to do now is teach the likes of knuckle-dragger Asbo (Johhny Vegas), mommy’s boy Treebor (Richard Ayoade), scouser Barry (Mark Williams), whose best mate is a rock, and the ageing (he’s 32) Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) how to play. Fortunately, he has the help of Goona (Maisie Williams), a Bronze Aze shopkeeper who is a brilliant footballer but forbidden to play with Real Bronzia because she’s a girl. Plus, of course, his pet wild boar, Hognob (grunted by Park).

It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway  football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocene/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either.  (Empire Great Park)

Fifty Shades Freed (18)

The adaptation of E.L.James’ trashy erotic trilogy finally reaches its climax, or maybe anti-climax would be a better term.  Opening with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) getting hitched, you’re then treated to a Cote d’Azur honeymoon example of glossy brochure cinema that sets the town for the opulence that follows, so that, at times, it seems you’re watching high end car, real estate or fashion commercials rather than an actual film about the psychological and personal problems of two obscenely rich and impossibly beautiful people, though, she naturally, wants to keep working so she has her own identity. As the ending to the previous film will have made you aware, this is supposedly the thriller chapter, as Anastasia’s embittered former boss, Hyde (Eric Johnson) sets about the home invasion and abduction route, neither, it must be said, with much apparent planning or foresight as to how things might screw up, blinded, perhaps, by the vendetta he has against Christian for reasons that are obvious long before they’re actually revealed.

It’s an utterly perfunctory narrative devoid of any sense of threat or tension, punctuated every now and again with some gratuitous soft porn sex –  bondage, vibrators, in the car, whatever – to rouse (as opposed to arouse) audiences from their slumber. The vague sexual politics of the first film were largely abandoned in the sequel and here they’re virtually non-existent, Grey’s an insecure control freak (but, since he sits at the piano crooning Maybe I’m Amazed, he’s obviously sensitive too) while masochistic Mrs. Grey, is willingly compliant, although there is one scene where he takes her to the Red Room of Pain session as punishment (he teases but withholds her from orgasm) for disobeying him rather than pleasure. The supposed dramatic moment in the relationship arrives with the prospect of parenthood, but even this barely scratches the highly polished emotional surface.

There’s a decent high speed car chase through Seattle, an amusing hands off my hubbie snap between Anastasia and a large-breasted architect, another chance to gasp at Rita Ora’s inability to act as Christian’s sister  and Marcia Gay Harden gets wheeled back on towards the end in a redundant cameo as Christian’s adoptive mom that feels like an agent’s insistence. Jennifer Ehle’s in it too, but you probably won’t realise that until the end credits.

Bland, lazy and devoid of any noticeable chemistry between the two leads, it ends with a montage of moments from the previous films, surely to be greeted by many reluctant partners with a  sigh of relief at being Freed from having to sit through any more of this  tosh. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Finding Your Feet  (12A)

This year’s bid for the grey pound audience comes with both an impressive ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of more senior British actors and a plot that hews comfortably closely to the genre’s familiar clichés. Reliably directed by Richard Loncraine, it has Imelda Staunton as  Sandra – Lady –  Abbott who, at the celebrations for his elevation of his enoblement  – discovers her husband Mike (John Sessions) has been having a five-year affair with her best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence). Understandably miffed, she storms out of their idyllic suburban mansion and fetches up at the council estate tenement London flat of  her erstwhile left-wing activist sister, Bif (Celia Imrie), whom she’s not seen for the past ten years after their lives went separate ways. The one a prim and proper  – and somewhat snobby – traditionalist, the other a free spirit who still enjoys sex and is part of  a local dance club with her friends, antique furniture restorer and odd job man Charlie (Timothy Spall), retired lawyer Jackie (Joanna Lumley who has the funniest – if hardly original – line) and Ted (David Heyman) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. Charlie and Ted live on barges, the latter’s wife having passed away, the former’s (Sian Thomas) in a nursing home suffering from dementia.

The relationship between the sisters is initially frosty, as it that between Sandra and Charlie, but, inevitably the chill thaws, bonds are renewed, new attractions formed. Equally inevitably, there’s a terminal illness waiting in someone’s wings as sure as the film carries a live life, be who you really are message.

In an unlikely development in order to provide some location colour, the dance club members are talent-spotted while performing a Christmas flash mob multi-style dance routine in aid of Age UK (cue some product placement proselytizing by Lumley) and invited to take part in a dance show in Rome. So, will Sandra loosen up, change her constipated hairstyle, dance while she vacuums  and bring music back into her life, will she and Charlie fall in love at the Trevi fountain, will Mike come asking for her to take him back, will there be life decisions to be made? Do you really need to ask.

Resolutely inoffensive (there’s jokes about laxatives and penises and one f word), the script predictably balances sobs and smiles, laughter and tears while, since the feelgood is the keyword,  only ever skirting the OAP issues of  ageing, loneliness, love and mortality.  With performances are as solid as you expect and the dance routines never unconvincingly slick, it’s warm, snuffly, bittersweet stuff that will appeal to those who found The Exotic Marigold Hotel a bit too demanding, but it totters rather than glides across the cinematic dance floor. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Game Night (15)

The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.

With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.

However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.

Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.

So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’  place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.

Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.

And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.

Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston)  and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.

Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gringo (15)

The second film this year to feature a character known as the Black Panther, except this one isn’t an African superhero but a Mexican drug cartel boss. One who wants to get its hands on a formula for producing Cannabax, a legal cannabis-based drug  that’s been developed by the Chicago pharmaceutical company run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and his executive – and sexually  insatiable- partner  Elaine (Charlize Theron) and which is manufactured in Mexico.  It  transpires that, when cash flow was short,  they struck  deal to supply aforementioned Beatles-loving cartel boss with certain off-the-books products, but with a merger looming they need to call an end  to this before  the company audit. And he’s not at all happy with that.

Caught in the middle of this is their unwitting middle management pawn, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), who’s heard rumours of the merger and likely redundancies, but blissfully thinks Richard’s his buddy.  The film opens with the Rusk and Elaine relieving a call from Harold in Mexico saying he’s been kidnapped and his abductors want five million dollars. At which point, things flashback to a  couple of days earlier when the three went to Mexico to tie up loose ends, but Harold could not be found when it came to time leave. As the plot unfolds, it’s revealed that not only is Harold , who’s on the verge of bankruptcy, facing losing his job, but, in a Skype call to his wife (Thandie Newton), she says she’s been having an affair (no prizes for guessing with who)  and is leaving him.  Having rumbled that he’s going to be stitched up by Richard and Elaine,  he decides to fake the kidnapping call we heard earlier. However, things take a turn when the drug lord assumes he’s the boss with access to the formula, and so the body count rises and the twists, double crosses and misdirections pile up. The spiralling plot also involves Rusk enlisting his ex-mercenary turned aid worker brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to find Harold and, in a redundant subplot, Amanda Seyfried who’s blissfully unaware that her boyfriend, Harry Treadway, has only taken her to Mexico because he’s been hired by some rock chick (a single scene appearance by Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris) to smuggle some Cannabax tablets  back across the border.

Directed by Edgerton’s brother, Nash, it somersaults from dark comedy to brutal violence and back again in the blink of an eye without losing its traction , wading chest high through a cynical view of  the world and those who inhabit it, with Seyfried the only decent character  not  looking out for themselves here.  Despite a tendency to clown it up, Oyelowo does well enough with a character who’s written as something of an idiot not to mention a racial stereotype, but, disreputable as their characters are, it’s Edgerton’s alpha male prick and Theron’s self-made take no prisoners bitch  with her foul mouth,  scathing insults and willingness to turn on a dime that give the film its vibrancy.  When you get down to it, it’s B-movie pulp, but it relishes the fact. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Vue Star City)

 

 

I, Tonya (15)

In  1991, figure-skater Tonya Harding was America’s darling, the US Champion, a World Silver Medallist and the first American woman to successfully land the incredibly difficult  triple axel in competition. Three years later, she was the most hated woman in America, at the centre of  sensational global trial by television when she was accused of being complicit with her ex-husband Jeff Gilhooly, a dimwit with a bad moustache,  and sleazy self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt in an attempt by hired thug Shane Stant  to break rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg.

Playing as a dark sardonic comedy about unbridled, ruthless ambition, screenwriter  Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie don’t offer themselves up as apologists for Harding, but  the film is more sympathetic and compassionate than you might expect.  As superbly played  by Margot Robbie, Harding is brash and unconventional working class background woman with little patience for the authority figures  who clearly regard her as upstart trash and mark her down because she doesn’t fit the American image they want to project.  But she’s also a woman who, from childhood, has constantly suffered under the physical, emotional and verbal abuse of her  foul-mouthed harridan waitress mother LaVona  (BAFTA and  Oscar Supporting Actress winner and Allison Janney), jumping at the chance to escape her home life offered by  the dim-witted mean-streak Gilhooley (Sebastian Stan), only to find she’s gone from one abusive set-up to another.

However, she becomes increasingly determined to be judged on her talent and not to allow others to define who she is by what she wears or where she comes from. Under the coaching of Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she proves her ability again and again, but remains unaccepted by the snobbish, conservative figure skating elite. Eventually ditching Rawlinson, she comes to rely on Gilhooley, even patching up their marriage to gain a veneer of respect, but, with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics approaching and Kerrigan the favourite, Jeff’s slobby, stoner conspiracy theory friend Eckhardt (a brilliantly surreal turn from Paul Walter Hauser), who still lives with his mom and has elected himself to the role of Harding’s bodyguard, suggests they send anonymous threatening letters to Kerrigan to put her off her game. By the time his two hired goons, get involved the plan has escalated to crippling her.

Part filmed as faux documentary to-camera interviews with Harding, Gilhooley, LaVona and Eckhardt (who actually did claim, as seen here, that he was an international terrorism expert) as well as recreating events on and off the ice, while never shying away from showing the abrasive, unlikeable side of  its subject, the film is at pains to stress that she (or indeed  Jeff) was never part of the plan to do Kerrigan any physical harm and is clearly on the side of those shocked by the court’s almost vengeful  punishment in banning her from figure skating forever,  Robbie’s courtroom scene begging not to not be deprived of the only thing she lived for  especially powerful.

Doing some of her own skating (her head digitally grafted to another’s body in other scenes), Robbie delivers a career-defining turn, but, even so, it’s Janney’s compelling, vitriolically funny performance as Harding’s scowling, misanthropic and toxic stage-mother who takes the gold. How  true it is  to what happened is irrelevant, it’s a great story and, as Tonya says in one the interviews, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Everyman)

 

Lady Bird (15)

Screenwriter and actress Greta Gerwig’s second directorial outing and her first flying solo, again taking screenwriting credits,  set across 2002/2003, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy about the search for self by suburban Sacramento senior high schooler Christine  (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by her given name (“I gave it to myself”, she tells her drama teacher),  Lady Bird.  She shares her small home (quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks) with her slacker brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) who works down the local supermarket, his girlfriend Shelley (Marielle Scott) and financially strapped parents, supportive but depressed Larry  (Tracy Letts) and psychiatric counsellor Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

She resentfully attends  Immaculate Heart, an expensive Catholic private school (because Miguel once witnessed violence at the local public school),  has only one friend,  equally poor Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and regularly quarrels with her ever critical mother, who she thinks doesn’t actually like her and whose concerns about her daughter getting a grip on the realities of life frequently clash with Lady Bird’s daydreaming about possible futures (including getting into a prestigious New York  college despite her thin academic record), her busy social life and an assortment of boys.  All of which have a habit of letting her down.

Her first boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), a fellow amdram  geek in the school production of Merrily We Roll Along, turns out to be gay and her next, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), to whom she loses her virginity, is a moody, self-absorbed musician.   The  friendship with Julie is strained too when, seeking to impress and live the life she fantasises,  Lady Bird falls in with the school’s queen bee, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), one of Kyle’s clique, lying to her about where she lives.

Over the course of her final school year, there are fall outs, hopes dashed, hopes raised, and a painful growth of self-discovery and a constant prickly interaction with Marion that, for reasons you need to find out for yourself,  climaxes in the latter refusing to talk to her. It’s beautifully written to balance the bitter barbs with the tenderness,  feeling true and honest even when it’s circling familiar genre clichés,  wildly funny and also piercingly poignant (at one point, in trying on prom dresses, Marion says she only wants Christine to be the best she can be, to which she replies, “what if this is the best?”).  Giving a  performance that ranks up there with her work in Atonement and Brooklyn, Ronan is outstanding while, in her  biggest feature role to date,  Metcalf fully deserves her nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Ultimately, though, also nominated for Best Film (which makes nonsense of its inexplicably  limited UK release) this is Gerwig’s defining moment , a film that joins the contemporary classic likes of  The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Thirteen   and Juno  in capturing the  sometimes messy business of  growing up  and discovering who you are. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

Mom and Dad  (15)

Watching Nicolas Cage do the full-tilt, scenery-chewing demented gonzo routine is nothing new,  but rarely do the films match his craziness. Not so here with Crank writer-director Brian Taylor’s black comedy psycho-thriller  that, homaging the suburban angst films of the 70s,  takes the frustration that  stressed out parents often feel about their kids and gives it a murderous twist.  Set in a generic  middle class anywheresville USA, things  begin as usual, bickering around the breakfast table, cellphone millennial junkie Carly (Anne Winters)  telling mom Kendall (Selma Blair), who gave up her career as a journalist to raise the kids,  that she’s just so not with it, sneaking off to see her  black boyfriend Damon (Robert Cunningham) while her younger brother Joshua (Zackary Arthur) works on being as brattish as he can be. Understandably, even though he remembers his own wild, rebellious youth, bored office worker dad Brent (Cage) sometimes still feels he’d like to  throttle the pair of them.  And that’s the premise made flesh.

For some never explained reason, though it’s hinted it’s some neurological virus transmitted by TV and computer screen static, starting with a  mother abandoning her toddler in the car on the train tracks to be bulldozered by a  hurtling express,  suddenly moms and dads across the town and. indeed, the country, suddenly go berserk and start slaughtering their offspring, the scenes of them gathering at the school gates reminiscent of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead.

Hurrying home with  Damon in tow to ensure Joshua’s safe, when dad turns up early from work, Damon winds up unconscious on the kitchen floor with Carly and her brother barricaded in the basement while dad, later joined by mom, first try to talk them out and then resort to more drastic means. And that’s pretty much it as parents and kids try and outwit each other, things get bloody and then Brent’s parents (Lance Hendricksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank) turn up for dinner.

In the manner of such cult suburban  horrors like Heathers, Serial Mom and Brian Yuzna’s Society, the film weaves a stream of social commentary on materialism, racism,  self-absorption, generational divides,  social media and much more into its cocktail of wild comedy, deranged slapstick  and rampant violence, striking a  particularly hard to watch note as Kendall’s sister gives birth and immediately displays less than maternal instincts, all to the ironic backdrop of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love. See it with the kids. (Vue Star City)

Red Sparrow (15)

Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic,  has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.

When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible,  Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a  state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested  and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.

Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets,  the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments  and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.

Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.

As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Shape of Water (15)

Set in what could just as easily be some retro dystopian future as Cold War era Baltimore, 1962, Guillermo del Toro’s latest, his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth, won Oscars for Best Film and  Director . Sally Hawkins  plays Elisa, a  physically and mentally scarred mute cleaner who works the night shift alongside her friend Zelda (Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates through signing, at a secret government aerospace research facility to which is brought a new important asset. This turns out to be an amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones, who performed a similar role in del Toro’s Hellboy films), regarded as a god by the Amazonian natives where he was captured, kept chained in a tank to be experimented on and with whom, both being misunderstood and unable speak out, she soon forms first a bond (by feeding him hard-boiled eggs and playing jazz music) and, subsequently, a romantic interspecies attachment that eventually supplants her daily masturbation sessions in the bath.

The creature is in the charge of Strickland (Michael Shannon), the facility’s paranoid, sadistic – but psychologically complex and apparently wholesome, religious family man – head of security, who regularly tortures the creature (“an affront’) with an electric cattle prod and has been ordered by the military to discover its breathing secrets so they can be used in their space race and, at all costs, to keep the Russians from finding out. Naturally, that’s already too late, the base’s marine biologist, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), being a Russian agent who is told by his masters that, if he cannot acquire the merman, then he must destroy it to foil the Americans. However, Hoffstetler is a scientist first and a spy second, and refuses to comply. Instead, when Elisa seeks to free her scaly lover, he joins Zelda in the attempt.

Her accomplice in the rescue is Giles (Richard Jenkins who also provides the bookending narration), her ageing, balding neighbour, a recovering alcoholic advertising illustrator ‘let go’ from his full-time job after rumours regarding his sexuality (he has a crush on the assistant at  the local diner, regularly stocking up on sickly pies so he can see him) and with whom she shares evenings watching black and white musicals on TV, their feet dancing along as they sit on the sofa. They bring the unnamed amphibian back to her apartment, keeping him salinated in the bath and regularly having  passionate sex. Meanwhile, the increasingly enraged Strickland is relentlessly piecing together the clues to track down the fugitive and either dissect or dispose of him.

An unabashed romantic fantasy and allegory about segregation, understanding between different peoples, desires repressed by social pressures and just who are the real monsters (del Toro’s co-writer is Vanessa Taylor who scripted Divergent), it draws inspiration from the creature features of the 50s, specifically The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but also vintage noir, biblical epics (Elisa’s apartment is above a barely attended cinema) and 30s musicals, indeed, there’s a wholly unexpected and inspired fantasy sequence in which the film shades to black and white and Hawkins and Jones launch into a classic Hollywood song and dance routine set to  the standard You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You).

Perfectly marrying its fairytale nature with the darker, harsher shades of B-movie thrillers, finding room for swooning romance and humour (Elisa’s subtitled sign language response to Strickland after an interrogation of her and Zelda and his subsequent patronising dismissal of their unimportance  is a gem), the film enfolds you in its intoxicating embrace as it builds to a tense climax, Dan Laustsen’s  almost literal green screen cinematography, especially in the underwater scene in the flooded apartment, giving it all a  dreamlike quality. At the heart of it all are the outstanding silent, physical performances by its romantic leads, Hawkins, both fragile and strong, carrying her emotions in her eyes and hands, Jones (who surely also deserved a nomination) in his almost balletic gestures and movements, and bring to the film an enchantment that makes it the year’s oddest but best date movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall)

 

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

It won the BAFTA  Best Film but lucked out at the Oscar, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes (Oscar winner Frances McDormand) rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls,  decides to poke things back into life.

The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar winner Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye.  Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet also sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.

With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.

When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works,  as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.

McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Electric; Vue Star City)

Wonder Wheel (12A)

Given the recent resurfacing of accusations that Woody Allen abused his daughter, Dylan Farrow,  with Kate Winslet’s  allusion to ‘bitter regret’ over working with him, it’ll be interesting to see in what numbers audiences turns out for  the writer-director latest annual outing.

Set in 1950s Coney Island, his first film in nine years to be based exclusively in New York, it stars Winslet as bored housewife Ginny, whose college dreams of becoming a professional  actress have led her to waitressing in a clam bar, living in a converted cramped storehouse just across from the fairground titular Ferris  wheel (of fate)  that she shares with her second husband, on the wagon alcoholic Humpty (Jim Belushi) who works the merry-go-round,  and her burgeoning pyromaniac 10-year-old son from  her first marriage.  Into their  loveless lives comes Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter by his previous wife , long estranged  since she chucked in her education to marry a gangster. She’s now left him  and, having told the cops rather more than she should, is on the lam. She’s come to dad since, given their relationship, she assumes it’s the last place they’d look for her. Humpty’s initially apoplectic at her turning up, but soon softens, insisting she pick up on her education so she can get a teaching job. In the meantime, she joins Ginny down the clam shack.

The film’s narrated from his beach tower by Navy veteran Mickey (Justin Timberlake), the local lifeguard from Greenwich Village who’s studying to become a playwright, who also plays an integral part in the action, striking up a summer affair with Ginny, who sees him as her way out of the drudgery into which she’s sunk, but then  taking a shine to Carolina, which naturally first arouses Ginny’s suspicions and then her jealousy, leading to the dramatic denouement when a couple of  thugs coming looking.

Highly theatrical in its staging (Mickey keeps talking about  Eugene O’Neill, but the feel here is more kitchen sink Tennessee Williams or Clifford Odets) , dialogue and especially in cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s lighting, changing hues as scenes dissolve, it’s not up there with the best of his recent creative revival, such as Blue Jasmine,  but , largely thanks to a fearless, unglamorous and at times unsympathetic performance from Winslet  as the drowning lost romantic and, although Belushi tends to shout his emotional turmoil and Timberlake is  puppyishly overeager  (“ I relish larger-than-life characters,” his character declares), a well-judged turn from Temple.  Winslet may have regrets, audiences should not. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

You Were Never Really Here (15)

Scottish director Lynne Ramsey’s first feature since 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin makes that seem like a bundle of sweetness and light, mining the sort of darkness that Steven Knight  explored in  Dirty Pretty Things, but with less hope.  It opens in a Cincinnati motel room with a series of disconnected images, a bloody hammer, a man gasping for air with his head covered by a plastic bag, a young Asian girl’s photo being burned in a waste bin and a hooded male figure sneaking out of the building. This is Joe (a heavily bearded Joaquim Phoenix) who,  it’s gradually revealed in flashbacks, is a former FBI agent and Iraq War veteran traumatised by both an incident involving  death of a young boy and the childhood abuse he suffered from his father and the revenge he took. These days, he lives with his aged, dementia-afflicted mother  (Judith Roberts) and works  as  a private hired gun (though he favours a hammer) rescuing young girls from sex rings,  the jobs set up by his go-between  fixer (John Doman). The latest client is  New York Senator Votto (Alex Manette), whose 14-year-old daughter, Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov), has disappeared. “I want you to hurt them”, says Votto, in reference to those responsible. That’s very much a  given when he breaks into the Manhattan brothel  the paedophile  ring’s using. Hurt is duly meted out and the drugged girl rescued. But then things take a sudden and very bloody turn as Joe discovers he’s got mixed up in a conspiracy involving highly placed figures and corrupt cops. The girl abducted again, everyone he knows or cares about meets a bloody end, leaving Joe on the retribution trail.

Adapted and extended by Ramsey from Jonathan Ames’ hard-boiled novella and occupying similar territory to Taxi Driver and Death Wish, it’s uncompromisingly brutal and oppressively dark, Phoenix given a subtly restrained, unsettlingly interiorised but magnetic performance as the suicidally depressed Joe consumed with guilt and demons he cannot exorcise. It’s a complex and ambiguous performance perfectly complemented by the look, sound and feel of the film itself, Ramsey making devastatingly ironic background use of classic doo wop numbers like Angel Baby, most strikingly in a scene of unexpectedly tender compassion featuring Charlene’s I’ve Never Been To Me. It’s never easy viewing, but you’ll find yourself transfixed. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric)

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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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