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

 

 

NEW RELEASES

Christopher Robin (PG)

Just a thumbnail plot description about a grown up Christopher Robin (the latter now being his surname) being reunited with his animal chums from the Hundred-Acre Wood when he’s so stressed out at work he can’t spend the weekend  with his family tells you you’re in for a message about prioritising your values and getting back in touch with our inner child. Nothing wrong with that, but getting there is a such a stultifyingly dull journey you might not be awake when it finally announces itself.

Following on the heels of last year’s far better Goodbye Christopher Robin biopic which explored the real Christopher’s troubled relationship his father and his stories,  here director Marc Forster conflates storybook and real life, so that rather  just being than characters in  AA Milne’s tales based on his son’s toys, they become sentient creatures  existing in and interacting with the real world. Opening with the final scene of The House at Pooh Corner, as the young Christopher  has to leave Pooh and the others (and childhood) behind when he’s packed off to boarding school, despite  assuring Pooh he’ll never forget him the adult Christopher no longer has time for such childish things, indeed, asked to read his daughter bedtime story, he picks up a history book.

Set in the late 40s, he’s now tellingly, heads the efficiency department of an upmarket luggage company that’s feeling the post-WWII pinch and has been told by his smarmily smug boss (Mark Gattiss) to draw up a cost-savings plan that will mean employees having to walk the plank (a Captain Hook allusion, but also the story’s human Woozle). As such, he can’t go off for the weekend to his old Sussex cottage with wife Evelyn (a largely wasted Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).

Meanwhile, back in the Wood, Pooh (voiced by bear of little brain veteran Jim Cummings) has emerged from his tree home to discover Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Tigger (Cummings), Eeyore (a scene-stealingly gloomy Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Roo (Sara Sheen) are all missing and so crawls through a magic tree portal to London to enlist Christopher Robin’s help.

All of which leads, in a repetitive  and cumbersome plot involving three writers and  two ‘story by’ credits, with CR taking him back to the Wood, losing Pooh, finding Eeyore, pretending to fight off a Heffalump and reuniting everyone before heading back to the crucial meeting. However, as Tigger’s replaced the important papers in the briefcase with twigs, this means Madeline, who quickly adjusts to the fact that the animals in her dad’s drawing are real talking toys, has to head to London with Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger,  her mother in pursuit.

The film does a good job in evoking a period nostalgia and, along with  Milne-like misunderstood words (efficiency becomes fish in the sea), the script both borrows Pooh’s philosophies and throws in its own life coach sayings of its own (“doing nothing often leads to the very best of something (as well as the Tigger song and theme tune from the Disney animations) while the toys are superbly rendered with button eyes and worn fur revealing the fabric, though, despite digitally conveying a wide range of emotions, they never  persuade  you to accept them as ‘real’ in the same way as Paddington. There’s some individually lovely moments, especially those involving red balloon (borrowed, of course from the French classic) but, overall, it’s a heavy handed affair that even ends with a socialist call for paid holidays.  “Looks like a disaster,” says Eeyore at one point. He’s not wrong. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

The Equalizer 2 (15)

Denzel Washington’s first sequel in 37 years on the big screen teams him with director Antoine Fuqua for a fourth time, but the performance is better than the film. Returning as former special ops assassin turned vigilante Robert McCall, he spends his time as a taxi driver for Lyft (an American alternative to Uber) and, when not ferrying passengers around Boston or reading literary classics (his latest is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, from which we’re supposed to infer some heavy introspection on his life, especially the loss of his wife), takes it upon himself to mete out bone crunching – but always stony-faced and collected -justice when he encounters abuse, setting his stopwatch to 30 seconds before the fists start flying.

And not just Boston. The film’s prologue has him disguised as an Islamic cleric on a train to Istanbul to rescue the daughter of his local bookstore owner who has been kidnapped by her estranged husband. Meanwhile, back home, before we get anywhere near the main narrative, he delivers payback on behalf of a young female intern drugged and raped by her yuppie colleagues  (but not before politely offering the chance to turn themselves in), tries to help an elderly Holocaust survivor (Orson Beane) recover a painting of his sister, the pair separated and sent to different camps, and  takes up the offer of a young art student,  Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders) to repaint the walls of his building’s vandalised courtyard  and later steers him away from getting involved with a gang in seeking revenge for his brother’s murder.

Seemingly having no connection, a scene shifts the film to Brussels where the never explained assassination of an agent and his wife is made to look like murder-suicide. This, however, involves long-time CIA friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) and her fellow agent Dave York (Pedro Pascal), a former member of McCall’s team before things went south in an operation in which he believed McCall to have been killed.

When Susan is then herself murdered, supposedly by a couple of hotel burglar chancers, McCall comes to the conclusion that someone’s tidying up loose ends and, finally, the core plot starts to build up steam, as it appears he’s down for elimination (cue a gripping struggle with a hitman in the back of his cab as they race through the streets), with Whittaker being abducted as leverage.

Audiences looking for vicarious thrills through Washington acting out their revenge fantasies won’t be disappointed, although there’s a decided note of sadistic pleasure involved in the execution. The plot unfolds painstakingly slowly and awkwardly as the pieces are put together into a conspiracy theory, though audiences will likely have tagged the villain of the piece long before Fuqua gets round to revealing it, forever being interrupted by the various subplots.  It’s a formulaic affair, although the climax, set amid a huge storm at McCall’s old home in an evacuated Martha’s Vineyard, works well and Washington delivers a typically measured performance and familiar gravitas, even if he’s given very little character dimension to play. However, the other characters have a perfunctory feel, Bill Pullman very much like a spare part as Susan’s author husband who, for reasons never clearly detailed, also falls into the loose ends category. Illogical, simplistic and incohesive, like The Purge and Death Wish, it’s violent wish-fulfilment exploitation masquerading as entertainment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Festival (15)

A film distinguished by the four Ps of British gross-out comedy, piss, poo, penises and puerile, this reunites Inbetweeners writer-director Iain Morris and star Joe Thomas in an intermittently amusing rite-of-passage account of its annoyingly self-centred sad-sack hero’s misadventures amid the mud of some rave festival.

Getting the misdirected ejaculation scene out of the way at the start (cue mom’s attempt to wipe off the offending stain), it shifts to Nick’s meltdown at his university graduation ceremony where he begs girlfriend Caitlin (Hannah Tointon) not to dump him. Sinking into scummy depression, he’s persuaded by best mate Shane (Hammed Animashaun) to go the festival for which they all bought tickets, after all what’s the chance of him bumping into his ex among the crowds!

Well, pretty high obviously, leading to all manner of cock ups (in every sense) as wet blanket Nick tries to win her back, becoming an accidental voyeur as she’s being banged by a one-legged festival  official called the Pirate, but also gets off his head and has a shagathon with a blonde (Emma Rigby) dressed as a Smurf, who he then spends most of the latter part of the film trying to find again, winding up on the run from the cops after he and Shane are forced to do a  Full Monty for a Smurfs hen party.

Liberally punctuated by shots of naked arses, people pissing on Nick, him getting covered in mud and shit and an unfunny recurring joke about some stoner thinking he’s Harry Potter, it’s a lot less funny than it sounds as it heads to the climax involving Shane getting to meet his masked DJ hero Hammerhead (Noel Fielding), with unfortunate results for the one and a life changing moment for the other.

 

Arguably, the funniest scene – partly because, save for the punch line, it’s played low key, is when Shane and Amy (a scene- stealing Claudia O’Doherty), the relentlessly perky festival die-hard motormouth they met up with on the train, stumble upon a bunch of posh druids conducting a wedding ceremony in the woods.  Elsewhere, it’s hard to see how Theo Barklem-Biggs getting out of his head on ketamine, Jemaine Clement as Shane’s embarrassingly over-supportive would be stepdad and Hugh Coles as upper class twit Rex (who is glamping and hoping to shag dim-witted Lucy – cue running gag of never remembering Shane) were even remotely funny on paper.

It does a reasonable job of capturing the stinky porta loos, off your head, ankle deep in mud vibe of most modern music festivals, but if you don’t find the notion of someone having their nipple ring being torn off on a fence and the flesh eaten by a goat hilarious then you might not want to pitch your tent.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Also Playing

Strangers On A Train (PG)

Part of the cinema’s mini Hitchcock revival, this psychological thriller dates from 1951 and stars Farley Granger as tennis star Guy Haines who, angry at his trashy wife’s refusal to finalise their divorce so he can wed a senator’s daughter, pours out his feelings to a fellow passenger (Robert Walker). He then duly kills Haines’s wife and, as per their train ‘agreement’, demands he kill his father in return, Haines meanwhile becoming murder suspect number one. (Sat/Sun: Electric)

 

Dial M For Murder (PG)

Released in 1954, this was the first of three Hitchcock films to star his sometime muse Grace Kelly. Here she plays Margot, the victim of an elaborate murder plot by her urbane husband (Ray Milland) who wants to get her inheritance and blackmails an old friend into killing her. When the attempt fails, he now has to avoid having the plan discovered. The scene in which she battles with her attacker, involving the shot of a reaching a hand for a pair of scissors, regarded as a cinema classic.  (Thu: Electric)

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

After all the darkness and angst that pervaded Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, positively zipping along, this breezy sequel comes as welcome light relief, peppered throughout by zingy, laugh out loud one-liners and gleeful humour, of which director Peyton Reed is a master, even if it does have a fair few dark moments of its own. Set immediately prior to the events of Infinity War, it explains the absence of ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) aka Ant-Man, from that shebang on account of him being under house arrest in San Francisco for two years after his involvement with Captain America in Civil War. Instead, in-between playing digital drums, he’s being a good divorced dad to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as his last few days of wearing the ankle tag come to a close. He’s not about to risk breaking curfew or doing anything that might land him with 20 years in jail. However, when he’s abducted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who, now operating as the winged Wasp, arranges for an ant to wear his tracker instead, it seems he might not have any choice.

The film opens with a flashback detailing how the original Ant-Man, downsizing scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the Wasp, his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), are called on for a mission which ends up with Janet trapped forever within the sub-atomic Quantum Real. Flash forward 30 years as Lang has a dream of returning to the realm (from which he escaped in the first film) that, in transpires, was actually Janet literally getting into his head, thereby setting up the possibility of Hank and Hope, themselves on the run from the FBI, launching a rescue mission. Hence their need for Scott.

They just need an extra component to build the machine that will open the tunnel to the Quantum Realm. The problem being that black market technology traffiker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has what they need, wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab (which he can conveniently shrink and carry around the like a portable suitcase) and so too does Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who, the victim of a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. lab accident, has the ability to phase through solid objects. Unfortunately, it’s killing her and the only way to survive is to make contact with Janet and syphon off her quantum lifeforce.

All of which, throwing  Scott’s security firm partner Luis (Michael Peña, who steals the film with his truth serum scene), FBI agent  Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who was the original Goliath (cue  size-comparing gag), into the mix, rollocks along with a constant stream of wonderfully silly size-changing action scenes (including one where the Wasp surfs a carving knife blade and knocks out a  thug with an oversized salt cellar), smart-aleck quips (“Do you really just put the word quantum ahead of everything?”)  and a sweetly hilarious moment when Rudd channels Pfeiffer.

This is Marvel in full on popcorn mode and you really do want to giant size bucket load of it, and, naturally, there’s the end-credit extras, a throwaway joke which isn’t really worth waiting for, and one which finally links things back to the Thanos plot. It puts the ant into fantastic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Apostasy (PG)

Anyone who’s had to suffer Jehovah Witnesses doorstepping them will take great delight in this powerful and raw debut from writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo, who comes at his subject from the perspective of a former member of the sect with first-hand experience of what’s on screen. Arguably one of the most iniquitous branches of the Christian faith, in claiming to be the most fundamentally pure (Catholicism is dismissed as airy fairy) it holds that blood transfusions are forbidden under any circumstances and that followers should not associate with those who leave the faith, and are as such “disfellowshipped” or excommunicated, a dictate which extends to any family members, however closely related.

Set in Oldham, the narrative centres on sisters Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), regular attendees at the meeting (never ‘services’) at their local Kingdom Hall, brought up by their devout mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) in the way of The Truth and the belief that a New System is to come in the wake of the supposedly impending Armageddon which they will be the chosen ones of God.

Alex, at 18 the younger of the two, is an ardent evangelist, learning Urdu to spread the word in her outreach work but also feel tainted and impure on account of a blood transfusion given without consent when she was born. She remains anaemic and in delicate health. She regards her sister as a role model, but a family crisis erupts when Luisa, who has experienced the wider world through college, becomes pregnant by a Muslim, the response by the elders and her mother see her begin to question the teachings, commits apostasy (renounces the faith) and is ultimately expelled. This means that, if they can’t persuade her to rejoin, then, unless it can’t be avoided, neither her mother or sister can see or talk to her. Pointedly, there is almost no reference to the absent father, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.

At which point, the film seems to be focused on Alex, but, when she becomes ill and dies rather than have blood, the narrative switches the problematic relationship between Luisa and her mother, torn between maternal and grandmotherly instincts and her duty as a Witness.

Divided into chapters, with Bible extracts on title cards, the film avoids melodrama and is also careful to present the elders, mostly balding, misogynistic middle-aged men save for new arrival, Steven (Robert Emms), who had become Alex’s fiancé (the implication being to keep her in the fold), not as caricatured raging zealots, but rather calmly and matter of factly quietly laying down the  rules with, on the surface, an seemingly compassionate understanding as they seek to win the errant and increasingly isolated Luisa back, yet at the same time making it very clear how Ivanna, struggling to contain her uncertainties, should treat her. Kokotaljo never vilifies them, he allows the banality of evil to condemn itself, but also acknowledges the strength of community fellows share.

Pointedly underlit and drained of colour to enhance the claustrophobic environment in which the women are caught, the emotionally complex screenplay pivots on terrific nuanced performances from the three female leads, the rebellious, bristly Parkinson and the devout but inwardly tormented Wright and, torn between her daughter and her church in a dark night of the soul, Finneran. Intelligent, emotionally wrenching and thought-provoking, the film’s dynamic looking beyond the specific mechanics to deal with wider themes of loss, grief, love and unquestioning faith. As regards the latter, the address by the senior elder (James Quinn) at Alex’s funeral service and her passport to paradise by self-sacrifice is particularly disturbing. As coincidence would have it, Emma Thompson is soon to be seen as a judge presiding over a case involving a blood transfusion for a teenage Witness. It’s unlikely to be anywhere near as potent as this. (Electric)

The Darkest Minds (12A)

The latest adaptation of a believe-in-yourself young adult novel to go down in flames, the live action debut of Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson this is based on the first Alexandra Bracken’s trilogy wherein some sort of virus (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration if you must know), wipes out 98% of the world’s children while, for no apparent reason the survivors develop mutant-like powers. As such, the fearful American Government (there’s not a single reference to world outside the USA) rounds them up and packs them off to treatment centres to be cured like the President’s rehabilitation poster boy son (Patrick Gibson), but which are, in fact, concentration camps, despatching bounty hunters, tracers’, to hunt down those that got away.

The children are designated by colours according to their powers, the Greens are super-intelligent, the Yellows can control light and electricity while the Blues are telekinetics. There’s also the Oranges and Reds, deemed the most dangerous and who are to be killed on sight. The power that the Reds possess isn’t revealed until the conflagrational climax, but

the Oranges have the ability to see inside and control minds. The only decent performance in the entire film, Hunger Games veteran Amandla Stenberg is 16-year-old Ruby Daly, an Orange. In fact, she’s the only Orange.  Locked up as a child after she accidentally erased her parents’ awareness of her, she successfully conceals her powers and masquerades as a Green, until they rumble her secret and she’s marked for elimination.  She is, however, broken out by Cate (Mandy Moore), a member of underground resistance organisation The Children’s League. But, not trusting her, Ruby makes off and eventually joins forces with three on the run survivors, who, obligingly ticking the demographic boxes, comprise Asian-American Yellow  Zu (Miya Cech), supersmart African-American Green Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and clean cut white boy Blue Liam (Harris Dickinson), who, naturally becomes the romantic interest, even though, obviously, Ruby’s scared of touching him.

They’re heading for the obligatory secret sanctuary where kids can live in safe community, while Ruby just wants to go home, and the film dutifully plods along through a series of nondescript incidents before a not remotely surprising betrayal plot twist and Moore’s re-entry into the storyline for a making a choice coda that’s supposed to set up the next instalment. Don’t hold your breath. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City) 

Dog Days (PG)

A canine-driven version of the familiar Garry Marshall-styled romcom anthology in which the lives of shiny glossy people with good teeth variously looking for love, companionship and self-growth intersect and everyone ends up happy and fulfilled. In short, Dog Actually.

Set in LA, TV morning show anchor Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) visits a canine therapist  (a deadpanning Tig Notaro) claiming her dog, Sam, is depressed following then break up of her relationship. Of course, it’s Elizabeth who needs revitalising so enter retired football star Jimmy (Tone Bell), who, after a friendly on air spat, is hired as her co-host and, he, wouldn’t you know, also has a dog, Brandy, and their pets take a shine to one another, just like their owners.

Then there’s barista Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) who, finding an abandoned Chihuahua, has the perfect excuse to call in on Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy), the hunky but narcissistic vet across the street. The dog, now sporting fetching pink helmet,  winds up at a rescue centre for strays run by one of her regulars, dorky Garrett (Jon Bass) who names her Gertrude because he’s seen Tara reading Gertrude Stein and, yes, he has a crush on her.

Tara’s neighbour is Dax (Adam Pally), an irresponsible musician on whom his long-suffering pregnant sister Ruth (Jessica St. Clair) offloads her neglected dog Charlie, but, since he’s not allowed pets, he has to smuggle him in and out of the building in a flight case. When the landlord turfs Garrett out of his centre, Tara proposes holding a fundraiser, at which Dax’s band, Frunk, will play (and yes, they do Who Let The Dogs Out) and to which Dr. Mike invites her as his date, naturally leaving Garrett crestfallen.

Then there’s  Grace (Eva Longoria) and Kurt (Rob Corddry) who have recently adopted young Amelia (Elizabeth Caro), but she’s being very withdrawn – until they take in a stray pug and she suddenly blossoms. The pug, however, isn’t a stray, it’s just lost and, named Mabel, actually belongs to elderly retired English teacher widower Walter (Ron Cephas Jones) who is drawn from his ornery, reclusive shell by neighbourhood pizza delivery boy Tyler (Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard) who offers to help find her and who he ends up tutoring to improve his grades at the school where Kurt works.

You can pretty much see how all this pans out and director Ken Marino (who also appears as Elizabeth’s new chauvinistic co-host – what, you mean there’s a bump in her romance road!) sticks firmly to expectations, throwing in a dog fart joke for kids and a stoner gag for the grown-ups along with any number of cute shots of the four-legged stars staring into the camera. It’s passingly amusing, sweet, gentle and utterly innocuous as it spins a sort of canine complete me message while tugging on the heartstrings. However, the best bit comes right out of nowhere as, after one of the characters has had to have their dog put to sleep, the vet’s assistant (John Gemberling) puts his hand on their shoulder and sings Amazing Grace. If the rest of the film had been as inspired it might have been a real pedigree. (Cineworld NEC)

 

The First Purge  (15)

Despite having effectively  shut down any likely  future sequels with the last film, the cash cow continues to graze with this prequel explaining how it all began in the first place under the newly elected NRA—endorsed New Founding Fathers of America fascist administration.   Conceived as a sort of Stanford Prison-like experiment by  psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei)  and over seen by  NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh),  the idea is use the self-contained borough of Staten Island, a predominantly poor Black community,  as a human rat lab  to see how people respond to a 12-hour period in which, motivated by getting paid to break the law (the more the mayhem,  the more the payment),  they are free to vent their anger and frustrations with no legal comebacks, so, from looting to murder, anything goes. If enough people participate, then the plan is to roll out The Purge on a national level.

A rather inevitable and decidedly perfunctory sidebar is that one drug lord sees it as an opportunity to remove another, while it will come as no surprise, especially for those who’ve seen the other films, to learn that it’s all part of a government plot to reduce overpopulation by culling the poor – and predominantly Black – working class. As such, the film wears it political intent  with a distinct lack of subtlety as, when the residents, save for a scarred psychopath called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who makes the first kill, would rather  party than pillage, Sabian sends in a bunch  of mercenaries, racist cops, rabid neo-Nazis and the Klan among them, to give things a nudge and, in the end, embark  on a  block by block massacre.

Fighting back, there’s  righteous dreadlocked  African-American anti-Purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother,  Isaiah (Joivian Wade), the latter briefly signing up  (and getting to wear those luminous contact lens cameras to record footage), partly as some misguided rites of passage and partly to  revenge him on Skeletor for cutting him. Meanwhile on the other side of the Projects, there’s Nya’s ex, self-possessed calm under pressure drugs kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his crew get tooled up to fight to protect their neighbourhood. Only in a film where the authorities are the bad guys would a ruthless, cold blooded drug kingpin  and  murderer  be the  Ramboesque  hero, spouting nonsense like  “killing comes from our damaged hearts.”

Clearly looking to zone in on the Black Lives Matter  movement as well as anti-Trump sentiments,  this would like to think itself in the same socio-political playing  field as Get Out, but it has none of the finesse or depth and just winds up a dystopian blaxploitation gangbanger B-movie. Once things kick in, there’s plenty of violence to paper over the thin political satire about modern America, but  you can’t help but think that the financial incentive to participate in the Purge has rather more irony than intended.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)

The third instalment in the animated series  lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis,  Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.

Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly  plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.

All of which plays out in a  series of somewhat repetitive subplots  and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.

It rattles along with a  rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others  don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie,  the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s  former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.

However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team  recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex  has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction  being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).

Left to die by  the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres,  Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a  timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in  cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue  even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act.  It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante,  and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it  serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning  her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia),  about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé  Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there,  as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a  storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.

Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979,  the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of  Kalokairi and, in quick succession,  encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires,  already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.

All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of  ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between  her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold  a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Meg (12A)

Undoubtedly prompted by the likes of the recent spate of Japanese Megashark B movies, this is unashamed big fish popcorn nonsense.   Five years on from a submarine rescue mission that saw him having to leave behind his two best friends or have everyone die, Jonas Turner (Jason Statham, who first made his name as a competitive swimmer) has quit the diving business in favour of drinking away his life in Thailand.  But then along comes old buddy Mac (Cliff Curtis) and renowned marine scientist Zhang (Winston Chao) from Mana Oner, a research facility 200 miles off China, who want his help to rescue the crew of a trapped submersible that, having penetrated through ‘cloud’ cover into a whole new ocean world, have been attacked by what is quite possibly the same creature Turner  encountered, claim of which saw him declared crazy by  both facility medic Heller (Robert Taylor) and even his own now ex-wife (Jessica MacNamee), who just happens to be one of those trapped.

Managing to rescue two of them, it’s revealed that the creature is a 75ft Megaladon, the prehistoric great white killing machine long thought to be extinct. It also turns out that, in the rescue, they inadvertently, as the clunky dialogue puts it, opened up a superhighway for giant sharks which, first witnessed by precocious eight-year-old Meiying (Sophia Cai), granddaughter of Zhang whose own oceanographer daughter, Suyin (Li Bingbing), provides the burgeoning romantic interest (though there’s not even a quick kiss), when it comes to pay a call on the facility.

Along with the other ethnically and nationally diverse characters on the rig given names, tattooed marine biologist tech whizz Jaxx (Ruby Rose), smug billionaire financier Morris (Rain Wilson), engineer The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and DJ (Page Kennedy), whose only function seems to be comic relief, they set about planning to go all Robert Shaw on megaladon’s ass.

And if, a few narrow scrapes aside, that seems to be accomplished rather too easily, that’s because they apparently come in pairs, setting up a second desperate race against the clock to prevent the creature chomping its way through a  seafull of happy holidaymakers at a nearby crowded resort. Not to mention a Pekinese with a pink bow.

Although unusually devoid of any expletives, director Jon Turteltaub ensures it  does what it’s supposed to do (though it’s strangely skimpy on human snacking), Statham does what you expect him to do and the support cast romp cheerily through the crowd-pleasing action  and cardboard  dialogue which, naturally, finds room to flag up such poster eco messages as “we did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.” Brainless – and to some extent toothless – fun, it’s based on the first of several Meg novels by Steve Alten, so who knows what other oversized amphibians might be waiting to swim their way to a  sequel up that underwater superhighway.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza  Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globetrotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmir, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Oceans 8 (12A)

As with the recent Ghostbusters, this is another gender reversal attempt to reboot a franchise, thankfully with rather more successful results. The kid sister of Danny Ocean (apparently deceased), after spending just over five years inside for fraud, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) smooth talks herself into getting parole. However, no sooner is she back on the New York streets than she’s back into her felonious ways, conning herself a bagful of beauty products and a swanky hotel room.  However, she has her sights set on rather bigger game, having spent her time in jail devising a foolproof plan to heist the world’s most valuable diamond necklace, the Toussaint, valued at $150million during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala.

For this she needs a crew, starting off with her old partner-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gradually recruiting fading fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter),  a streetwise hacker  and surveillance expert known as Nine Ball (Rhianna), Indian jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mom  thief Tammy (Sarah Poulson) and  slick sleight of hand street hustler Constance (Awkwafina). The plan, by initially seeming as though she’s going to be working with a hot celebrity (Dakota Fanning), is to get Weil appointed to dress snobby socialite Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) for the Gala, insisting that she wear the Toussaint. With Kruger as the unwitting mule, the necklace will then, via series of ingenuous meticulously planned moves, be switched from under the noses of the security team and replaced by a copy, broken up and smuggled out with each of them getting $16mill.

However, Debbie also has a second agenda, intending to set up her art gallery owner ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), engineering it so that he’s Daphne’s date for the Gala, as the fall-guy in revenge for him ratting her out to save his own skin over a scam that got her set down.

As with the previous instalments, the fun is primarily in the interplay between the cast and the ingenuity and split-second timing of the robbery, as well as a couple of unexpected twists and, of course, the flashbacks revealing how things were done. A bosoms buddy screwball comedy, it’s slick, stylish and smart with some sharp and snarky dialogue and perfect comic timing. Bullock, who at one point declares she’s not doing this for the money but as inspiration to any budding criminal eight-year-old girls, is every bit as good here as she was in Miss Congeniality, but the whole gang, and that includes Hathaway (who even gets an in-joke about herself), all of whom get their individual turn to shine as well as working as a perfectly synchronised team, are a charismatic delight to watch. On top of that James Corden turns up in a  scene-stealing turn as an impish insurance-fraud investigator who has history with the Oceans while, in a nod to the franchise legacy, there’s cameos by both Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff  and Shaobo Qin as the acrobatic Yen as well as the likes of Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Common, Serena Williams and Katie Holmes all appearing as themselves for the lavish Gala. Here’s to sequels 9 and 10. (Vue Star City)

Skyscraper (12A)

Surprisingly something of a relative flop at the box office, even so Dwayne Johnson  remains the current king of the blockbusters, a  title once held by Bruce Willis, which is all rather ironic given that his latest is basically Die Hard meets Towering Inferno.

The prologue has Johnson’s FBI agent and negotiator Will Sawyer attempting to talk down a family hostage situation when the guy detonates a body bomb, leaving Sawyer some years later with a prosthetic leg, married to his medic, former combat-surgeon  Sarah (Neve Campbell) and with two cute kids (McKenna Roberts,  Noah Cottrell ).  He now runs a one man company advising on security and, thanks to a former member of his squad, he lands the lucrative job of  vetting the Pearl, the world’s tallest building, a state of the art 240-storey Hong Kong two-thirds of a mile high project by multi-millionaire developer Zhao (Chin Han) with, as per its name, a giant pearl-like globe at  the top containing a virtual-reality space that you just know is going to become the  stage for the final showdown.

Having duly confirmed the place is super-safe (though the scene in the trailer with Noah Taylor’s insurance exec questioning his skills is curiously absent), events inevitably set out to prove Sawyer wrong as a team of mercenaries led by ruthless Swedish psycho  Kores Botha (Roland Møller) break into the basement, planning to set the place  on fire in order to get their hands on something Zhao has locked away in a safe in his Penthouse fortress.

With another part of the team having obtained and hacked into the tablet storing Sawyer’s facial recognition, from which they can control the building’s function from the off-site control centre they’ve stormed,  Botha duly shuts down the fire prevention systems, locks down the exits and sets the 96th floor ablaze.

Unfortunately, Sarah and the kids are trapped in the building, which means Will, subject of  a poorly conceived manhunt by the Hong Kong cops, has to somehow get inside, rescue them and take out the bad guys, armed only with his prosthetic leg,  a   lot of duct tape and incredible finger-strength.

Those with an aversion to heights will finds the scenes of Sawyer climbing up a construction crane, leaping a 40-foot chasm, scaling the burning building and dangling precariously from a  rope (all captured on the big screen by TV crews for the assembled cheering crowds)  or Sarah carrying  her son across a plank between two ends of a broken causeway while the fire blazes below hard to watch, but even those without acrophobia will find the stomach tightening as they chew their fingernails, regardless of the fact the characters will naturally survive.

Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, it’s a tad clunky on the dialogue and the double-crosses are signalled a mile-off while not only does the fire seem to defy all the laws of physics but the building also has the world’s most robust and fireproof sprinklers. But then logic and realism aren’t ingredients listed on the box as, gloriously idiotic and deliriously implausible to the extreme, the film simply gets on with delivering a thrillingly exciting , visually spectacular  series of high rise stunts and the sort of sensitive but tough masculinity at which Johnson excels.  There’s not a shred of originality in sight, but as family action movie entertainment goes, this is a total  conflagration.  (Vue Star City)

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (PG)

The Cartoon Network TV series is very firmly pitched at the younger end of the superhero audience, but this metafiction big screen spin-off is sufficiently liberally laced with knowing in-jokes and humour to please those who’ve outgrown the fart and poop jokes that are in abundance here. As with the series, the character drawings are basic and the animation minimal, but the subversive wit is sharp enough.

The Teen Titans, for the unaware, are a younger version of DC’s Justice League, comprising transformer Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton),  portal-manipulating Raven (Tara Strong), alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch) and their leader, Batman’s boy wonder sidekick, Robin (Scott Menville). Nursing a wounded ego, he’s getting fed up of  no-one taking them seriously, the reason, as Superman (voiced by Nicolas Cage in a wry reference to him almost playing the role in 1997) explains after they fail to stop Balloon Man,  being that, unlike himself, Batman, Wonder Woman and even Green Lantern (though we don’t talk about that one) they don’t have their own movies. Indeed, sneaking into the premiere of the latest Batman, they discover that even his car and utility belt have forthcoming movies.

So, Robin resolves to get super-hero director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) to make one about him, er, them, but first, they need a nemesis to give them credibility. Enter Slade (Will Arnett), and a running joke about him being mistaken for  Deadpool (buffs will know the latter was originally a spoof of Slade’s character Deathstroke) in a plot that variously involves the Titans travelling back in time to prevent the origins of their grown-up counterparts (including a pointed eco nod to plastic pollution of the oceans involving baby Aquaman), Robin abandoning his teammates for personal fame and a world control scheme almost identical to Incredibles 2. Not to mention any number of rap-rock musical numbers and throwaway sight gags such as Beast Boy transforming into Animal from The Muppets.

Rattling energetically along, wall to wall with superheroes, from the famous to the obscure and forgotten (that’ll be the Challengers of the Unknown) the film cheerfully sends up the whole DC Universe as well as cinema clichés such as singing as  Upbeat Inspirational Story About Life while knowingly delivering message about friendship and how you don’t have to be super to be a hero. And, just for the cherry on the top, it may not be a Marvel movie, but it still has a Stan Lee cameo. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)

Unfriended: Dark Web (15)

Four years ago, Unfriended was, to the best of my knowledge, the first film to be told completely through a computer screen. Now, with social media having expanded massively, comes the sequel (with none of the original cast and ditching the supernatural aspect) in which, trying to build an app to help get back with his estranged deaf girlfriend (Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), 20-something software developer Matias (Colin Woodell) comes into possession of a faster – and as it transpires – stolen laptop. However, while playing games settles online with his friends, he starts receiving messages intended for the previous owner  and realises he’s got far more than he bargained on, not least  a set of snuff videos of young women, drawing him into the murkier corners of the Internet as he and his friends become targets.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

 

NEW RELEASES

The Meg (12A)

Undoubtedly prompted by the likes of the recent spate of Japanese Megashark B movies, this is unashamed big fish popcorn nonsense.   Five years on from a submarine rescue mission that saw him having to leave behind his two best friends or have everyone die, Jonas Turner (Jason Statham, who first made his name as a competitive swimmer) has quit the diving business in favour of drinking away his life in Thailand.  But then along comes old buddy Mac (Cliff Curtis) and renowned marine scientist Zhang (Winston Chao) from Mana One, a research facility 200 miles off China, who want his help to rescue the crew of a trapped submersible that, having penetrated through ‘cloud’ cover into a whole new ocean world, has been attacked by what is quite possibly the same creature Turner  encountered, claims of which saw him declared crazy by  both facility medic Heller (Robert Taylor) and even his own now ex-wife (Jessica MacNamee), who just happens to be one of those trapped.

Managing to rescue two of them, it’s revealed that the creature is a 75ft Megaladon, the prehistoric great white killing machine long thought to be extinct. It also turns out that, in the rescue, they inadvertently, as the clunky dialogue puts it, opened up a superhighway for giant sharks which, first witnessed by precocious eight-year-old Meiying (Sophia Cai), granddaughter of Zhang whose own oceanographer daughter, Suyin (Li Bingbing), provides the burgeoning romantic interest (though there’s not even a quick kiss), when it comes to pay a call on the facility.

Along with the other ethnically and nationally diverse characters on the rig given names, tattooed marine biologist tech whizz Jaxx (Ruby Rose), smug billionaire financier Morris (Rain Wilson), engineer The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and DJ (Page Kennedy), whose only function seems to be comic relief, they set about planning to go all Robert Shaw on megaladon’s ass.

And if, a few narrow scrapes aside, that seems to be accomplished rather too easily, that’s because they apparently come in pairs, setting up a second desperate race against the clock to prevent the creature chomping its way through a  seafull of happy holidaymakers at a nearby crowded resort. Not to mention a Pekinese with a pink bow.

Although unusually devoid of any expletives, director Jon Turteltaub ensures it  does what it’s supposed to do (though it’s strangely skimpy on human snacking), Statham does what you expect him to do and the support cast romp cheerily through the crowd-pleasing action  and cardboard  dialogue which, naturally, finds room to flag up such poster eco messages as “we did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.” Brainless – and to some extent toothless – fun, it’s based on the first of several Meg novels by Steve Alten, so who knows what other oversized amphibians might be waiting to swim their way to a  sequel up that underwater superhighway.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza  Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Apostasy (PG)

Anyone who’s had to suffer Jehova Witnesses doorstepping them will take great delight in this powerful and raw debut from writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo, who comes at his subject from the perspective of a former member of the sect with firsthand experience of what’s on screen. Arguably one of the most iniquitous branches of the Christian faith, in claiming to be the most fundamentally pure (Catholicism is dismissed as airy fairy) it holds that blood transfusions are forbidden under any circumstances and that followers should not associate with those who leave the faith, and are as such “disfellowshipped” or excommunicated, a dictate which extends to any family members, however closely related.

Set in Oldham, the narrative centres on sisters Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), regular attendees at the meeting (never ‘services’) at their local Kingdom Hall, brought up by their devout mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran)  in the way of The Truth and the belief that a New System is to come in the wake of the supposedly impending Armageddon which they will be the chosen ones of God.

Alex, at 18 the younger of the two, is an ardent evangelist, learning Urdu to spread the word in her outreach work but also feel tainted and impure on account of a blood transfusion given without consent when she was born. She remains anaemic and in delicate health. She regards her sister as a role model, but a family crisis erupts when Luisa, who has experienced the wider world through college,  becomes pregnant by a Muslim, the response by the elders and her mother see her begin to question the teachings, commits apostasy (renounces the faith) and is ultimately expelled. This means that, if they can’t persuade her to rejoin, then, unless it can’t be avoided, neither her mother or sister can see or talk to her. Pointedly, there is almost no reference to the absent father, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.

At which point, the film seems to be focused on Alex, but, when she becomes ill and dies rather than have blood, the narrative switches the problematic relationship between Luisa and her mother, torn between maternal and grandmotherly instincts and her duty as a Witness.

Divided into chapters, with Bible extracts on title cards, the film avoids melodrama and is also careful to present the elders, mostly balding, misogynistic middle-aged men save for new arrival, Steven (Robert Emms), who had become Alex’s fiancé (the imoplication being to keep her in the fold), not as caricatured raging zealots, but rather calmly and matter of factly quietly laying down the  rules with, on the surface, an seemingly compassionate understanding as they seek to win the errant and increasingly isolated Luisa back, yet at the same time making it very clear how Ivanna, struggling to contain her uncertainties, should treat her. Kokotaljo never vilifies them, he allows the banality of evil to condemn itself, but also acknowledges the strength of community fellows share.

Pointedly underlit and drained of colour to enhance the claustrophobic environment in which the women are caught, the emotionally complex screenplay pivots on terrific nuanced performances from the three female leads, the rebellious, bristly Parkinson  and the devout but inwardly tormented Wright and, torn between her daughter and her church in a dark night of the soul, Finneran. Intelligent, emotionally wrenching and thought-provoking, the film’s dynamic looking beyond the specific mechanics to deal with wider themes of loss, grief, love and unquestioning faith. As regards the latter, the address by the senior elder (James Quinn) at Alex’s funeral service and her passport to paradise by self-sacrifice is particularly disturbing. As coincidence would have it, Emma Thompson is soon to be seen as a judge presiding over a case involving a blood transfusion for a teenage Witness. It’s unlikely to be anywhere near as potent as this. (Electric; Fri-Wed: MAC)

 

The Darkest Minds (12A)

The latest adaptation  of a believe-in-yourself young adult novel to go down in flames, the live action debut of Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, this is based on the first Alexandra Bracken’s trilogy wherein some sort of virus (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration if you must know), wipes out 98% of the world’s children while, for no apparent reason the survivors develop mutant-like powers. As such, the fearful American Government (there’s not a single reference to world outside the USA) rounds them up and packs them off to treatment centres to be cured like the President’s rehabilitation poster boy son (Patrick Gibson), but which are, in fact, concentration camps, despatching bounty hunters, tracers’, to hunt down those that got away.

The children are designated by colours according to their powers, the Greens are super-intelligent, the Yellows can control light and electricity while the Blues are telekinetics. There’s also the Oranges and Reds, deemed the most dangerous and who are to be killed on sight. The power that the Reds possess isn’t revealed until the conflagrational climax, but

the Oranges have the ability to see inside and control minds. The only decent performance in the entire film, Hunger Games veteran Amandla Stenberg is 16-year-old Ruby Daly, an Orange. In fact, she’s the only Orange.  Locked up as a child after she accidentally erased her parents’ awareness of her, she successfully conceals her powers and masquerades as a Green, until they rumble her secret and she’s marked for elimination.  She is, however, broken out by Cate (Mandy Moore), a member of underground resistance organisation The Children’s League. But, not trusting her, Ruby makes off and eventually joins forces with three on the run survivors, who, obligingly ticking the demographic boxes, comprise Asian-American Yellow  Zu (Miya Cech), supersmart African-American Green Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and clean cut white boy Blue Liam (Harris Dickinson), who, naturally becomes the romantic interest, even though, obviously, Ruby’s scared of touching him.

They’re heading for the obligatory secret sanctuary where kids can live in safe community, while Ruby just wants to go home, and the film dutifully plods along through a series of nondescript incidents before a not remotely surprising betrayal plot twist and Moore’s re-entry into the storyline for a making a choice coda that’s supposed to set up the next instalment. Don’t hold your breath. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Dog Days (PG)

A canine-driven version of the familiar Garry Marshall-styled romcom anthology in which the lives of shiny glossy people with good teeth variously looking for love, companionship and self-growth intersect and everyone ends up happy and fulfilled. In short, Dog Actually.

Set in LA, TV morning show anchor Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) visits a canine therapist  (a deadpanning Tig Notaro) claiming her dog, Sam, is depressed following then break up of her relationship. Of course, it’s Elizabeth who needs revitalising so enter retired football star Jimmy (Tone Bell), who, after a friendly on air spat, is hired as her co-host and, he, wouldn’t you know, also has a dog, Brandy, and their pets take a shine to one another, just like their owners.

Then there’s barista Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) who, finding an abandoned Chihuahua, has the perfect excuse to call in on Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy), the hunky but narcissistic vet across the street. The dog, now sporting fetching pink helmet,  winds up at a rescue centre for strays run by one of her regulars, dorky Garrett (Jon Bass) who names her Gertrude because he’s seen Tara reading Gertrude Stein and, yes, he has a crush on her.

Tara’s neighbour is Dax (Adam Pally), an irresponsible musician on whom his long-suffering pregnant sister Ruth (Jessica St. Clair) offloads her neglected dog Charlie, but, since he’s not allowed pets, he has to smuggle him in and out of the building in a flight case. When the landlord turfs Garrett out of his centre, Tara proposes holding a fundraiser, at which Dax’s band, Frunk, will play (and yes, they do Who Let The Dogs Out) and to which Dr. Mike invites her as his date, naturally leaving Garrett crestfallen.

Then there’s  Grace (Eva Longoria) and Kurt (Rob Corddry) who have recently adopted young Amelia (Elizabeth Caro), but she’s being very withdrawn – until they take in a stray pug and she suddenly blossoms. The pug, however, isn’t a stray, it’s just lost and, named Mabel, actually belongs to elderly retired English teacher widower Walter (Ron Cephas Jones) who is drawn from his ornery, reclusive shell by neighbourhood pizza delivery boy Tyler (Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard) who offers to help find her and who he ends up tutoring to improve his grades at the school where Kurt works.

You can pretty much see how all this pans out and director Ken Marino (who also appears a Elizabeth’s new chauvinistic co-host – what, you mean there’s a bump in her romance road!) sticks firmly to expectations, throwing in a dog fart joke for kids and a stoner gag for the grown-ups along with any number of cute shots of the four-legged stars staring into the camera. It’s passingly amusing, sweet, gentle and utterly innocuous as it spins a sort of canine complete me message while tugging on the heartstrings. However, the best bit comes right out of nowhere as, after one of the characters has had to have their dog put to sleep, the vet’s assistant (John Gemberling) puts his hand on their shoulder and sings Amazing Grace. If the rest of the film had been as inspired it might have been a real pedigree. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Also Opening

Summer 1993 (12A)

Set in 90s Catalonia, when her mother dies of AIDS, six-year-old Frida is forced to move to the countryside and live with her uncle’s family; however, while her new parents are warm and welcoming, the troubled Frida finds it hard to work through her grief or adjust to her surroundings leading to behaviours that severely tests the new family unit. Written and directed by Carla Simón, it’s based on her own experience. (Fri –Tue: MAC)

Unfriended: Dark Web (15)

Four years ago, Unfriended was, to the best of my knowledge, the first film to be told completely through a computer screen. Now, with social media having expanded massively, comes the sequel (with none of the original cast and ditching the supernatural aspect) in which, trying to build an app to help get back with his estranged deaf girlfriend (Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), 20-something software developer Matias (Colin Woodell) comes into possession of a faster – and as it transpires – stolen laptop. However, while playing games settles online with his friends, he starts receiving messages intended for the previous owner  and realises he’s got far more than he bargained on, not least  a set of snuff videos of young women, drawing him into the murkier corners of the Internet as he and his friends become targets.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Zoo (PG)

 

Based on (but with some glaring departures from the facts), this is the true story of how a baby elephant that escaped from Belfast Zoo during the 1941 blitz escaped from being shot by being hidden in someone’s backyard. Rather than the real Mrs Denise Austin (Penelope Wilton), who is reimaged as some dotty old spinster, here it’s a bunch of school kids, headed up by the wholly fictional Tom Hall (Art Parkinson), in charge of the animals at  Bellevue Zoological Gardens while is vet dad us at war, who come to the rescue of Buster.  Although not shown on screen, some 31 zoo animals were killed, partly because they couldn’t be fed while people were being rationed and partly lest they escape in the bombing and cause damage, but, being kiddie friendly, the film focuses instead on the plucky kids and the cute elephant, putting emphasis on comedy (cue Toby Jones as grumpy zoo gatekeeper) rather than tragedy, though not to the extent of totally ignoring the horrors brought by the war. (Fri 10-Wed 15: MAC)

 

NOW PLAYING

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

After all the darkness and angst that pervaded Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, positively zipping along, this breezy sequel comes as welcome light relief, peppered throughout by zingy, laugh out loud one-liners and gleeful humour, of which director Peyton Reed is a master, even if it does have a fair few dark moments of its own. Set immediately prior to the events of Infinity War, it explains the absence of  ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) aka Ant-Man, from that shebang on account of him being under house arrest in San Francisco for two years after his involvement with Captain America in Civil War. Instead, inbetween playing digital drums, he’s being a good divorced dad  to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as his last few days of wearing the ankle tag come to a close. He’s not about to risk breaking curfew or doing anything that might land him with 20 years in jail. However, when he’s abducted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who, now operating as the winged Wasp,  arranges for an ant to wear his tracker instead, it seems he might not have any choice.

The film opens with a flashback detailing how the original Ant-Man, downsizing scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the Wasp, his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), are called on for a  mission which ends up with Janet trapped forever within the sub-atomic Quantum Real. Flash forward 30 years as Lang has a dream of returning to the realm (from which he escaped in the first film) that, in transpires, was actually Janet literally getting into his head, thereby setting up the possibility of Hank and Hope, themselves on the run from the FBI, launching a rescue mission. Hence their need for Scott.

They just need an extra component to build the machine that will open the tunnel to the Quantum Realm. The problem being that black market technology traffiker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has what they need, wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab (which he can conveniently shrink and carry around the like a portable suitcase)  and so too does Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who, the victim of a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. lab accident,  has the ability to phase through solid objects. Unfortunately, it’s killing her and the only way to survive is to make contact with Janet and syphon off her quantum lifeforce.

All of which, throwing  Scott’s security firm partner Luis (Michael Peña, who steals the film with his truth serum scene), FBI agent  Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who was the original Goliath (cue  size-comparing gag), into the mix, rollocks along with a constant stream of wonderfully silly size-changing action scenes (including one where the Wasp surfs a carving knife blade and knocks out a  thug with an oversized salt cellar), smart-aleck quips (“Do you really just put the word quantum ahead of everything?”)  and a sweetly hilarious moment when Rudd channels Pfeiffer.

This is Marvel in full on popcorn mode and you really do want to giant size bucket load of it, and, naturally, there’s the end-credit extras, a throwaway joke which isn’t really worth waiting for, and one which finally links things back to the Thanos plot. It puts the ant into fantastic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The First Purge  (15)

Despite having effectively  shut down any likely  future sequels with the last film, the cash cow continues to graze with this prequel explaining how it all began in the first place under the newly elected NRA—endorsed New Founding Fathers of America facist administration.   Conceived as a sort of Stanford Prison-like experiment by  psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei)  and over seen by  NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh),  the idea is use the self-contained borough of Staten Island, a predominantly poor Black community,  as a human rat lab  to see how people respond to a 12-hour period in which, motivated by getting paid to break the law (the more the mayhem,  the more the payment),  they are free to vent their anger and frustrations with no legal comebacks, so, from looting to murder, anything goes. If enough people participate, then the plan is to roll out The Purge on a national level.

A rather inevitable and decidedly perfunctory sidebar is that one drug lord sees it as an opportunity to remove another, while it will come as no surprise, especially for those who’ve seen the other films, to learn that it’s all part of a government plot to reduce overpopulation by culling the poor – and predominantly Black – working class. As such, the film wears it political intent  with a distinct lack of subtlety as, when the residents, save for a scarred psychopath called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who makes the first kill, would rather  party than pillage, Sabian sends in a bunch  of mercenaries, racist cops, rabid neo-Nazis and the Klan among them, to give things a nudge and, in the end, embark  on a  block by block massacre.

Fighting back, there’s  righteous dreadlocked  African-American anti-Purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother,  Isaiah (Joivian Wade), the latter briefly signing up  (and getting to wear those luminous contact lens cameras to record footage), partly as some misguided rites of passage and partly to  revenge him on Skeletor for cutting him. Meanwhile on the other side of the Projects, there’s Nya’s ex, self-possessed calm under pressure drugs kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his crew get tooled up to fight to protect their neighbourhood. Only in a film where the authorities are the bad guys would a ruthless, cold blooded drug kingpin  and  murderer  be the  Ramboesque  hero, spouting nonsense like  “killing comes from our damaged hearts.”

Clearly looking to zone in on the Black Lives Matter  movement as well as anti-Trump sentiments,  this would like to think itself in the same socio-political playing  field as Get Out, but it has none of the finesse or depth and just winds up a dystopian blaxploitation gangbanger B-movie. Once things kick in, there’s plenty of violence to paper over the thin political satire about modern America, but  you can’t help but think that the financial incentive to participate in the Purge has rather more irony than intended.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hotel Artemis (15)

A strong contender for the year’s worst film, it’s difficult to fathom what persuaded Jodie Foster to make this her return five years on from Elysium. It may have seemed like a good idea at the concept stage, a dystopian future thriller set in LA about an agoraphobic  former trauma nurse with a haunted past running a secret hotel come hi-tech hospital (it even prints 3D organs) for criminals who’s faced with a moral dilemma, but that idea clearly got fatally mangled on the way to the screen, leaving an incoherent, uneven, slapdash mess in its place.

But then even the core idea is recycled, partly from John Wick Chapter 2 but more recently Scott Adkins’ video on demand B movie Accident Man about a hotel for assassins. Both of which were far superior to this trainwreck.

It’s set over the course of one night as, his younger brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) badly wounded in a  failed bank heist during the riots over water shortages, allocated the names of their roomd, Waikiki and Honolulu, Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) takes refuge at Hotel Artemis, a boutique12th floor fortress managed by alcoholic and painkillers addict The Nurse (Foster) and her hulking assistant Everest (Dave Bautista). Also in residence are obnoxious arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day) and French female assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella), the former trying to come on to the latter (who has history with Waikiki) and who has engineered her admission in order to carry out a hit. That’ll be on LA crime lord the Wolf King (a cameoing Jeff Goldblum) who, wounded in the riots, is en route to the Artemis, which he actually owns, with his thugs where his deranged, insecure son Crosby (Zachary Quinto) is waiting. Oh and, yes, that pen Lev stole… its filled with liquid diamonds and belongs to guess who.

One of the Artemis rules is that it doesn’t allow in any authority figures, which places Nurse in  a quandary when a local cop (Jenny Slate), a former neighbour  who knew her late son (who reputedly died of a drugs overdose), turns up on the doorstep. Outside the world continues to go to hell, inside there’s all manner of tensions and secrets.

Directed in a  blindfold by Drew Pearce whose screenplay is a litany of clichés, and with inept performances all round, nobody comes out of this well, but especially not Foster sporting prosthetics, old age make up and adopting a bizarre waddle that’s more likely to encourage titters than anything. It mesmerises in the same way as driving past a car crash, the audience as much a victim as the passengers. (Vue Star City)

 

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)

The third instalment in the animated series  lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis,  Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.

Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly  plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.

All of which plays out in a  series of somewhat repetitive subplots  and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.

It rattles along with a  rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others  don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie,  the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s  former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.

However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team  recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex  has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction  being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).

Left to die by  the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres,  Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a  timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in  cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue  even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act.  It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante,  and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it  serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning  her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia),  about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé  Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skargard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there,  as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a  storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.

Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979,  the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of  Kalokairi and, in quick succession,  encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires,  already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.

All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of  ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between  her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold  a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globe trotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmire, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Oceans 8 (12A)

As with the recent Ghostbusters, this is another gender reversal attempt to reboot a franchise, thankfully with rather more successful results. The kid sister of Danny Ocean (apparently deceased), after spending just over five years inside for fraud, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) smooth talks herself into getting parole. However, no sooner is she back on the New York streets than she’s back into her felonious ways, conning herself a bagful of beauty products and a swanky hotel room.  However, she has her sights set on rather bigger game, having spent her time in jail devising a foolproof plan to heist the world’s most valuable diamond necklace, the Toussaint, valued at $150million during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala.

For this she needs a crew, starting off with her old partner-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gradually recruiting fading fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter),  a streetwise hacker  and surveillance expert known as Nine Ball (Rhianna), Indian jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mom  thief Tammy (Sarah Poulson) and  slick sleight of hand street hustler Constance (Awkwafina). The plan, by initially seeming as though she’s going to be working with a hot celebrity (Dakota Fanning), is is to get Weil appointed to dress snobby socialite Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) for the Gala, insisting that she wear the Toussaint. With Kruger as the unwitting mule, the necklace will then, via series of ingenuous meticulously planned moves, be switched from under the noses of the security team and replaced by a copy, broken up and smuggled out with each of them getting $16mill.

However, Debbie also has a second agenda, intending to set up her art gallery owner ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), engineering it so that he’s Daphne’s date for the Gala, as the fall-guy in revenge for him ratting her out to save his own skin over a scam that got her set down.

As with the previous instalments, the fun is primarily in the interplay between the cast and the ingenuity and split-second timing of the robbery, as well as a couple of unexpected twists and, of course, the flashbacks revealing how things were done. A bosoms buddy screwball comedy, it’s slick, stylish and smart with some sharp and snarky dialogue and perfect comic timing. Bullock, who at one point declares she’s not doing this for the money but as inspiration to any budding criminal eight-year-old girls, is every bit as good here as she was in Miss Congeniality, but the whole gang, and that includes Hathaway (who even gets an in-joke about herself), all of whom get their individual turn to shine as well as working as a perfectly synchronised team, are a charismatic delight to watch. On top of that James Corden turns up in a  scene-stealing turn as an impish insurance-fraud investigator who has history with the Oceans while, in a nod to the franchise legacy, there’s cameos by both Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff  and Shaobo Qin as the acrobatic Yen as well as the likes of Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Common, Serena Williams and Katie Holmes all appearing as themselves for the lavish Gala. Here’s to sequels 9 and 10. (Vue Star City)

Skyscraper (12A)

Surprisingly something of a relative flop at the box office, even so Dwayne Johnson  remains the current king of the blockbusters, a  title once held by Bruce Willis, which is all rather ironic given that his latest is basically Die Hard meets Towering Inferno.

The prologue has Johnson’s FBI agent and negotiator Will Sawyer attempting to talk down a family hostage situation when the guy detonates a body bomb, leaving Sawyer some years later with a prosthetic leg, married to his medic, former combat-surgeon  Sarah (Neve Campbell) and with two cute kids (McKenna Roberts,  Noah Cottrell ).  He now runs a one man company advising on security and, thanks to a former member of his squad, he lands the lucrative job of  vetting the Pearl, the world’s tallest building, a state of the art 240-storey Hong Kong two-thirds of a mile high project by multi-millionaire developer Zhao (Chin Han) with, as per its name, a giant pearl-like globe at  the top containing a virtual-reality space that you just know is going to become the  stage for the final showdown.

Having duly confirmed the place is super-safe (though the scene in the trailer with Noah Taylor’s insurance exec questioning his skills is curiously absent), events inevitably set out to prove Sawyer wrong as a team of mercenaries led by ruthless Swedish psycho  Kores Botha (Roland Møller) break into the basement, planning to set the place  on fire in order to get their hands on something Zhao has locked away in a safe in his Penthouse fortress.

With another part of the team having obtained and hacked into the tablet storing Sawyer’s facial recognition, from which they can control the building’s function from the off-site control centre they’ve stormed,  Botha duly shuts down the fire prevention systems, locks down the exits and sets the 96th floor ablaze.

Unfortunately, Sarah and the kids are trapped in the building, which means Will, subject of  a poorly conceived manhunt by the Hong Kong cops, has to somehow get inside, rescue them and take out the bad guys, armed only with his prosthetic leg,  a   lot of duct tape and incredible finger-strength.

Those with an aversion to heights will finds the scenes of Sawyer climbing up a construction crane, leaping a 40-foot chasm, scaling the burning building and dangling precariously from a  rope (all captured on the big screen by TV crews for the assembled cheering crowds)  or Sarah carrying  her son across a plank between two ends of a broken causeway while the fire blazes below hard to watch, but even those without acrophobia will find the stomach tightening as they chew their fingernails, regardless of the fact the characters will naturally survive.

Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, it’s a tad clunky on the dialogue and the double-crosses are signalled a mile-off while not only does the fire seem to defy all the laws of physics but the building also has the world’s most robust and fireproof sprinklers. But then logic and realism aren’t ingredients listed on the box as, gloriously idiotic and deliriously implausible to the extreme, the film simply gets on with delivering a thrillingly exciting , visually spectacular  series of high rise stunts and the sort of sensitive but tough masculinity at which Johnson excels.  There’s not a shred of originality in sight, but as family action movie entertainment goes, this is a total  conflagration.  (Vue Star City)

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (PG)

The Cartoon Network TV series is very firmly pitched at the younger end of the superhero audience, but this metafiction big screen spin-off is sufficiently liberally laced with knowing in-jokes and humour to please those who’ve outgrown the fart and poop jokes that are in abundance here. As with the series, the character drawings are basic and the animation minimal, but the subversive wit is sharp enough.

The Teen Titans, for the unaware, are a younger version of DC’s Justice League, comprising transformer Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton),  portal-manipulating Raven (Tara Strong), alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch) and their leader, Batman’s boy wonder sidekick, Robin (Scott Menville). Nursing a wounded ego, he’s getting fed up of  no-one taking them seriously, the reason, as Superman (voiced by Nicolas Cage in a wry reference to him almost playing the role in 1997) explains after they fail to stop Balloon Man,  being that, unlike himself, Batman, Wonder Woman and even Green Lantern (though we don’t talk about that one) they don’t have their own movies. Indeed, sneaking into the premiere of the latest Batman, they discover that even his car and utility belt have forthcoming movies.

So, Robin resolves to get super-hero director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) to make one about him, er, them, but first, they need a nemesis to give them credibility. Enter Slade (Will Arnett), and a running joke about him being mistaken for  Deadpool (buffs will know the latter was originally a spoof of Slade’s character Deathstroke) in a plot that variously involves the Titans travelling back in time to prevent the origins of their grown-up counterparts (including a pointed eco nod to plastic pollution of the oceans involving baby Aquaman), Robin abandoning his teammates for personal fame and a world control scheme almost identical to Incredibles 2. Not to mention any number of rap-rock musical numbers and throwaway sight gags such as Beast Boy transforming into Animal from The Muppets.

Rattling energetically along, wall to wall with superheroes, from the famous to the obscure and forgotten (that’ll be the Challengers of the Unknown) the film cheerfully sends up the whole DC Universe as well as cinema clichés such as singing as  Upbeat Inspirational Story About Life while knowingly delivering message about friendship and how you don’t have to be super to be a hero. And, just for the cherry on the top, it may not be a Marvel movie, but it still has a Stan Lee cameo. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

NEW RELEASES

 

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

After all the darkness and angst that pervaded Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, positively zipping along, this breezy sequel comes as welcome light relief, peppered throughout by zingy, laugh out loud one-liners and gleeful humour, of which director Peyton Reed is a master, even if it does have a fair few dark moments of its own. Set immediately prior to the events of Infinity War, it explains the absence of  ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) aka Ant-Man, from that shebang on account of him being under house arrest in San Francisco for two years after his involvement with Captain America in Civil War. Instead, inbetween playing digital drums, he’s being a good divorced dad  to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as his last few days of wearing the ankle tag come to a close. He’s not about to risk breaking curfew or doing anything that might land him with 20 years in jail. However, when he’s abducted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who, now operating as the winged Wasp,  arranges for an ant to wear his tracker instead, it seems he might not have any choice.

The film opens with a flashback detailing how the original Ant-Man, downsizing scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the Wasp, his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), are called on for a  mission which ends up with Janet trapped forever within the sub-atomic Quantum Real. Flash forward 30 years as Lang has a dream of returning to the realm (from which he escaped in the first film) that, in transpires, was actually Janet literally getting into his head, thereby setting up the possibility of Hank and Hope, themselves on the run from the FBI, launching a rescue mission. Hence their need for Scott.

They just need an extra component to build the machine that will open the tunnel to the Quantum Realm. The problem being that black market technology traffiker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has what they need, wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab (which he can conveniently shrink and carry around the like a portable suitcase)  and so too does Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who, the victim of a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. lab accident,  has the ability to phase through solid objects. Unfortunately, it’s killing her and the only way to survive is to make contact with Janet and syphon off her quantum lifeforce.

All of which, throwing  Scott’s security firm partner Luis (Michael Peña, who steals the film with his truth serum scene), FBI agent  Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who was the original Goliath (cue  size-comparing gag), into the mix, rollocks along with a constant stream of wonderfully silly size-changing action scenes (including one where the Wasp surfs a carving knife blade and knocks out a  thug with an oversized salt cellar), smart-aleck quips (“Do you really just put the word quantum ahead of everything?”)  and a sweetly hilarious moment when Rudd channels Pfeiffer.

This is Marvel in full on popcorn mode and you really do want a giant size bucket load of it, and, naturally, there’s the end-credit extras, a throwaway joke which isn’t really worth waiting for, and one which finally links things back to the Thanos plot. It puts the ant into fantastic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

A Prayer Before Dawn (18)

A Midnight Express for the 21st century, this is Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s uncompromising adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Billy Moore, a Liverpudlian junkie, jailbird and amateur bare-knuckle boxer who, busted for drugs in Thailand, ended up in the notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison aka the ‘Bangkok Hilton’, where, in order to survive, he took up Muay Thai boxing and wound up on the prison team.

Founded on a powerful, punishingly physical performance by Peaky Blinders star Joe Cole,  it’s equally punishing viewing, the restless camera weaving and bobbing around the cramped prison cell where dozens of heavily tattooed inmates, played by real life former gang members,  are forced to pretty much sleep like sardines in a  tin and jabber away in Thai, only some of which is subtitled, leaving Billy as much in the dark as the audience.

From discovering the man lying next to him is dead to being forced to watch the  brutal sodomising of a new inmate  (who duly hangs himself), the film pulls no punches and Moore sweats his way through it all with the look of someone who is under no illusion that one wrong word or action could be his last.

And yet his bloody-minded spirit eventually win over many of his fellow prisoners, most importantly the cell leader, although it’s always clear they could still turn on him on a  whim. He also strikes up a relationship with Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), a ladyboy inmate he persuaded to get him cigarettes he uses for gambling (and to bribe his way on to  the team) and who (though the film’s more coy about this)  tends to his sexual needs. His other needs are satisfied by one of the corrupt guards who slips him heroin on condition he batters a couple of the Muslim prisoners. However, it’s Moore’s discover of Muay Thai that provides him both an outlet for his anger and the path to redemption, which, ultimately, is what the film is about.

There’s very little dialogue, and even less in English, Cole conveying pretty much all his pain, anger, fear and hope through facial expressions and body language, while the disorienting dreamstate camerawork is mirrored in the sound design and the brutal one-take kickboxing fights. It’s a gruelling watch, but one that comes with a powerful seam of wisdom and compassion without (although the real Moore does cameo in the final screen as his own father) succumbing to easy sentimentality. Not an easy watch and one you may come away from feeling as battered as its protagonist, but well worth putting the gum shield in for.   (Mockingbird; Fri/Sat: Electric)

 

The Butterfly Tree (15)

The first feature from short-film writer/director Priscilla Cameron, this has a tendency to wallow in its more florid, hallucinatory and magic realism moments, not to mention its lepidopterist metaphors, but still engages as a quirky romcom about grief and loss. Thirteen-year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould) has a butterfly obsession and a secret shrine to his late mother (the truth of her passing not revealed until late in the film) while his English teacher dad, Al (Ewen Leslie), who avoids talking about her, is a schoolteacher having an affair (albeit sexually impotent) with one of his students, Shelley (Sophie Lowe) and, while he’s trying to end it, she won’t take no for an answer.

Unknown to each other, father and son then both fall under the spell of the vivacious Evelyn (Melissa George), a former burlesque dance (who had an act involving roller skates and butterfly wings) who’s newly arrived and opened a florists and gives Fin both a camera and a job, though, as it turns out, she too has a mysterious past and a hidden secret behind her free spirit demeanour. When her two admirers discover they’re both competing for the same woman, it opens old wounds over Fin’s mother (Evelyn both a figure of his maternal and sexual longings) that leads to a very violent fallout between them.

Essentially a film about the illusions we erect to protect ourselves and what happens when they’re peeled away to reveal the truth, it overdoses on sumptuous vibrant colours and assorted dreamlike scenes of butterflies and semi-naked bodies and the upbeat song and dance coda should have been left in the editing room, but there’s enough substance here to make its way over the style. (Fri-Tue: MAC)

In The Fade (18)

It’s not hard to see why Diane Kruger won Best Actress award at last year’s Cannes, but it’s rather more difficult to understand how the film picked up this year’s Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. A revenge drama directed by  Fatih Akin, it is severely unbalanced between the genuinely gripping first two third and a confused and psychologically woolly last act.

Set in Hamburg, Kruger plays Katja, who married Kurdish drug-dealer Nuri Şekerci (Numan Acar) when he was in prison and, now reformed, he works as a legal adviser to the Turkish and Kurdish communities, and they have a young son, Rocco (Rafael Santana). Shortly after dropping the boy off at dad’s office, the place is torn apart by a  nail bomb, planted by the woman she saw leaving a bike outside. Both are killed (the graphic description of the boy’s wounds during the court scenes is harrowing) and initially the cops are persuaded  Nori was still mixed up in drugs, even more so when they raid Katja’s home and find some smack she was given by her lawyer friend Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto) to help numb the pain. Even her mother (Karin Neuhauser) blames Nori, leading to a family rift, while she also falls out with the in-laws who want to take his and their grandson’s remains back to Turkey.

Katja’s convinced the bombing was the work of Neo-Nazis and, indeed, just as she committing suicide, she’s proven right when the woman and her equally unrepentant husband accomplice are arrested and brought to trial. It’s  here the film is at its strongest as, firstly their obligatorily nasty lawyer (Johannes Krisch) tries to have Katja barred from court as she is both co-plaintiff and witness, and then, despite the overwhelming forensic evidence, sets about playing reasonable doubt.

When she fails to get the justice she seeks, completing the half-finished samurai tattoo on her side and armed with the bomb-making knowlddge she’s gleaned from the trial, Katja decides to take matters into her own hands. The question being, can she go through with it?

Based on the spate of hate-crimes against ethnic minorities in Germany between 2000 and 2007 (as documented on the end credits), it could have either become a German Deathwish or a dramatically weighty liberal meditation on the Islamophobia prevalent today. Instead it falls awkwardly in-between, the ill-formed script throwing in the towel when Katja turns into an implausible avenging angel whose conscience is almost laughably pricked by the sight of a bird fluttering on her intended target.  (Sat-Wed: MAC)

 

 

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (PG)

The Cartoon Network TV series is very firmly pitched at the younger end of the superhero audience, but this metafiction big screen spin-off is sufficiently liberally laced with knowing in-jokes and humour to please those who’ve outgrown the fart and poop jokes that are in abundance here. As with the series, the character drawings are basic and the animation minimal, but the subversive wit is sharp enough.

The Teen Titans, for the unaware, are a younger version of DC’s Justice League, comprising transformer Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton),  portal-manipulating Raven (Tara Strong), alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch) and their leader, Batman’s boy wonder sidekick, Robin (Scott Menville). Nursing a wounded ego, he’s getting fed up of  no-one taking them seriously, the reason, as Superman (voiced by Nicolas Cage in a wry reference to him almost playing the role in 1997) explains after they fail to stop Balloon Man,  being that, unlike himself, Batman, Wonder Woman and even Green Lantern (though we don’t talk about that one) they don’t have their own movies. Indeed, sneaking into the premiere of the latest Batman, they discover that even his car and utility belt have forthcoming movies.

So, Robin resolves to get super-hero director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) to make one about him, er, them, but first, they need a nemesis to give them credibility. Enter Slade (Will Arnett), and a running joke about him being mistaken for  Deadpool (buffs will know the latter was originally a spoof of Slade’s character Deathstroke) in a plot that variously involves the Titans travelling back in time to prevent the origins of their grown-up counterparts (including a pointed eco nod to plastic pollution of the oceans involving baby Aquaman), Robin abandoning his teammates for personal fame and a world control scheme almost identical to Incredibles 2. Not to mention any number of rap-rock musical numbers and throwaway sight gags such as Beast Boy transforming into Animal from The Muppets.

Rattling energetically along, wall to wall with superheroes, from the famous to the obscure and forgotten (that’ll be the Challengers of the Unknown) the film cheerfully sends up the whole DC Universe as well as cinema clichés such as singing as  Upbeat Inspirational Story About Life while knowingly delivering message about friendship and how you don’t have to be super to be a hero. And, just for the cherry on the top, it may not be a Marvel movie, but it still has a Stan Lee cameo. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

The First Purge  (15)

Despite having effectively  shut down any likely  future sequels with the last film, the cash cow continues to graze with this prequel explaining how it all began in the first place under the newly elected NRA—endorsed New Founding Fathers of America facist administration.   Conceived as a sort of Stanford Prison-like experiment by  psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei)  and over seen by  NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh),  the idea is use the self-contained borough of Staten Island, a predominantly poor Black community,  as a human rat lab  to see how people respond to a 12-hour period in which, motivated by getting paid to break the law (the more the mayhem,  the more the payment),  they are free to vent their anger and frustrations with no legal comebacks, so, from looting to murder, anything goes. If enough people participate, then the plan is to roll out The Purge on a national level.

A rather inevitable and decidedly perfunctory sidebar is that one drug lord sees it as an opportunity to remove another, while it will come as no surprise, especially for those who’ve seen the other films, to learn that it’s all part of a government plot to reduce overpopulation by culling the poor – and predominantly Black – working class. As such, the film wears it political intent  with a distinct lack of subtlety as, when the residents, save for a scarred psychopath called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who makes the first kill, would rather  party than pillage, Sabian sends in a bunch  of mercenaries, racist cops, rabid neo-Nazis and the Klan among them, to give things a nudge and, in the end, embark  on a  block by block massacre.

Fighting back, there’s  righteous dreadlocked  African-American anti-Purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother,  Isaiah (Joivian Wade), the latter briefly signing up  (and getting to wear those luminous contact lens cameras to record footage), partly as some misguided rites of passage and partly to  revenge him on Skeletor for cutting him. Meanwhile on the other side of the Projects, there’s Nya’s ex, self-possessed calm under pressure drugs kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his crew get tooled up to fight to protect their neighbourhood. Only in a film where the authorities are the bad guys would a ruthless, cold blooded drug kingpin  and  murderer  be the  Ramboesque  hero, spouting nonsense like  “killing comes from our damaged hearts.”

Clearly looking to zone in on the Black Lives Matter  movement as well as anti-Trump sentiments,  this would like to think itself in the same socio-political playing  field as Get Out, but it has none of the finesse or depth and just winds up a dystopian blaxploitation gangbanger B-movie. Once things kick in, there’s plenty of violence to paper over the thin political satire about modern America, but  you can’t help but think that the financial incentive to participate in the Purge has rather more irony than intended.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

First Reformed (15)

After two decades of churning out largely disposable fare such as Nic Cage nonsense Dog Eat Dog, writer Paul Schrader returns to something like the form of his classic Txxi Driver and Light Sleeper, also taking on directorial duties for this tale of a troubled priest wracked by inner turmoil anger, grief and frustration.

In a consummate performance by Ethan Hawke, Ernst Toller is a former military chaplain whose life and marriage fell apart when he persuaded his son to enlist. Only for him to be killed in the Iraq War. Now, he’s pastor of the titular historical Dutch Reformed church in a sleepy small town, the sparsity of his congregation making him more of a curator and guide for tourists. He also drinks too much and has what seems likely to be stomach cancer.

He’s approached by one his flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is being pressured by her despressed environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) to get an abortion because, as he explains to Toller, why would you bring a child into a world on the verge of environmental collapse. He counsels hope rather than despair, but receiving a text from Michael to continue the discussion, he drives out to meet him only to find he’s blown his head off with a  rifle. He also gets a call from Mary who has discovered a suicide vest in their garage, which he subsequently takes into safekeeping.

Meanwhile, Toller’s under pressure from Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), the leader of the church’s headquarters, the more frequented Abundant Life centre, to pull together his part in the church’s upcoming 250th anniversary celebrations as well as the focus of the unwanted concerns of the choir director, Esther (Victoria Hill), with whom he had a brief affair.

Unable to shake Michael’s question as to whether God will forgive humankind screwing up the planet, and finding himself increasingly drawn to Mary, he’s also enraged by the attitude of the church’s main benefactor, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), a local oil company industrialist Michael had been protesting, who, taking exception to Toller’s part in scattering the dead man’s ashes at a site of pollution to the choir’s accompaniment of a Neil Young song, demands the upcoming celebrations have no political content.

As Toller’s crisis of faith and his environmental fears continue to grow, all recorded in the diary he keeps and narrates in voiceover, he slowly resolves to take up Michael’s activism and make a  dramatic statement with the tools that have conveniently fallen into his hands.

Toller is a typical Schrader figure, a lonely, introspective and alienated man facing a dark night of the soul, haunted by the past and plagued by fears for today and Hawke’s performance is up there with the likes of past Schrader collaborators DeNiro and Dafoe in capturing that intensity. Arguably, the screenplay can get a little heavy handed in making its points, and having a pregnant woman called Mary or having the two of them take a hallucinatory voyage floating through the cosmos and over sites of man’s destruction isn’t entirely subtle, but the psychological drama never slackens its grip or sociopolitical thrust, finally climaxing in a powerful and visceral moment that sees Toller confronted by the choice between despair and hope, religion and desire to the backdrop of Esther singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  It’s not quite Travis Bickle in a surplus, but it’s close enough to taste the darkness. (Electric; Mon-Thu: Mockingbird)

Hotel Artemis (15)

A strong contender for the year’s worst film, it’s difficult to fathom what persuaded Jodie Foster to make this her return five years on from Elysium. It may have seemed like a good idea at the concept stage, a dystopian future thriller set in LA about an agoraphobic  former trauma nurse with a haunted past running a secret hotel come hi-tech hospital (it even prints 3D organs) for criminals who’s faced with a moral dilemma, but that idea clearly got fatally mangled on the way to the screen, leaving an incoherent, uneven, slapdash mess in its place.

But then even the core idea is recycled, partly from John Wick Chapter 2 but more recently Scott Adkins’ video on demand B movie Accident Man about a hotel for assassins. Both of which were far superior to this trainwreck.

It’s set over the course of one night as, his younger brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) badly wounded in a  failed bank heist during the riots over water shortages, allocated the names of their roomd, Waikiki and Honolulu, Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) takes refuge at Hotel Artemis, a boutique12th floor fortress managed by alcoholic and painkillers addict The Nurse (Foster) and her hulking assistant Everest (Dave Bautista). Also in residence are obnoxious arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day) and French female assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella), the former trying to come on to the latter (who has history with Waikiki) and who has engineered her admission in order to carry out a hit. That’ll be on LA crime lord the Wolf King (a cameoing Jeff Goldblum) who, wounded in the riots, is en route to the Artemis, which he actually owns, with his thugs where his deranged, insecure son Crosby (Zachary Quinto) is waiting. Oh and, yes, that pen Lev stole… its filled with liquid diamonds and belongs to guess who.

One of the Artemis rules is that it doesn’t allow in any authority figures, which places Nurse in  a quandary when a local cop (Jenny Slate), a former neighbour  who knew her late son (who reputedly died of a drugs overdose), turns up on the doorstep. Outside the world continues to go to hell, inside there’s all manner of tensions and secrets.

Directed in a  blindfold by Drew Pearce whose screenplay is a litany of clichés, and with inept performances all round, nobody comes out of this well, but especially not Foster sporting prosthetics, old age make up and adopting a bizarre waddle that’s more likely to encourage titters than anything. It mesmerises in the same way as driving past a car crash, the audience as much a victim as the passengers. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)

The third instalment in the animated series  lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis,  Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.

Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly  plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.

All of which plays out in a  series of somewhat repetitive subplots  and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.

It rattles along with a  rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others  don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie,  the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s  former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.

However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team  recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex  has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction  being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).

Left to die by  the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres,  Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a  timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in  cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue  even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act.  It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Leave No Trace (PG)

The first feature by director Debra Granik  since  Winter Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence, adapted from My Abandonment, a novel by Peter Rock inspired by the true story of a man and his 12-year-old daughter discovered living illegally in a tent in Portland’s Forest Park, this stars another unknown, New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, as Tom, a bright, determined and skilled survivalist who lives in a nature reserve forest with her fiercely protective but psychologically damaged Iraq War veteran widowed father , Will (Ben Foster), rejecting society and foraging off the land or buying what they need by dad selling the meds he gets for his PTSD. One day, she’s  accidentally spotted by a hiker, bringing in the authorities  and the intervention  of well-meaning social workers splitting them up and having  her interact with other people too . They have a point and she’s not against the prospect of joining the world.

Their sympathetic social worker (Dana Millican)  finds them  a place to live with Will working on a Christmas tree farms and Tom set up for school.  She learns to ride a bike and  becomes friends with a local boy who raises rabbits; however,  while he tries to fit in, Will finds it impossible to settle and, after having had to attend a church service to keep his boss happy, he packs his bag and has the loyal Tom join him as the head back into the woods.  Here, following an accident, they’re taken in by a rural cooperative of fellow drifters (among them Dale Dickey from  Winter’s  Bone as a kindly  woman who offers them a trailer to live in) and , finding a hitherto unknown sense of being rooted (there’s a poignant moment when  she  tells  her father that’s she’s rented the trailer to give them a home), Tom starts to develop an awareness that, as she tells her father, ‘what’s wrong with you is not wrong with me” and that, while his search for peace will always leave him restless, she has found hers and, despite the bond between them, their paths are inexorably growing  apart as  his raising her to be an independent thinker means she starts to questions the fight or flight instincts he’s also instilled in her.

A  slow burn coming-of-age story about  the need of children to become independent of their parents and find their own lives, there’s no detailed backstory to  Will and Tom, we just know her mother died when she was young and he hasn’t been able to shake off the demons of war that haunt him. There’s no  bad guys here either, everyone they meet being genuinely concerned about doing the best for the pair, welcome notes of community, stability and positivity in an increasingly divided America . The end is both heartbreaking and affirming, a poignant reminder that sometimes love means letting go. (Fri-Mon: MAC)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante,  and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it  serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning  her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia),  about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé  Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skargard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there,  as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a  storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.

Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979,  the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of  Kalokairi and, in quick succession,  encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires,  already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.

All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of  ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between  her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold  a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globe trotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmire, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Oceans 8 (12A)

As with the recent Ghostbusters, this is another gender reversal attempt to reboot a franchise, thankfully with rather more successful results. The kid sister of Danny Ocean (apparently deceased), after spending just over five years inside for fraud, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) smooth talks herself into getting parole. However, no sooner is she back on the New York streets than she’s back into her felonious ways, conning herself a bagful of beauty products and a swanky hotel room.  However, she has her sights set on rather bigger game, having spent her time in jail devising a foolproof plan to heist the world’s most valuable diamond necklace, the Toussaint, valued at $150million during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala.

For this she needs a crew, starting off with her old partner-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gradually recruiting fading fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter),  a streetwise hacker  and surveillance expert known as Nine Ball (Rhianna), Indian jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mom  thief Tammy (Sarah Poulson) and  slick sleight of hand street hustler Constance (Awkwafina). The plan, by initially seeming as though she’s going to be working with a hot celebrity (Dakota Fanning), is is to get Weil appointed to dress snobby socialite Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) for the Gala, insisting that she wear the Toussaint. With Kruger as the unwitting mule, the necklace will then, via series of ingenuous meticulously planned moves, be switched from under the noses of the security team and replaced by a copy, broken up and smuggled out with each of them getting $16mill.

However, Debbie also has a second agenda, intending to set up her art gallery owner ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), engineering it so that he’s Daphne’s date for the Gala, as the fall-guy in revenge for him ratting her out to save his own skin over a scam that got her set down.

As with the previous instalments, the fun is primarily in the interplay between the cast and the ingenuity and split-second timing of the robbery, as well as a couple of unexpected twists and, of course, the flashbacks revealing how things were done. A bosoms buddy screwball comedy, it’s slick, stylish and smart with some sharp and snarky dialogue and perfect comic timing. Bullock who at one point declares she’s not doing this for the money but as inspiration to any budding criminal eight-year-old girls, is every bit as good here as she was in Miss Congeniality, but the whole gang, and that includes Hathaway (who even gets an in-joke about herself), all of whom get their individual turn to shine as well as working as a perfectly synchronised team, are a charismatic delight to watch. On top of that James Corden turns up in a  scene-stealing turn as an impish insurance-fraud investigator who has history with the Oceans while, in a nod to the franchise legacy, there’s cameos by both Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff  and Shaobo Qin as the acrobatic Yen as well as the likes of Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Common, Serena Williams and Katie Holmes all appearing as themselves for the lavish Gala. Here’s to sequels 9 and 10. (Vue Star City)

 Sicario 2:Soldado (15)

Emily Blunt may not be back (but her story was confined to the first film in any event) and Stefano Sollima has replaced Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair, but Taylor Sheridan remains the screenwriter and  both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro return for what proves to be an incredibly tense and dramatic sequel, even if the testosterone level is bouncing in the red and it takes a while to figure out the what, who and why.

Opening with a night vision filmed scene of American authorities apprehending migrants in the desert as they seek to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, one of them blows himself up. Cut to Kansas City and chillingly matter-of-factly staged and hard to watch suicide bombing of a supermarket, followed by CIA op Matt Graver (Brolin) interrogating a captured terrorist in Somalia to obtain information as to how, it is assumed, the bombers arrived from Mexico. It’s a scene that, in Graver’s by any means necessary approach, foreshadows the comment by  the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) that, with Mexican drug gangs now officially added to the terrorist list,  “dirty is exactly why you’re here” when Braver’s brought in by his steely boss, Cynthia Foard (Catherine Keener), to clean things up.

To which end, he, in turn, reactivates lawyer turned hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) in a plot to spark a cartels war by abducting Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of Carlos Reyes, the drug lord who  was responsible for the murder of Alejandro’s family, and then posing as her liberators.

Running parallel to this, and inevitably crossing paths at a crucial moment, is the story of Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), an adolescent Mexican-American citizen who, bored with school and looking for excitement and  money, is recruited by his cousin to assist in people trafficking.

The core plot takes any number of twists and turns, a shoot-out with corrupt Mexican police leading to Braver being told to shut down the mission and clean the scene of any loose ends. These include Alejandro who, in the foul up during which the girl escaped, has been left in the Mexican desert looking after Isabela and responsible for getting her across the border. Shades of John Ford’s The Searchers are obvious.

Revealing more would spoil the tension and surprise twists, although it is not too hard to see where the narrative strands are leading as they build to the film’s central climax. It’s a grim, politically cynical affair, though not as morally bankrupt as it might first appear as mutually protective captor/captive bonds develop and friendship and duty lock heads.  It’s often incredibly violent, but also not without some gritty humour, while both Brolin and Del Toro are magnetic masculine screen presences with both Moner and Rodriguez delivering finely shades  performance as both victims of and collaborators in the social tragedies and political webs in which they are ensnared. A compelling, often narratively ruthless thriller with a strong topical intelligence in which there are no clear cut good guys, all of which ends in an unexpected but fascinating set up for the next chapter. (Vue Star City)

Skyscraper (12A)

Surprisingly something of a relative flop at the box office, even so Dwayne Johnson  remains the current king of the blockbusters, a  title once held by Bruce Willis, which is all rather ironic given that his latest is basically Die Hard meets Towering Inferno.

The prologue has Johnson’s FBI agent and negotiator Will Sawyer attempting to talk down a family hostage situation when the guy detonates a body bomb, leaving Sawyer some years later with a prosthetic leg, married to his medic, former combat-surgeon  Sarah (Neve Campbell) and with two cute kids (McKenna Roberts,  Noah Cottrell ).  He now runs a one man company advising on security and, thanks to a former member of his squad, he lands the lucrative job of  vetting the Pearl, the world’s tallest building, a state of the art 240-storey Hong Kong two-thirds of a mile high project by multi-millionaire developer Zhao (Chin Han) with, as per its name, a giant pearl-like globe at  the top containing a virtual-reality space that you just know is going to become the  stage for the final showdown.

Having duly confirmed the place is super-safe (though the scene in the trailer with Noah Taylor’s insurance exec questioning his skills is curiously absent), events inevitably set out to prove Sawyer wrong as a team of mercenaries led by ruthless Swedish psycho  Kores Botha (Roland Møller) break into the basement, planning to set the place  on fire in order to get their hands on something Zhao has locked away in a safe in his Penthouse fortress.

With another part of the team having obtained and hacked into the tablet storing Sawyer’s facial recognition, from which they can control the building’s function from the off-site control centre they’ve stormed,  Botha duly shuts down the fire prevention systems, locks down the exits and sets the 96th floor ablaze.

Unfortunately, Sarah and the kids are trapped in the building, which means Will, subject of  a poorly conceived manhunt by the Hong Kong cops, has to somehow get inside, rescue them and take out the bad guys, armed only with his prosthetic leg,  a   lot of duct tape and incredible finger-strength.

Those with an aversion to heights will finds the scenes of Sawyer climbing up a construction crane, leaping a 40-foot chasm, scaling the burning building and dangling precariously from a  rope (all captured on the big screen by TV crews for the assembled cheering crowds)  or Sarah carrying  her son across a plank between two ends of a broken causeway while the fire blazes below hard to watch, but even those without acrophobia will find the stomach tightening as they chew their fingernails, regardless of the fact the characters will naturally survive.

Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, it’s a tad clunky on the dialogue and the double-crosses are signalled a mile-off while not only does the fire seem to defy all the laws of physics but the building also has the world’s most robust and fireproof sprinklers. But then logic and realism aren’t ingredients listed on the box as, gloriously idiotic and deliriously implausible to the extreme, the film simply gets on with delivering a thrillingly exciting , visually spectacular  series of high rise stunts and the sort of sensitive but tough masculinity at which Johnson excels.  There’s not a shred of originality in sight, but as family action movie entertainment goes, this is a total  conflagration.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Swimming With Men (12A)

Oliver Parker has built a career out of directing such innocuous and predictable but amiable British comedies as St. Trinian’s and  Dad’s Army, and this, a sort of Full Monty in swimming trunks,  adds another to the tally. Rob Brydon is Eric Scott, an account  having a mid-life crisis, bored with the mind-numbing nine to five, taken for granted by and living in the shadow of wife  Heather (Jane Horrocks in a somewhat unsympathetic role) who’s just been elected o the local  council  and something of an embarrassment to his moody teenage son.

Persuaded his wife’s having an affair with her smarmy boss (Nathaniel Parker), he walks out in a strop and moves into a hotel.  Around much the same time, he also pops in to his local swimming pool where he’s surprised to encounter an all-male amateur  synchronised swimming team, among them  widower Ted (Jim Carter),  insecure builder Colin (Daniel Mays), teenage petty thief likely lad Tom (Thomas Turgoose), the enigmatic Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), divorcee Luke (Rupert Graves), the team backbone, and someone  simply known as Silent Bob.

Observing that they’re floundering in the water because the numbers are uneven, he’s invited to join them, having to observe such rules as what happens in the pool stays in the pool and that no one talks about their life outside the club, though clearly all have flaws and vulnerabilities and  something in their background that’s led them to form this unlikely bond.

In the time-honoured tradition of underdog sporting movies,  they’re persuaded to enter the unofficial make synchronised swimming world championships in Milan,  with  fellow swimmer Susan (Charlotte Riley) as the coach – and Luke’s potential love interest – who has to knock them into shape in just six weeks.  You can pretty much write the rest of the plot from there yourself, the film ending with an overextended men in speedos variation on John Cusak’s classic apology scene in Say Anything.

The metaphor about male friendships helping you to stay afloat when you’re sinking is obvious, but never hammered home and the screenplay’s  sprinkled with some amusing one-liners, confessional moments and physical comedy. With very different  and much gentler and very British strokes to its  brash, vulgar and shallower American counterparts, it’s unlikely to make much of a box office splash, but its easy going chemistry and good natured spirit ensure it never treads water. (Sun-Thu: 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 Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Review: Lunar Festival 2018

Lunar Festival procession on Sunday 29 July 2018. Image: Rob Hadley
Lunar Festival procession on Sunday 29 July 2018. Image: Steven Cook

Lunar Festival took place this past weekend, Thursday 26th – Friday 29th July 2018, in fields near the small town of Tanworth-in-Arden, the birthplace and final resting place of English songwriter and folk singer Nick Drake. Gareth Griffiths reviews the fifth edition of the popular Midlands music event.

Many festivals across the UK try to capture the original concept and vibe of Glastonbury, at a time when it struggles to hold onto these itself. Lunar Festival, however, has its own charms as much as it has those which it has lovingly imitated.

It is a festival that attracts people of a delightfully kind spirit which was so superbly demonstrated before I had even reached the festival when a delightful stranger, Jane, took pity on myself and my partner, picked us up from the side of the road and gave us a lift for the last couple of miles of our journey.

I reached the site early Friday evening, by which time the party was in full flow. As soon as the tent was up I headed into the site and was greeted by the tones of The Unthanks performing renditions of the songs of Molly Drake in the Moonshine Barn.

‘Diversions Vol. 4 – The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake’ was released by the Northumbrian family band last year, and the site of Tanworth-in-Arden is the perfect location for a live outing of the record. It’s a beautiful set of stunning arrangements and even features a cover of Nick Drake’s’ ‘Riverman’, which brought a few audience members to tears.

The Moonshine Barn at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Louis Coupe
The Moonshine Barn at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Louis Coupe

The Moonshine Barn is one of the most fascinating offerings of the festival. This venue played host to a wide variety of events from an Ed Milliband podcast, to the aforementioned Unthanks, to some – admittedly classy – cover bands, a comedy club featuring the superb Bethany Black and divisive Paul Foot, fascinating debates and many other things besides. Given the unfortunate rain, the Barn was afforded additional popularity, the result of which was quite possibly a few broadened horizons.

Ed Milliband at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Rob Hadley
Ed Milliband at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Steven Cook

Whilst Basement Jaxx’s DJ set was enjoyable enough, it was the most faithful playbacks of their material that got the greatest response and these came towards the end of a set which was perhaps billed a little too early.

Basement Jaxx DJ set at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Rob Hadley
Basement Jaxx DJ set at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Steven Cook

Globally-sourced music has a strong appeal with the Lunar crowd, and acts from Mali – Amadou and Mariam and Songhoy Blues – all but stole the show with their Friday and Sunday performances, respectively, receiving much adoration and possibly encouraging the most dancing of the whole weekend.

Amadou and Mariam, backed by bass, drums, keys and backing vocals, have the ability to gain very quick favour from any ears that had never heard a note of their work prior to this evening – ‘Amadou and Mariam’ was a synonym for ‘joy’ that night.

Amadou & Mariam live at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Louis Coupe
Amadou & Mariam live at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Louis Coupe

Lunar Festival is proud of its location, and its location’s connection to the inimitable Nick Drake, with festival areas named after his works, and paintings of his likeness scattered around.

For any Nick Drake fan, the highlight of the festival comes on Friday, when a small number of festival-goers are given the chance to venture into the woods and listen to the playback of one of his album’s on his family record player. Gazing into a campfire and listening to Drake’s own copy of Pink Moon in complete silence, meters from his family home, was the moment at which Lunar went from a pleasant weekend to a very much memorable experience.

The festival’s extracurriculars are a good draw too, though some events were cancelled due to rain. Curiosities such as the mad science of Nutopia, the delightful bevvies of the whimsical Puboard and Cluboard, not to mention the food (oh the food!) all go down well.

Nutopia at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Rob Hadley
Nutopia at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Steven Cook

Rain and thunderstorms did seem to dampen spirits from time to time, both on the Saturday and Sunday, with numbers at the outdoor stages suffering as a result in the daytime.

That being said, Matters, who opened the Half Moon Stage on Saturday provided such wonderful, expansive jams which demanded very little of the listener, perfect for that post-Friday-night hangover and leading nicely into set by local psychedelic heroes, Mother Earth Experiment, on the neighbouring Lunar Stage.

Saturday’s headliner, Goldfrapp, enjoyed a break in the rain to crack out celestial electronic glam rock with hits such as ‘White Horse’ and “Ooh La La”. Perpetually backlit in various colours and shrouded in smoke, Alison Goldfrapp both hides her beauty and affirms it, in the sensual silhouettes she projects to the audience.

Goldfrapp live at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Rob Hadley
Goldfrapp live at Lunar Festival 2018. Image: Steven Cook

Sunday highlight Songhoy Blues bring a Malian take to many guitar-based genres from reggae to blues within a seamless set. Lead singer Garba Touré’s dance moves are cheer-worthily impressive and bring out the best of a steadily drying Sunday audience. The evident cross-generational and cross-cultural appeal of both Songhoy and Amadou and Mariam is surely one of the most pleasant aspects of the weekend.

Prior to The Stranglers’ headline slot, the festival’s ceremonial procession takes places, starting with a stunning performance by a young dance troupe, inspired by fire, and culminating in the lighting of a huge pyramid bonfire. Given earlier comparisons to Glastonbury, it’s quite amusing to see this festival in the tiny town of Tanworth-in-Arden feature the sacrificial burning of a wooden structure which could loosely be described as an effigy of the Pyramid Stage.

Lunar Festival procession on Sunday 29 July 2018. Image: Rob Hadley
Lunar Festival procession on Sunday 29 July 2018. Image: Steven Cook

Legendary punks The Stranglers brought the festival to a close with a set peppered with genre-defying and genre-defining hits ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Peaches’, ‘No More Heroes’ and ‘Always The Sun’, each of which receive a cheer upon their intro, as well as deeper cuts and a couple of covers. The set’s abrupt end leaves the audience slightly puzzled as to where the encore is, but as the skies have cleared the chorus of ‘Always The Sun’ circles in the mind. The sun is done setting on another year at Lunar Festival.

Words: Gareth Griffiths

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jul 27-Thu Aug 2

 

 

NEW RELEASES

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globe trotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmire, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)

Surprisingly outperforming Skyscraper on its opening weekend, the third instalment in the animated series  lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis,  Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.

Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly  plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.

All of which plays out in a  series of somewhat repetitive subplots  and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.

It rattles along with a  rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others  don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Also Opening

The Old Dark House (PG)

Considered lost for many years, this is Dudley-born director James Whale’s 1932 adaptation of the J.B. Priestley novel Benighted, regarded by many as the template for the spooky house movie. Caught in a storm whilst journeying through a remote region of Wales, a group of travellers take refuge in a sinister mansion inhabited by the bizarre Femm family and their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff). Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the group settles in for the night, but the Femm family have a few skeletons in their closet, and one of them is on the loose. ( Until Fri: Electric)

NOW PLAYING

The First Purge  (15)

Despite having effectively  shut down any likely  future sequels with the last film, the cash cow continues to graze with this prequel explaining how it all began in the first place under the newly elected NRA—endorsed New Founding Fathers of America facist administration.   Conceived as a sort of Stanford Prison-like experiment by  psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei)  and over seen by  NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh),  the idea is use the self-contained borough of Staten Island, a predominantly poor Black community,  as a human rat lab  to see how people respond to a 12-hour period in which, motivated by getting paid to break the law (the more the mayhem,  the more the payment),  they are free to vent their anger and frustrations with no legal comebacks, so, from looting to murder, anything goes. If enough people participate, then the plan is to roll out The Purge on a national level.

A rather inevitable and decidedly perfunctory sidebar is that one drug lord sees it as an opportunity to remove another, while it will come as no surprise, especially for those who’ve seen the other films, to learn that it’s all part of a government plot to reduce overpopulation by culling the poor – and predominantly Black – working class. As such, the film wears it political intent  with a distinct lack of subtlety as, when the residents, save for a scarred psychopath called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who makes the first kill, would rather  party than pillage, Sabian sends in a bunch  of mercenaries, racist cops, rabid neo-Nazis and the Klan among them, to give things a nudge and, in the end, embark  on a  block by block massacre.

Fighting back, there’s  righteous dreadlocked  African-American anti-Purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother,  Isaiah (Joivian Wade), the latter briefly signing up  (and getting to wear those luminous contact lens cameras to record footage), partly as some misguided rites of passage and partly to  revenge him on Skeletor for cutting him. Meanwhile on the other side of the Projects, there’s Nya’s ex, self-possessed calm under pressure drugs kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his crew get tooled up to fight to protect their neighbourhood. Only in a film where the authorities are the bad guys would a ruthless, cold blooded drug kingpin  and  murderer  be the  Ramboesque  hero, spouting nonsense like  “killing comes from our damaged hearts.”

Clearly looking to zone in on the Black Lives Matter  movement as well as anti-Trump sentiments,  this would like to think itself in the same socio-political playing  field as Get Out, but it has none of the finesse or depth and just winds up a dystopian blaxploitation gangbanger B-movie. Once things kick in, there’s plenty of violence to paper over the thin political satire about modern America, but  you can’t help but think that the financial incentive to participate in the Purge has rather more irony than intended.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hereditary (15)

Don’t believe the hype that this is the scariest horror movie since The Exorcist (that would be the original Ring);  yes, first-timer writer-director Ari Aster gradually builds from unease to a sense of stark terror, but the film also sports well worn clichés of unsettling noises, glimpsed figures, enigmatic symbols, dark rooms and even a bird flying into a window.  And something in the attic.

It opens with the funeral for Ellen Taper Leigh, the highly secretive and not entirely much missed mother of Annie (a monumentally good Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist currently working on a series of  highly detailed small rooms encapsulating her family and its experiences. Indeed, the only member of the family truly upset by the old dear’s passing is her brooding 13-year-old niece, Charlie (Milly Shapiro looking creepily unsettling), a strange autistic child  with an intense gaze and given to making tongue clucking noises whose sketchpad of angry drawings suggests a decidedly troubled psyche, and whom Granma took it upon herself to raise, pretty much shutting Annie out of her daughter’s life. Charlie has her own workshop in her treehouse where she crafts bizarre effigies, at one point decapitating (a portent of much to follow) the aforementioned bird to add to her collection. The rest of the family comprises Annie’s voice of reason husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who has no backstory at all, and their teenage affable stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) whose role intensifies as the narrative unfolds.

The first inkling of chills comes when Annie thinks she sees her mother’s shade in her workshop and the film spends a considerable time hinting that the spookiness might all be down to Annie’s mental state (she sleepwalks and recounts one finding herself at the foot of her children’s bed with paint stripper and matches). But when, after a horrific accident (of which Annie crafts a model, much to Steve’s understandable revulsion), Peter, consumed with guilt, has his own ‘hallucination’, then it seems external forces are at work. Steve also gets a call to say his mother-in-law’s grave has been desecrated. And then there’s those shimmers of light dancing around Charlie.

All this is made more manifest when, in seeking to deal with her grief when Charlie is killed, Annie (who earlier found one of her mom’s books on spiritualism) is persuaded to take part in a  séance with Joanie (Anne Dowd), a friendly soul who approaches her outside the counselling session where, following her mother’s funeral,  she’d previously revealed her depressed father’s suicide by starvation and how her schizophrenic older brother hung himself, leaving behind a note accusing his mother of “putting people inside him.”  Well, we all know what séances portend in horror movies.

At which point, the film becomes somewhat less successful as its heads into overfamiliar Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining territory involving cults (with both  living and dead members), possession and malevolent demon lords looking for host bodies, at time resorting to dream sequences for exposition (though the one where Annie spills out a shocking highly unmaternal confession to Peter is effective). With the help of his cinematographer, Aster keeps the sense of dread, but can’t prevent the film from touching on the slightly silly even as its themes of dysfunctional family secrets, maternal guilt and mounting hysteria   collide with the supernatural. Well-crafted, well-designed and well-acted, yes it is scary in parts (and has its sudden jolt moments too), but not so much that you won’t sleep at night.  (Vue Star City)

 

Hotel Artemis (15)

A strong contender for the year’s worst film, it’s difficult to fathom what persuaded Jodie Foster to make this her return five years on from Elysium. It may have seemed like a good idea at the concept stage, a dystopian future thriller set in LA about an agoraphobic  former trauma nurse with a haunted past running a secret hotel come hi-tech hospital (it even prints 3D organs) for criminals who’s faced with a moral dilemma, but that idea clearly got fatally mangled on the way to the screen, leaving an incoherent, uneven, slapdash mess in its place.

But then even the core idea is recycled, partly from John Wick Chapter 2 but more recently Scott Adkins’ video on demand B movie Accident Man about a hotel for assassins. Both of which were far superior to this trainwreck.

It’s set over the course of one night as, his younger brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) badly wounded in a  failed bank heist during the riots over water shortages, allocated the names of their roomd, Waikiki and Honolulu, Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) takes refuge at Hotel Artemis, a boutique12th floor fortress managed by alcoholic and painkillers addict The Nurse (Foster) and her hulking assistant Everest (Dave Bautista). Also in residence are obnoxious arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day) and French female assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella), the former trying to come on to the latter (who has history with Waikiki) and who has engineered her admission in order to carry out a hit. That’ll be on LA crime lord the Wolf King (a cameoing Jeff Goldblum) who, wounded in the riots, is en route to the Artemis, which he actually owns, with his thugs where his deranged, insecure son Crosby (Zachary Quinto) is waiting. Oh and, yes, that pen Lev stole… its filled with liquid diamonds and belongs to guess who.

One of the Artemis rules is that it doesn’t allow in any authority figures, which places Nurse in  a quandary when a local cop (Jenny Slate), a former neighbour  who knew her late son (who reputedly died of a drugs overdose), turns up on the doorstep. Outside the world continues to go to hell, inside there’s all manner of tensions and secrets.

Directed in a  blindfold by Drew Pearce whose screenplay is a litany of clichés, and with inept performances all round, nobody comes out of this well, but especially not Foster sporting prosthetics, old age make up and adopting a bizarre waddle that’s more likely to encourage titters than anything. It mesmerises in the same way as driving past a car crash, the audience as much a victim as the passengers. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie,  the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s  former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.

However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team  recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex  has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction  being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).

Left to die by  the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres,  Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a  timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in  cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue  even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act.  It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante,  and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it  serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning  her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia),  about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé  Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skargard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there,  as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a  storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.

Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979,  the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of  Kalokairi and, in quick succession,  encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires,  already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.

All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of  ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between  her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold  a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Oceans 8 (12A)

As with the recent Ghostbusters, this is another gender reversal attempt to reboot a franchise, thankfully with rather more successful results. The kid sister of Danny Ocean (apparently deceased), after spending just over five years inside for fraud, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) smooth talks herself into getting parole. However, no sooner is she back on the New York streets than she’s back into her felonious ways, conning herself a bagful of beauty products and a swanky hotel room.  However, she has her sights set on rather bigger game, having spent her time in jail devising a foolproof plan to heist the world’s most valuable diamond necklace, the Toussaint, valued at $150million during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala.

For this she needs a crew, starting off with her old partner-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gradually recruiting fading fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter),  a streetwise hacker  and surveillance expert known as Nine Ball (Rhianna), Indian jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mom  thief Tammy (Sarah Poulson) and  slick sleight of hand street hustler Constance (Awkwafina). The plan, by initially seeming as though she’s going to be working with a hot celebrity (Dakota Fanning), is is to get Weil appointed to dress snobby socialite Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) for the Gala, insisting that she wear the Toussaint. With Kruger as the unwitting mule, the necklace will then, via series of ingenuous meticulously planned moves, be switched from under the noses of the security team and replaced by a copy, broken up and smuggled out with each of them getting $16mill.

However, Debbie also has a second agenda, intending to set up her art gallery owner ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), engineering it so that he’s Daphne’s date for the Gala, as the fall-guy in revenge for him ratting her out to save his own skin over a scam that got her set down.

As with the previous instalments, the fun is primarily in the interplay between the cast and the ingenuity and split-second timing of the robbery, as well as a couple of unexpected twists and, of course, the flashbacks revealing how things were done. A bosoms buddy screwball comedy, it’s slick, stylish and smart with some sharp and snarky dialogue and perfect comic timing. Bullock who at one point declares she’s not doing this for the money but as inspiration to any budding criminal eight-year-old girls, is every bit as good here as she was in Miss Congeniality, but the whole gang, and that includes Hathaway (who even gets an in-joke about herself), all of whom get their individual turn to shine as well as working as a perfectly synchronised team, are a charismatic delight to watch. On top of that James Corden turns up in a  scene-stealing turn as an impish insurance-fraud investigator who has history with the Oceans while, in a nod to the franchise legacy, there’s cameos by both Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff  and Shaobo Qin as the acrobatic Yen as well as the likes of Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Common, Serena Williams and Katie Holmes all appearing as themselves for the lavish Gala. Here’s to sequels 9 and 10. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Secret Of Marrowbone  (15)

A well-crafted but ultimately flawed and underwhelming psychological thriller cum ghost story, this sees writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez  (who scripted  The Orphanage) rework a familiar convention with one of those reveal climaxes that, like The Others, The Sixth Sense and The Cement Garden,  make you reassess everything you’ve just seen.

It opens with a mother (Nicolas Harrison) returning to her  overgrown and dilapidated family home in rural America with her four children, youngster Sam (Matthew Stagg), adolescent daughter Jane (Mia Goth), son Billy (Charlie Heaton) and his older brother  Jack (George MacKay), the family reverting to her maiden  name of Marrowbone (also that of the house)  and fleeing from some mysterious scandal involving her husband back in England.

Before long, mom takes sick and dies, leaving Jack having to pretend she’s still alive  until he turns 21 in order to keep the family together. This means forging mom’s signature on deeds to the house, insisting his sibling remain inside the grounds and keeping romantic interest  local librarian Allie (Ana Taylor-Joy), who lives in a  farm over the hill,  from dropping by, meeting her in town or  cutely communicating by semaphore from their respective bedroom windows.

There’s tension in the house, where all the mirrors are covered, with Sam believing there’s a ghost, as its revealed that their father, a serial killer, came after them and they walled him up alive. Matters are further complicated when Porter (Kyle Soller), the ambitious local attorney, becomes suspicious, the plot involving  the money  mom stole from her husbands’ ill-gotten gains and which he came in search of and which Porter now seeks to blackmail Jack for.

With the house’s decayed look and dark recesses and bricked-up rooms, the set design is impressive and atmospheric, intended to reflect the film’s overarching  psychological thread, but neither it nor the acting it can compensate for the increasingly convoluted and gimmicky narrative that, when  all has finally been revealed,  ends with a particularly clunky coda. (Electric; Vue Star City)

 

Sicario 2:Soldado (15)

Emily Blunt may not be back (but her story was confined to the first film in any event) and Stefano Sollima has replaced Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair, but Taylor Sheridan remains the screenwriter and  both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro return for what proves to be an incredibly tense and dramatic sequel, even if the testosterone level is bouncing in the red and it takes a while to figure out the what, who and why.

Opening with a night vision filmed scene of American authorities apprehending migrants in the desert as they seek to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, one of them blows himself up. Cut to Kansas City and chillingly matter-of-factly staged and hard to watch suicide bombing of a supermarket, followed by CIA op Matt Graver (Brolin) interrogating a captured terrorist in Somalia to obtain information as to how, it is assumed, the bombers arrived from Mexico. It’s a scene that, in Graver’s by any means necessary approach, foreshadows the comment by  the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) that, with Mexican drug gangs now officially added to the terrorist list,  “dirty is exactly why you’re here” when Braver’s brought in by his steely boss, Cynthia Foard (Catherine Keener), to clean things up.

To which end, he, in turn, reactivates lawyer turned hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) in a plot to spark a cartels war by abducting Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of Carlos Reyes, the drug lord who  was responsible for the murder of Alejandro’s family, and then posing as her liberators.

Running parallel to this, and inevitably crossing paths at a crucial moment, is the story of Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), an adolescent Mexican-American citizen who, bored with school and looking for excitement and  money, is recruited by his cousin to assist in people trafficking.

The core plot takes any number of twists and turns, a shoot-out with corrupt Mexican police leading to Braver being told to shut down the mission and clean the scene of any loose ends. These include Alejandro who, in the foul up during which the girl escaped, has been left in the Mexican desert looking after Isabela and responsible for getting her across the border. Shades of John Ford’s The Searchers are obvious.

Revealing more would spoil the tension and surprise twists, although it is not too hard to see where the narrative strands are leading as they build to the film’s central climax. It’s a grim, politically cynical affair, though not as morally bankrupt as it might first appear as mutually protective captor/captive bonds develop and friendship and duty lock heads.  It’s often incredibly violent, but also not without some gritty humour, while both Brolin and Del Toro are magnetic masculine screen presences with both Moner and Rodriguez delivering finely shades  performance as both victims of and collaborators in the social tragedies and political webs in which they are ensnared. A compelling, often narratively ruthless thriller with a strong topical intelligence in which there are no clear cut good guys, all of which ends in an unexpected but fascinating set up for the next chapter. (Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

Skyscraper (12A)

Surprisingly something of a relative flop at the box office,  even so Dwayne Johnson  remains the current king of the blockbusters, a  title once held by Bruce Willis, which is all rather ironic given that his latest is basically Die Hard meets Towering Inferno.

The prologue has Johnson’s FBI agent and negotiator Will Sawyer attempting to talk down a family hostage situation when the guy detonates a body bomb, leaving Sawyer some years later with a prosthetic leg, married to his medic, former combat-surgeon  Sarah (Neve Campbell) and with two cute kids (McKenna Roberts,  Noah Cottrell ).  He now runs a one man company advising on security and, thanks to a former member of his squad, he lands the lucrative job of  vetting the Pearl, the world’s tallest building, a state of the art 240-storey Hong Kong two-thirds of a mile high project by multi-millionaire developer Zhao (Chin Han) with, as per its name, a giant pearl-like globe at  the top containing a virtual-reality space that you just know is going to become the  stage for the final showdown.

Having duly confirmed the place is super-safe (though the scene in the trailer with Noah Taylor’s insurance exec questioning his skills is curiously absent), events inevitably set out to prove Sawyer wrong as a team of mercenaries led by ruthless Swedish psycho  Kores Botha (Roland Møller) break into the basement, planning to set the place  on fire in order to get their hands on something Zhao has locked away in a safe in his Penthouse fortress.

With another part of the team having obtained and hacked into the tablet storing Sawyer’s facial recognition, from which they can control the building’s function from the off-site control centre they’ve stormed,  Botha duly shuts down the fire prevention systems, locks down the exits and sets the 96th floor ablaze.

Unfortunately, Sarah and the kids are trapped in the building, which means Will, subject of  a poorly conceived manhunt by the Hong Kong cops, has to somehow get inside, rescue them and take out the bad guys, armed only with his prosthetic leg,  a   lot of duct tape and incredible finger-strength.

Those with an aversion to heights will finds the scenes of Sawyer climbing up a construction crane, leaping a 40-foot chasm, scaling the burning building and dangling precariously from a  rope (all captured on the big screen by TV crews for the assembled cheering crowds)  or Sarah carrying  her son across a plank between two ends of a broken causeway while the fire blazes below hard to watch, but even those without acrophobia will find the stomach tightening as they chew their fingernails, regardless of the fact the characters will naturally survive.

Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, it’s a tad clunky on the dialogue and the double-crosses are signalled a mile-off while not only does the fire seem to defy all the laws of physics but the building also has the world’s most robust and fireproof sprinklers. But then logic and realism aren’t ingredients listed on the box as, gloriously idiotic and deliriously implausible to the extreme, the film simply gets on with delivering a thrillingly exciting , visually spectacular  series of high rise stunts and the sort of sensitive but tough masculinity at which Johnson excels.  There’s not a shred of originality in sight, but as family action movie entertainment goes, this is a total  conflagration.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Swimming With Men (12A)

Oliver Parker has built a career out of directing such innocuous and predictable but amiable British comedies as St. Trinian’s and  Dad’s Army, and this, a sort of Full Monty in swimming trunks,  adds another to the tally. Rob Brydon is Eric Scott, an account  having a mid-life crisis, bored with the mind-numbing nine to five, taken for granted by and living in the shadow of wife  Heather (Jane Horrocks in a somewhat unsympathetic role) who’s just been elected o the local  council  and something of an embarrassment to his moody teenage son.

Persuaded his wife’s having an affair with her smarmy boss (Nathaniel Parker), he walks out in a strop and moves into a hotel.  Around much the same time, he also pops in to his local swimming pool where he’s surprised to encounter an all-male amateur  synchronised swimming team, among them  widower Ted (Jim Carter),  insecure builder Colin (Daniel Mays), teenage petty thief likely lad Tom (Thomas Turgoose), the enigmatic Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), divorcee Luke (Rupert Graves), the team backbone, and someone  simply known as Silent Bob.

Observing that they’re floundering in the water because the numbers are uneven, he’s invited to join them, having to observe such rules as what happens in the pool stays in the pool and that no one talks about their life outside the club, though clearly all have flaws and vulnerabilities and  something in their background that’s led them to form this unlikely bond.

In the time-honoured tradition of underdog sporting movies,  they’re persuaded to enter the unofficial make synchronised swimming world championships in Milan,  with  fellow swimmer Susan (Charlotte Riley) as the coach – and Luke’s potential love interest – who has to knock them into shape in just six weeks.  You can pretty much write the rest of the plot from there yourself, the film ending with an overextended men in speedos variation on John Cusak’s classic apology scene in Say Anything.

The metaphor about male friendships helping you to stay afloat when you’re sinking is obvious, but never hammered home and the screenplay’s  sprinkled with some amusing one-liners, confessional moments and physical comedy. With very different  and much gentler and very British strokes to its  brash, vulgar and shallower American counterparts, it’s unlikely to make much of a box office splash, but its  easy going chemistry and good natured spirit ensure it never treads water. (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 Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

NEW RELEASES

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante,  and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it  serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning  her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia),  about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé  Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skargard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there,  as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a  storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.

Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979,  the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of  Kalokairi and, in quick succession,  encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires,  already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.

All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of  ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between  her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold  a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Escape Plan 2 (15)

“You have to trust your intuition”, says  Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone), whose security firm specialises in identifying prisons’ weaknesses, in this sequel to his Schwarzenegger co-starrer. Stallone’s  intuition must be on the blink, because it’s hard to understand why he’d want to be involved in this routine B-movie actioner where he’s essentially just one of the support players.

In the set-up, his team go into rescue a couple of hostages from Chechnan terrorists, but things go wrong and one of the women’s killed in the escape, leading Breslin to fire Jasper Kimbral (Wes Chatham) whose personal agenda over proving some algorithm during the rescue caused her death, stressing how teamwork is essential.

Meanwhile, another of the crew, Shu (Huang Xiaoming) takes off on solo mission, serving as bodyguard to his hi-tech genius cousin, Yusheng (Chen Tang), the pair ending up, as part of a corporate espionage conspiracy, kidnapped and imprisoned in a computer-run impenetrable hidden facility known as Hades where Kimbral is also being held and those in charge want to extract information about a revolutionary satellite system the latter’s devised.  In a plot development that makes no sense at all, rather than simply torturing it out of him, the brutal overseer, Gregor Faust (Titus Welliver), who calls himself the Zookeeper, wants Shu to persuade him to give it up which, inexplicably involves his taking  part in the prison’s ritual bloody combat, the winners getting a two hour rest break in the virtual reality Sanctuary, where they can, chill. With a little help from Breslin’s voice in his head, Shu sets about applying his training in working out an escape, assisted as the plot creaks along by fellow team member Luke (Jesse Metcalfe), some fellow prisoners, including a trio of white-faced, shaven-headed hackers who refer to themselves as Legion and, eventually Breslin himself, the solution coming down to breaking in rather than out.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Breslin’s enlisted an old friend,Trent (an underused Dave Bautista) to track down the source of the funding and the prison’s location while back at their Atlanta HQ, Abigail (Jaimie King) and Hush (50 Cent) are working on their own  infiltration into the systems.

Cloaked in sci-fi rags, none of it makes any logical sense, half-formed ideas, two-dimensional characters, clunky, repetitive action sequences, third rate special effects, uninspired direction and Huang’s stilted English only adding to the problems. It just about gets by as a video on demand knockoff, which is exactly what the teased third part, as Breslin and co go after their mystery rivals, should be. (Reel)

 

First Reformed (15)

After two decades of churning out largely disposable fare such as Nic Cage nonsense Dog Eat Dog, writer Paul Schrader returns to something like the form of his classic Txxi Driver and Light Sleeper, also taking on directorial duties for this tale of a troubled priest wracked by inner turmoil anger, grief and frustration.

In a consummate performance by Ethan Hawke, Ernst Toller is a former military chaplain whose life and marriage fell apart when he persuaded his son to enlist. Only for him to be killed in the Iraq War. Now, he’s pastor of the titular historical Dutch Reformed church in a sleepy small town, the sparsity of his congregation making him more of a curator and guide for tourists. He also drinks too much and has what seems likely to be stomach cancer.

He’s approached by one his flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is being pressured by her despressed environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) to get an abortion because, as he explains to Toller, why would you bring a child into a world on the verge of environmental collapse. He counsels hope rather than despair, but receiving a text from Michael to continue the discussion, he drives out to meet him only to find he’s blown his head off with a  rifle. He also gets a call from Mary who has discovered a suicide vest in their garage, which he subsequently takes into safekeeping.

Meanwhile, Toller’s under pressure from Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), the leader of the church’s headquarters, the more frequented Abundant Life centre, to pull together his part in the church’s upcoming 250th anniversary celebrations as well as the focus of the unwanted concerns of the choir director, Esther (Victoria Hill), with whom he had a brief affair.

Unable to shake Michael’s question as to whether God will forgive humankind screwing up the planet, and finding himself increasingly drawn to Mary, he’s also enraged by the attitude of the church’s main benefactor, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), a local oil company industrialist Michael had been protesting, who, taking exception to Toller’s part in scattering the dead man’s ashes at a site of pollution to the choir’s accompaniment of a Neil Young song, demands the upcoming celebrations have no political content.

As Toller’s crisis of faith and his environmental fears continue to grow, all recorded in the diary he keeps and narrates in voiceover, he slowly resolves to take up Michael’s activism and make a  dramatic statement with the tools that have conveniently fallen into his hands.

Toller is a typical Schrader figure, a lonely, introspective and alienated man facing a dark night of the soul, haunted by the past and plagued by fears for today and Hawke’s performance is up there with the likes of past Schrader collaborators DeNiro and Dafoe in capturing that intensity. Arguably, the screenplay can get a little heavy handed in making its points, and having a pregnant woman called Mary or having the two of them take a hallucinatory voyage floating through the cosmos and over sites of man’s destruction isn’t entirely subtle, but the psychological drama never slackens its grip or sociopolitical thrust, finally climaxing in a powerful and visceral moment that sees Toller confronted by the choice between despair and hope, religion and desire to the backdrop of Esther singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  It’s not quite Travis Bickle in a surplus, but it’s close enough to taste the darkness. (Electric)

 

Hotel Artemis (15)

A strong contender for the year’s worst film, it’s difficult to fathom what persuaded Jodie Foster to make this her return five years on from Elysium. It may have seemed like a good idea at the concept stage, a dystopian future thriller set in LA about an agoraphobic  former trauma nurse with a haunted past running a secret hotel come hi-tech hospital (it even prints 3D organs) for criminals who’s faced with a moral dilemma, but that idea clearly got fatally mangled on the way to the screen, leaving an incoherent, uneven, slapdash mess in its place.

But then even the core idea is recycled, partly from John Wick Chapter 2 but more recently Scott Adkins’ video on demand B movie Accident Man about a hotel for assassins. Both of which were far superior to this trainwreck.

It’s set over the course of one night as, his younger brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) badly wounded in a  failed bank heist during the riots over water shortages, allocated the names of their roomd, Waikiki and Honolulu, Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) takes refuge at Hotel Artemis, a boutique12th floor fortress managed by alcoholic and painkillers addict The Nurse (Foster) and her hulking assistant Everest (Dave Bautista). Also in residence are obnoxious arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day) and French female assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella), the former trying to come on to the latter (who has history with Waikiki) and who has engineered her admission in order to carry out a hit. That’ll be on LA crime lord the Wolf King (a cameoing Jeff Goldblum) who, wounded in the riots, is en route to the Artemis, which he actually owns, with his thugs where his deranged, insecure son Crosby (Zachary Quinto) is waiting. Oh and, yes, that pen Lev stole… its filled with liquid diamonds and belongs to guess who.

One of the Artemis rules is that it doesn’t allow in any authority figures, which places Nurse in  a quandary when a local cop (Jenny Slate), a former neighbour  who knew her late son (who reputedly died of a drugs overdose), turns up on the doorstep. Outside the world continues to go to hell, inside there’s all manner of tensions and secrets.

Directed in a  blindfold by Drew Pearce whose screenplay is a litany of clichés, and with inept performances all round, nobody comes out of this well, but especially not Foster sporting prosthetics, old age make up and adopting a bizarre waddle that’s more likely to encourage titters than anything. It mesmerises in the same was as driving past a car crash, the audience as much a victim as the passengers. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

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Deadpool 2 (15)

The original movie made a fortune from taking the mocking piss out of itself and the whole superhero franchise genre, a self-referential orgy of meta-fiction that demolished the fourth wall, winked to the camera and the audiences  and bundled together onscreen and offscreen personas (at one point Deadpool signs an autograph as  Ryan Reynolds) in a gloriously violent and hilarious WTF of gargantuan proportions. This one tops it. Indeed, directed by Atomic Blonde’s David Leitch (or, as the opening credits have it, One of the Two Guys Who Killed John Wick’s Dog), it starts with scarred cancer victim wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Reynolds) turning on a  dead Wolverine musical box before posing on a bunch of gasoline drums, tossing a lit cigarette and blowing himself to pieces. And then backtracking six weeks to explain why as, having gone into the scum-killing business fulltime (cue gallons of blood), the one that got away ends up killing  girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) just as she and Wade have decided to make a baby, sending him into a guilt-ridden, suicidal funk. Of course, the body parts gathered together by Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and hauled back to the X-Men’s mansion, he regenerates and the plot kicks in.

It’s fairly simple, joining  Colossus, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and her new girlfriend (Shioli Kutsuna), he gets to become an X-Men trainee, his first call to action being an attempt to cool down, fireball-hurling teenage mutant Randall (New Zealand’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople breakout star Julian Dennison) who’s threatening to incinerate the mutant hating headmaster (Eddie Marsan) of his orphanage. Suffice to say, things don’t quite work out as planned and both he and the kid end up  in the high-tech mutants prison, the Ice-Box. At which point, enter uber-intense Cable (Josh Brolin), a bionic-enhanced super-soldier who’s beamed in from the future intent on killing Randall in revenge for turning his family to cinders. Cue Deadpool resignedly opting to play the surrogate dad (thereby earning his redemption stripes to reunite with Vanessa) and protect Randall, ultimately attempting to change the course of events that will lead to the present scenario.

Along the way there’s the formation of   his own mutants spin-off, X-Force (“tough, morally flexible and young enough to carry this franchise another 10 to 12 years”, Bedlam (Terry Crews), Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), Vanisher (a blink of Brad Pitt), Zeigeist (Bill Skarsgård), Domino (a spin-off friendly Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is being lucky, and Peter (Rob Delaney), an ordinary schmuck who just saw the ad. Not that they get to stick around long, only one (and you can guess who from the powers) surviving to take the fight to Cable in one of the many spectacular action sequences, as it gathers to a vaguely Terminator salvational climax.

Bloodier, more visceral and far more foul-mouthed than the original, it sprays pop culture references and in-jokes like nail-bomb confetti, cameos including Alan Tudyk, a glimpse of three X-Men and a very surprising mid-credits appearance of a fourth, alongside returning characters Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), Weasel (T.J.Miller)  and taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) who wants in on the mercenary lark, not to mention Wade’s favourite  unstoppable villain from the X-Men comics. There’s also deluge of references to and quips about the DC Universe, the Avengers (at one point Deadpool calls Cable Thanos), Robocop, Canada, James Bond , Frozen (how come no one else drew the Yentl comparison!), Annie, Say Anything and a hysterical Green Lantern gag set to Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, plus dozens more you’ll have to catch on subsequent viewings as well as its brazen acknowledgement of  the plot holes. And the four post-credit scenes that change everything. Basically, it’s everything you loved about Deadpool – on Viagra. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The First Purge  (15)

Despite having effectively  shut down any likely  future sequels with the last film, the cash cow continues to graze with this prequel explaining how it all began in the first place under the newly elected NRA—endorsed New Founding Fathers of America facist administration.   Conceived as a sort of Stanford Prison-like experiment by  psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei)  and over seen by  NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh),  the idea is use the self-contained borough of Staten Island, a predominantly poor Black community,  as a human rat lab  to see how people respond to a 12-hour period in which, motivated by getting paid to break the law (the more the mayhem,  the more the payment),  they are free to vent their anger and frustrations with no legal comebacks, so, from looting to murder, anything goes. If enough people participate, then the plan is to roll out The Purge on a national level.

A rather inevitable and decidedly perfunctory sidebar is that one drug lord sees it as an opportunity to remove another, while it will come as no surprise, especially for those who’ve seen the other films, to learn that it’s all part of a government plot to reduce overpopulation by culling the poor – and predominantly Black – working class. As such, the film wears it political intent  with a distinct lack of subtlety as, when the residents, save for a scarred psychopath called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who makes the first kill, would rather  party than pillage, Sabian sends in a bunch  of mercenaries, racist cops, rabid neo-Nazis and the Klan among them, to give things a nudge and, in the end, embark  on a  block by block massacre.

Fighting back, there’s  righteous dreadlocked  African-American anti-Purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother,  Isaiah (Joivian Wade), the latter briefly signing up  (and getting to wear those luminous contact lens cameras to record footage), partly as some misguided rites of passage and partly to  revenge him on Skeletor for cutting him. Meanwhile on the other side of the Projects, there’s Nya’s ex, self-possessed calm under pressure drugs kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his crew get tooled up to fight to protect their neighbourhood. Only in a film where the authorities are the bad guys would a ruthless, cold blooded drug kingpin  and  murderer  be the  Ramboesque  hero, spouting nonsense like  “killing comes from our damaged hearts.”

Clearly looking to zone in on the Black Lives Matter  movement as well as anti-Trump sentiments,  this would like to think itself in the same socio-political playing  field as Get Out, but it has none of the finesse or depth and just winds up a dystopian blaxploitation gangbanger B-movie. Once things kick in, there’s plenty of violence to paper over the thin political satire about modern America, but  you can’t help but think that the financial incentive to participate in the Purge has rather more irony than intended.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hereditary (15)

Don’t believe the hype that this is the scariest horror movie since The Exorcist (that would be the original Ring);  yes, first-timer writer-director Ari Aster gradually builds from unease to a sense of stark terror, but the film also sports well worn clichés of unsettling noises, glimpsed figures, enigmatic symbols, dark rooms and even a bird flying into a window.  And something in the attic.

It opens with the funeral for Ellen Taper Leigh, the highly secretive and not entirely much missed mother of Annie (a monumentally good Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist currently working on a series of  highly detailed small rooms encapsulating her family and its experiences. Indeed, the only member of the family truly upset by the old dear’s passing is her brooding 13-year-old niece, Charlie (Milly Shapiro looking creepily unsettling), a strange autistic child  with an intense gaze and given to making tongue clucking noises whose sketchpad of angry drawings suggests a decidedly troubled psyche, and whom Granma took it upon herself to raise, pretty much shutting Annie out of her daughter’s life. Charlie has her own workshop in her treehouse where she crafts bizarre effigies, at one point decapitating (a portent of much to follow) the aforementioned bird to add to her collection. The rest of the family comprises Annie’s voice of reason husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who has no backstory at all, and their teenage affable stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) whose role intensifies as the narrative unfolds.

The first inkling of chills comes when Annie thinks she sees her mother’s shade in her workshop and the film spends a considerable time hinting that the spookiness might all be down to Annie’s mental state (she sleepwalks and recounts one finding herself at the foot of her children’s bed with paint stripper and matches). But when, after a horrific accident (of which Annie crafts a model, much to Steve’s understandable revulsion), Peter, consumed with guilt, has his own ‘hallucination’, then it seems external forces are at work. Steve also gets a call to say his mother-in-law’s grave has been desecrated. And then there’s those shimmers of light dancing around Charlie.

All this is made more manifest when, in seeking to deal with her grief when Charlie is killed, Annie (who earlier found one of her mom’s books on spiritualism) is persuaded to take part in a  séance with Joanie (Anne Dowd), a friendly soul who approaches her outside the counselling session where, following her mother’s funeral,  she’d previously revealed her depressed father’s suicide by starvation and how her schizophrenic older brother hung himself, leaving behind a note accusing his mother of “putting people inside him.”  Well, we all know what séances portend in horror movies.

At which point, the film becomes somewhat less successful as its heads into overfamiliar Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining territory involving cults (with both  living and dead members), possession and malevolent demon lords looking for host bodies, at time resorting to dream sequences for exposition (though the one where Annie spills out a shocking highly unmaternal confession to Peter is effective). With the help of his cinematographer, Aster keeps the sense of dread, but can’t prevent the film from touching on the slightly silly even as its themes of dysfunctional family secrets, maternal guilt and mounting hysteria   collide with the supernatural. Well-crafted, well-designed and well-acted, yes it is scary in parts (and has its sudden jolt moments too), but not so much that you won’t sleep at night.  (Vue Star City)

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie,  the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s  former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.

However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team  recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex  has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction  being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).

Left to die by  the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres,  Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a  timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in  cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue  even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act.  It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Leave No Trace (PG)

The first feature by director Debra Granik  since  Winter Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence, adapted from My Abandonment, a novel by Peter Rock inspired by the true story of a man and his 12-year-old daughter discovered living illegally in a tent in Portland’s Forest Park, this stars another unknown, New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, as Tom, a bright, determined and skilled survivalist who lives in a nature reserve forest with her fiercely protective but psychologically damaged Iraq War veteran widowed father , Will (Ben Foster), rejecting society and foraging off the land or buying what they need by dad selling the meds he gets for his PTSD. One day, she’s  accidentally spotted by a hiker, bringing in the authorities  and the intervention  of well-meaning social workers splitting them up and having  her interact with other people too . They have a point and she’s not against the prospect of joining the world.

Their sympathetic social worker (Dana Millican)  finds them  a place to live with Will working on a Christmas tree farms and Tom set up for school.  She learns to ride a bike and  becomes friends with a local boy who raises rabbits; however,  while he tries to fit in, Will finds it impossible to settle and, after having had to attend a church service to keep his boss happy, he packs his bag and has the loyal Tom join him as the head back into the woods.  Here, following an accident, they’re taken in by a rural cooperative of fellow drifters (among them Dale Dickey from  Winter’s  Bone as a kindly  woman who offers them a trailer to live in) and , finding a hitherto unknown sense of being rooted (there’s a poignant moment when  she  tells  her father that’s she’s rented the trailer to give them a home), Tom starts to develop an awareness that, as she tells her father, ‘what’s wrong with you is not wrong with me” and that, while his search for peace will always leave him restless, she has found hers and, despite the bond between them, their paths are inexorably growing  apart as  his raising her to be an independent thinker means she starts to questions the fight or flight instincts he’s also instilled in her.

A  slow burn coming-of-age story about  the need of children to become independent of their parents and find their own lives, there’s no detailed backstory to  Will and Tom, we just know her mother died when she was young and he hasn’t been able to shake off the demons of war that haunt him. There’s no  bad guys here either, everyone they meet being genuinely concerned about doing the best for the pair, welcome notes of community, stability and positivity in an increasingly divided America . The end is both heartbreaking and affirming, a poignant reminder that sometimes love means letting go. (Electric)

Mary Shelley (12A)

 

The daughter of  political philosopher William Godwin  and  feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the latter dying just a few weeks after giving birth, Shelley, a well-educated and independent spirit homeschooled by her father,  is internationally renowned as the author of the seminal gothic novel Frankenstein, penned when she was just 18.

The English language debut of Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour and written by Emma Jensen, this period drama doggedly charts, albeit in somewhat compressed form,  the tale’s  origins  in Mary’s own life, in particular her somewhat troubled romantic relationship with  the rebellious – and married – poet  Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In this telling, Mary (a finely accented Elle Fanning)  first meets Shelley (Douglas Booth) in Scotland where, having clashed with her brittle stepmother (Joanne Froggatt), she’s been sent by her father (Stephen Dillane) to continue her education and self-discovery under radical thinker William Baxter. A spark immediately flares between them,

Summoned home to care for her supposedly seriously  ill stepsister Claire  Clairmont (Bel Powley), she and Shelley are reunited when he applies to work for her father’s bookshop (offering a welcome payment to bail Godwin out of debt) and, meeting secretly at her mother’s grave,  romance blossoms, only to hit a scandal when, albeit estranged,  it’s revealed he’s married with a child. Broke, ostracised by  English society and given an ultimatum by her father, Mary, accompanied by Claire, chooses to run off with Shelley, embarking on a life that will bring them into contact with the notorious debauchee Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge in rock star eyeliner) , who will get Claire pregnant, and the physician William Polidori (Ben Hardy),  and, of course, during a stay in Geneva in summer 1816 (the same year Shelley’s wife committed suicide), prompt the legendary proposition that they should each pen a ghost story, Mary having already been depicted as having a fascination for the genre.

Without labouring the point (but nevertheless spelled out by Percy when he reveals the book’s authorship and  inspiration), the film underlines how the death of  three of her children, the experiences of rejection and the men in her life, living penniless and the often volatile relationship with Shelley (the couple were often parted as he hid from his creditors while he also had a fling with Clairmont) all fed into Frankenstein; there’s also an early scene where she witnesses a display of galvanism that later  informs her fevered dream).

Impressively shot and finely acted with illuminating insights in the period, even so it tends to plod dutifully along rather than flare into life, never quite capturing the full extent of Mary’s radicalism   and, surprisingly, is somewhat cursory in  detailing her  treatment by the literary circle on account of being a woman. Even so, it’s a solid contribution to the literary biopic genre and should especially be seen by GCSE students studying Frankenstein.  (Electric)

Oceans 8 (12A)

As with the recent Ghostbusters, this is another gender reversal attempt to reboot a franchise, thankfully with rather more successful results. The kid sister of Danny Ocean (apparently deceased), after spending just over five years inside for fraud, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) smooth talks herself into getting parole. However, no sooner is she back on the New York streets than she’s back into her felonious ways, conning herself a bagful of beauty products and a swanky hotel room.  However, she has her sights set on rather bigger game, having spent her time in jail devising a foolproof plan to heist the world’s most valuable diamond necklace, the Toussaint, valued at $150million during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala.

For this she needs a crew, starting off with her old partner-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gradually recruiting fading fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter),  a streetwise hacker  and surveillance expert known as Nine Ball (Rhianna), Indian jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mom  thief Tammy (Sarah Poulson) and  slick sleight of hand street hustler Constance (Awkwafina). The plan, by initially seeming as though she’s going to be working with a hot celebrity (Dakota Fanning), is is to get Weil appointed to dress snobby socialite Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) for the Gala, insisting that she wear the Toussaint. With Kruger as the unwitting mule, the necklace will then, via series of ingenuous meticulously planned moves, be switched from under the noses of the security team and replaced by a copy, broken up and smuggled out with each of them getting $16mill.

However, Debbie also has a second agenda, intending to set up her art gallery owner ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), engineering it so that he’s Daphne’s date for the Gala, as the fall-guy in revenge for him ratting her out to save his own skin over a scam that got her set down.

As with the previous instalments, the fun is primarily in the interplay between the cast and the ingenuity and split-second timing of the robbery, as well as a couple of unexpected twists and, of course, the flashbacks revealing how things were done. A bosoms buddy screwball comedy, it’s slick, stylish and smart with some sharp and snarky dialogue and perfect comic timing. Bullock who at one point declares she’s not doing this for the money but as inspiration to any budding criminal eight-year-old girls, is every bit as good here as she was in Miss Congeniality, but the whole gang, and that includes Hathaway (who even gets an in-joke about herself), all of whom get their individual turn to shine as well as working as a perfectly synchronised team, are a charismatic delight to watch. On top of that James Corden turns up in a  scene-stealing turn as an impish insurance-fraud investigator who has history with the Oceans while, in a nod to the franchise legacy, there’s cameos by both Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff  and Shaobo Qin as the acrobatic Yen as well as the likes of Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Common, Serena Williams and Katie Holmes all appearing as themselves for the lavish Gala. Here’s to sequels 9 and 10. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Patrick (PG)

The daughter of Jennifer Saunders and Ade Edmondson, Beattie Edmondson first attracted attention in flatshare sitcom Josh and now graduates to a leading big screen role in this  affable but undernourished and sentimental Disney-produced   affair that feels as though its escaped from some second division  70s BritCom timewarp.

She’s Sarah Francis, a confidence-lacking, underachieving  singleton who, dumped by her latest boyfriend just after they started living together in to her Richmond flat, also gets to inherit her late gran’s spoiled pug, Patrick. Unfortunately, her live-in landlord has a strictly no pets policy and she’s just about to start work as a teacher in the local Grange Hill-like secondary, leading her to try and offload her unwanted dog on, first, a neighbour who also has a secret canine and then the school caretaker (Roy Hudd), both ending in disaster.

Patrick is, naturally, a total handful, chasing deer in the local park (presumably having seen the YouTube clip of several years back), eating everything except what he’s fed and chewing up anything resembling a cat. On the plus side, taking Patrick for walks brings her into contact with a hunky if  narcissistically self-absorbed vet (Ed Skrein) and sensitive fellow dog-owner Matt (Tom Bennett).

There’s not much of a plot. She has a disastrous dinner date with the vet, starts a tentative relationship with Matt, enters the school’s 5k fun run to raise money for a pensioner’s mobility scooter  and prove a point to a snidey fellow teacher (Adrian Scarborough) despite being patently physically unsuited to  jogging more than a few yards, surprisingly gets her rowdy class into Jane Eyre, befriending a girl whose stuck in the middle of her parent’s divorce, and, of course, gets to bond with Patrick.

Coming over as low grade Richard Curtis  (there’s even a nod to Notting Hill), it’s inoffensive whimsical and utterly predictable fluff  that makes things like Nativity seem cutting edge, peppered with support turns and cameo appearances by the likes of Peter Davidson,  Gemma Jones, Emily Atack, Bernard Cribbins, Cherie Lunghi, Meera Syal and, inevitably, Jennifer Saunders in what, one assumes, is a fat suit as the school’s quirky cookery teacher .  Lazily written with blissful ignorance of  education protocol, child protection rules and   GCSE exam procedures  and wallowing in eager to please cliches, it has a couple of touching moments, Edmondson is a genuine comic talent and Patrick, who gets several squashed face close-ups,  is infinitely more adorable than was the late Pudsey. It’s also wall to wall with Amy MacDonald songs. Even so, this is really should never have been let off the development lead.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

The Secret Of Marrowbone  (15)

A well-crafted but ultimately flawed and underwhelming psychological thriller cum ghost story, this sees writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez  (who scripted  The Orphanage) rework a familiar convention with one of those reveal climaxes that, like The Others, The Sixth Sense and The Cement Garden,  make you reassess everything you’ve just seen.

It opens with a mother (Nicolas Harrison) returning to her  overgrown and dilapidated family home in rural America with her four children, youngster Sam (Matthew Stagg), adolescent daughter Jane (Mia Goth), son Billy (Charlie Heaton) and his older brother  Jack (George MacKay), the family reverting to her maiden  name of Marrowbone (also that of the house)  and fleeing from some mysterious scandal involving her husband back in England.

Before long, mom takes sick and dies, leaving Jack having to pretend she’s still alive  until he turns 21 in order to keep the family together. This means forging mom’s signature on deeds to the house, insisting his sibling remain inside the grounds and keeping romantic interest  local librarian Allie (Ana Taylor-Joy), who lives in a  farm over the hill,  from dropping by, meeting her in town or  cutely communicating by semaphore from their respective bedroom windows.

There’s tension in the house, where all the mirrors are covered, with Sam believing there’s a ghost, as its revealed that their father, a serial killer, came after them and they walled him up alive. Matters are further complicated when Porter (Kyle Soller), the ambitious local attorney, becomes suspicious, the plot involving  the money  mom stole from her husbands’ ill-gotten gains and which he came in search of and which Porter now seeks to blackmail Jack for.

With the house’s decayed look and dark recesses and bricked-up rooms, the set design is impressive and atmospheric, intended to reflect the film’s overarching  psychological thread, but neither it nor the acting it can compensate for the increasingly convoluted and gimmicky narrative that, when  all has finally been revealed,  ends with a particularly clunky coda. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Sicario 2:Soldado (15)

Emily Blunt may not be back (but her story was confined to the first film in any event) and Stefano Sollima has replaced Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair, but Taylor Sheridan remains the screenwriter and  both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro return for what proves to be an incredibly tense and dramatic sequel, even if the testosterone level is bouncing in the red and it takes a while to figure out the what, who and why.

Opening with a night vision filmed scene of American authorities apprehending migrants in the desert as they seek to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, one of them blows himself up. Cut to Kansas City and chillingly matter-of-factly staged and hard to watch suicide bombing of a supermarket, followed by CIA op Matt Graver (Brolin) interrogating a captured terrorist in Somalia to obtain information as to how, it is assumed, the bombers arrived from Mexico. It’s a scene that, in Graver’s by any means necessary approach, foreshadows the comment by  the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) that, with Mexican drug gangs now officially added to the terrorist list,  “dirty is exactly why you’re here” when Braver’s brought in by his steely boss, Cynthia Foard (Catherine Keener), to clean things up.

To which end, he, in turn, reactivates lawyer turned hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) in a plot to spark a cartels war by abducting Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of Carlos Reyes, the drug lord who was responsible for the murder of Alejandro’s family, and then posing as her liberators.

Running parallel to this, and inevitably crossing paths at a crucial moment, is the story of Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), an adolescent Mexican-American citizen who, bored with school and looking for excitement and  money, is recruited by his cousin to assist in people trafficking.

The core plot takes any number of twists and turns, a shoot-out with corrupt Mexican police leading to Braver being told to shut down the mission and clean the scene of any loose ends. These include Alejandro who, in the foul up during which the girl escaped, has been left in the Mexican desert looking after Isabela and responsible for getting her across the border. Shades of John Ford’s The Searchers are obvious.

Revealing more would spoil the tension and surprise twists, although it is not too hard to see where the narrative strands are leading as they build to the film’s central climax. It’s a grim, politically cynical affair, though not as morally bankrupt as it might first appear as mutually protective captor/captive bonds develop and friendship and duty lock heads.  It’s often incredibly violent, but also not without some gritty humour, while both Brolin and Del Toro are magnetic masculine screen presences with both Moner and Rodriguez delivering finely shades  performance as both victims of and collaborators in the social tragedies and political webs in which they are ensnared. A compelling, often narratively ruthless thriller with a strong topical intelligence in which there are no clear cut good guys, all of which ends in an unexpected but fascinating set up for the next chapter. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Skyscraper (12A)

Surprisingly something of a relative flop at the box office, where it was trounced by Hotel Transylvania 3 in America and, as expected, Incredibles 2 here, even so Dwayne Johnson  remains the current king of the blockbusters, a  title once held by Bruce Willis, which is all rather ironic given that his latest is basically Die Hard meets Towering Inferno.

The prologue has Johnson’s FBI agent and negotiator Will Sawyer attempting to talk down a family hostage situation when the guy detonates a body bomb, leaving Sawyer some years later with a prosthetic leg, married to his medic, former combat-surgeon  Sarah (Neve Campbell) and with two cute kids (McKenna Roberts,  Noah Cottrell ).  He now runs a one man company advising on security and, thanks to a former member of his squad, he lands the lucrative job of  vetting the Pearl, the world’s tallest building, a state of the art 240-storey Hong Kong two-thirds of a mile high project by multi-millionaire developer Zhao (Chin Han) with, as per its name, a giant pearl-like globe at  the top containing a virtual-reality space that you just know is going to become the  stage for the final showdown.

Having duly confirmed the place is super-safe (though the scene in the trailer with Noah Taylor’s insurance exec questioning his skills is curiously absent), events inevitably set out to prove Sawyer wrong as a team of mercenaries led by ruthless Swedish psycho  Kores Botha (Roland Møller) break into the basement, planning to set the place  on fire in order to get their hands on something Zhao has locked away in a safe in his Penthouse fortress.

With another part of the team having obtained and hacked into the tablet storing Sawyer’s facial recognition, from which they can control the building’s function from the off-site control centre they’ve stormed,  Botha duly shuts down the fire prevention systems, locks down the exits and sets the 96th floor ablaze.

Unfortunately, Sarah and the kids are trapped in the building, which means Will, subject of  a poorly conceived manhunt by the Hong Kong cops, has to somehow get inside, rescue them and take out the bad guys, armed only with his prosthetic leg,  a   lot of duct tape and incredible finger-strength.

Those with an aversion to heights will finds the scenes of Sawyer climbing up a construction crane, leaping a 40-foot chasm, scaling the burning building and dangling precariously from a  rope (all captured on the big screen by TV crews for the assembled cheering crowds)  or Sarah carrying  her son across a plank between two ends of a broken causeway while the fire blazes below hard to watch, but even those without acrophobia will find the stomach tightening as they chew their fingernails, regardless of the fact the characters will naturally survive.

Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, it’s a tad clunky on the dialogue and the double-crosses are signalled a mile-off while not only does the fire seem to defy all the laws of physics but the building also has the world’s most robust and fireproof sprinklers. But then logic and realism aren’t ingredients listed on the box as, gloriously idiotic and deliriously implausible to the extreme, the film simply gets on with delivering a thrillingly exciting , visually spectacular  series of high rise stunts and the sort of sensitive but tough masculinity at which Johnson excels.  There’s not a shred of originality in sight, but as family action movie entertainment goes, this is a total  conflagration.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Tag (15)

Loosely inspired by a 2013 Wall Street Journal article about  a bunch  of grown men, Americans obviously, who  spent 23 years playing the game of tag they started in high school, here, every May, the friends embark on another round of attempting to ‘tag’ one of the others. This year, Hoagie (Ed Helms) persuades egotistical CEO Callahan (Jon Hamm), stoner divorcee Chilli (Jake Johnson) and paranoid Sable (Hannibal Buress) that this is the year they are finally going to tag alpha fitness start  Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who, he tells them, has announced that he’s retiring from the game as he’s getting married. So, joined by Hoagie’s  aggressive wife (Isla Fisher) and journalist  Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), they  decide to crash the wedding to which they’ve not been invited, Jerry persuading them to accept a  series of amendments to the game  so as not to disrupt proceedings and annoy his hard-headed bride to be (Leslie Bibb). Shenanigans ensue, Jerry looking to distract them by inviting along  Cheryl (Rashida Jones), the girl Chilli and Callahan  were love rivals over back in school, as a honeytrap and Renner switching into Bourne Legacy mode when cornered.

Functionally directed and ploddingly scripted, it flirts with notions of male friendships and arrested development (which it seems to regard as a good thing), forever trotting out the  George Bernard Show quote (misattributed to Benjamin Franklin) “we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”  As such it’s pretty much indistinguishable from similar homophobic humour male buddy hanging out and learning about  but not acting on responsibility movies like The Hangover, the guys’ game causing supposed hilarity as they disrupt a mall, an AA meeting and wedding rehearsal dinner, sending things  flying and trampling over bystanders.

Sporadically amusing but ultimately  dullingly repetitive, some scenes, such as Hoagie impersonating a grannie and been tagged at his father’s funeral, are, as seen in the end credits, recreated from the antics of the real life taggers. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or despair.  (Vue Star City)

Uncle Drew (12A)

Featuring a  character originally created for Pepsi Max  commercials in 2012 , following a predicable underdog sports movie arc and featuring NBA All-Stars  swathed in unconvincing old man latex prosthetics, thisAfrican-American centric basketball comedy won’t mean much to anyone not a hoops devotee.  Kyrie Irving stars as Uncle Drew, a septuagenarian  legend who dropped out of the game instead of turning pro, who’s persuaded to come out of retirement by Dax (Lil Rel Howery) who’s desperate to win Harlem’s Rucker Classic street ball tournament and its $1000k prize (and hang on to his high maintenance girlfriend,  Tiffany Haddish)  after  sinking all his life savings to enter a team only to have his star player stolen away by his arch rival coach, Mookie (Nick Kroll).

As such, the pair head off on a road trip round up Drew’s old neighbourhood-league squad,  Big Fella, (Shaquille O’Neal), Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller) and Boots (Nate Robinson), now respectively  a martial arts teacher, a hellfire sermon minister,  legally blind and near catatonic and  wheelchair-bound, to take on the cocky young upstarts.  Boots’ granddaughter (Erica Ash) is along to provide Dax’s love interest salvation.

Predictable and formulaic, right down to an obligatory barbershop scene,  it  plays out all the expected moves as the old-timers teach the hotheads a thing or two about basketball and, hey yes, life itself as they themselves get to deal with old grudges, it’s not exactly a slamdunk but  it dances around the moves enjoyably enough. (Vue Star City)

Whitney (15)

A year on from Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Kevin Macdonald  offers up his take on the rise and tragic fall of Whitney Houston, indisputably one of the finest female singers of the 20th century. Unlike Broomfield, however, Macdonald had official access to her inner circle and family, though former husband Bobby Brown is less than forthcoming when he refuses to talk about her drugs problems and the link to her death, declaring it had nothing to do with her life.

Significantly, it begins with a voiceover extract from an interview in which she talks about a recurring dream of being chased by, according to her mother, Cissy Houston, a devil seeking her soul. It’s an apt metaphor what her life would become: her mother pushing her to the limits to vicariously achieve the success that always eluded her;  her father  taking over her management, siphoning off her money and eventually suing her for $10million,; her two brothers  (who are incredibly candid about their drug use and how they introduced Whitney to cocaine) and other relatives  forming her drugs-addicted entourage;  Brown becoming abusive in his jealousy over her fame; and, ultimately, the media feeding frenzy when her drug problems became public knowledge, even being parodied on the cartoon series Family Guy.  Add to that the infidelity of both her parents and their subsequent divorce, and it’s difficult to see how she could have ever turned out well-adjusted.

As with the Amy Winehouse documentary, the arc is from dazzling potential to massive success and an adoring public to a slide into addiction and self-destructive behaviour that would ultimately cost her life, aged just 40, drowned in a hotel bathtub.

The years on her way to international fame are, for the most, upbeat, at least in terms of her then innocent enthusiasm and thrill of singing, whether in church or  being tipped for greatness on her first television appearance, aged 10, singing and Whitney mastered all three, which gave her tremendous range. Just watching her first TV appearance at 19, singing Home from The Wiz.

But the figure seen in the  footage of I Wanna Dance With Somebody,  How Will I Know and Greatest Love of All  and the vocals for  her unforgettable career-salvaging rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the  1991 Super Bowl, is s dramatically different from the one seen in the later years when drugs and domestic abuse were taking their toll, Houston looking a gaunt shadow of her former self on an ABC television interview when she’s confronted with the change in her physical appearance and grilled over her cocaine habit. Memories are still strong of her failed comeback tour when audiences walked out of a show in Australia, slamming her vocal performance, or when she was booed during the 1989 Soul Train Awards.

But Macdonald’s insightful documentary  makes it clear  the drugs were a symptom rather than a cause, probing the psychological issues that trace back to childhood, when she earned her family nickname of Nippy,  and, it’s shockingly revealed, sexual abuse by her aunt, Dee Dee Warwick, something that also raises the issue of her own sexual identity problems  and how they connected to her long time creative director and some-time lover Robyn Crawford Crawford and her decision to marry Brown and raise a family.

That too proved a disaster as, aside from the problems with Brown, the film also reveals the devastating impact on their  daughter Bobbi Kristina, who, embraced in the spotlight and privately neglected,  never had  a  chance,  following  her mother down the road of addiction to death. The intercutting of socio-political footage distracts somewhat and never really makes the  contextual points Macdonald clearly intends, but this is a depressingly riveting piece of work that leaves you wanting to point the angry finger of  blame, but with  too many targets to count.  (Mockingbird)

 

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Lunar Festival interview: Hookworms

Hookworms

The third album from Hookworms marked a significant shift for the band. Recorded in the wake of the decimation of their studio due to flooding in 2015, the release shuns the more rock elements of The Hum and Pearl Mystic to embrace loops, samples, electronics and jams.

The result has been a revelation and their most enthusiastically received release to date.

Prior to their appearance at Lunar Festival on Saturday 28 July 2018, drummer JN chats to BrumNotes …

How was Microshift written? There’s been comments about it being more of a studio album, and more (for want of a better word) digital …

It’s worth noting first off that the bulk of our material has always been written in the studio. MJ has owned a variant on his Suburban Home studio’s from the outset of the band and, so to a degree, the two exist in tandem. A portion of the material is arranged and rehearsed prior to recording but we’re conscious that if we keep an open mind and compose and find sounds on the fly then the outcome becomes less overtly predictable.

From a rhythm perspective; I’ve always wanted to play so synth sequences and compliment my acoustic drums with machines and samples so, for me, it’s ideal.

Has working with loops and with synths presented any challenges with playing Microshift songs live?

As with all our songs, it’s wholly dependent on how they were constructed in the studio. Obviously there’s been some teething problems introducing sequencing and additional elements to the live show but weirdly we’re able to play a larger majority of the tracks well than on previous records, even those constructed from the ground up with little to no rehearsal interaction. This is largely due to the fact that the stuff that would normally be difficult to emulate live is already in MB’s sampler. Also Virginia Wing have supported us on the most of dates so far meaning we can perform the collaborative tracks (Boxing Day / Each Time We Pass) live too. There’s only “The Soft Season” left to figure out and I’m sure we’ll get there at some point.

Have the new songs changed since you’ve been playing them live? 

For the most part I’d say no, though obviously there are some subtle variants, and not all of the sonic elements of the arrangements are present. But in terms of structure and vocals, they’re largely the same….which is cool.

When MJ’s studio was flooded by the River Aire on Boxing Day 2015, what was the extent of the damage? 

Well, I mean the whole studio was completely flooded and had to be rebuilt from scratch …. so yes, it’s was pretty extensive. MJ got there in time to salvage a lot of his equipment and instruments but the studio, and all its fittings etc, were destroyed as well as a fair amount of heavyweight stuff like speakers and amplifiers. It was devastating and sadly MJ will be chasing up the cost of the rebuild for some time to come. Luckily he’s a good engineer/ producer so at least he has a steady stream of good work to keep him ticking over. It would have almost definitely been impossible to consider a rebuild without that and the generosity of the studios patrons who dug deep to help out with flood repairs via the gofundme campaign.

I gather that some pre-flood recordings for a planned EP and album were scrapped. Were those songs sounding more like Hum stuff?

Oh, we were already well on the way to departing from The Hum’s more straight forward psychedelic rock sound. Domino wanted us to do an EP to bridge the gap between The Hum and new material anchored around what became “Static Resistance” and a modular synth collaboration with Richard Formby which later evolved into “Opener”. So I guess those are the two tracks that really bridge the gap. We also had a couple of wild jams that I recall sounded not unlike early Liars. Kinda murky rhythms. I believe some parts were salvaged and repurposed for MIcroshift but I couldn’t say which for sure.

There’s 3 collaborations on the album (Hookworms’ first): Boxing Day (with Christopher Duffin); Each Time We Pass (with Alice Merida Richards from Virginia Wing); Opener (with Richard Formby). How did each of those collaborations come about and develop in the studio? 

Opener – This came about fairly naturally as a result of MJ being friends via production work with Richard Formby and myself and MBs fascination with modular synths. Richard has an absurdly awesome modular set-up and MB had just began work on his system so I believe he was invited along to try some stuff out and generally exchange ideas. The original recording is this super lengthy Neu! style jam that was reworked a number of times before evolving into the carefully structured song that is Opener. We also performed a variant live for the opening of Headrow House, which may explain the name…but probably not. Hopefully these variants will see the light of day in some form in the future.

Each Time We Pass – Again, a fairly natural development. We play tons of shows with Virginia Wing so when the instrumental for Each Time We Pass evolved from being a proposed interval piece into a full blown arrangement it seemed like a cool idea to pass it on to Alice and see what might come of it. The resulting verses were beautiful and no doubt inspired MJ to respond and create the duet that ended up on the record. It’s the big surprise moment of the record for me.

Boxing Day – Again … an easy one. Chris Duffin plays in Xam Duo and he owns (both literally and figuratively) the sax so he had to play something on the record. Boxing Day evolved into a pretty wild jam from the outset so it was the natural choice for his input. Sam and Jonny had already recorded the shredded guitar parts so there was an obvious springboard for some atonal saxophone wailings and it worked out really great.

How do you think album number four will develop? Do you think it will be made in a similar fashion to Microshift, and continue down a similar musical path? 

All I know so far is that the record will be recorded at Suburban Home by MJ but other than that who knows what may evolve out of the sessions. I hope we continue to challenge our own perception of what we’re doing and figure out new and imaginative ways to marry MJ and EO’s love of passionate emotive melodies with myself, JW and MBs more clinical, pragmatic leanings. We’ll probably just make a solid country rock record like Wilco would do … we’ll see.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

We have a bunch of festival appearances booked throughout the summer as well some pretty huge/ scary headliners at the end of the year so that’ll keep us busy. There’s also talk of a remix release of some kind too so keep an eye out for that.

  • Lunar Festival runs from Thursday 26 to Sunday 29 July 2018 at the Umberslade Farm Park, Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire. Other artists appearing include Goldfrapp, The Stranglers, The Go! Team, Jane Weaver, Basement Jaxx, The Pretty Things, Boy Azooga, A Guy Called Gerald, and 77:78. For more details, see: lunarfestival.co.uk

Pram break the silence

Pram

Seminal Birmingham band Pram break a decade long silence with the release of their new album, Across The Meridian.

Eleven years on from The Moving Frontier album and ten since an accompanying remix EP, Across The Meridian is released on Domino on Friday 20 July 2018.

As with previous albums, Across the Meridian mixes instrumentals and songs, weaving a gleeful path through the musical territory of film scores, 1930s jazz, sun-drenched pop, electronica, and post-punk experimentation.

“There’s a huge interest in the band in collages of sound, triggering emotions in people. That’s part of the experimental end of what we do, but we bring it to our more conventionally structured songs as well so that each one grabs you and you live in its world whilst you are listening,” says Matt Eaton, of the band.

Recordings took place in Wales and in Pram’s own Brum studios – all of which took some time.

“Since it was possible to record an LP at home on tape we’ve been doing this – cutting up tape, arranging, re-recording and basically writing in the studio,” Matt says. “This is part of our process. It doesn’t make sense for us to go to a commercial studio and walk away with the finished product.”

Discussing their writing and recording methodology, Max Simpson says: “Different band members initiate the tracks, but the complete track is a collective effort which is at once less straightforward but more coherent than the sum of its parts and reflects the musical personalities of Pram at the time. The process is very different now because digital tech makes everything more possible. The challenge is to embrace the new world but not to lose that sense of wonder that you first had when you recorded something onto a cassette and then played it backwards through a speaker you were whirling around your head.”

Inspired by The Raincoats and The Slits, coupled with a love of film and film soundtracks, Joe Meek and more, Pram’s quirky DIY approach was at the centre of a uniquely Brum scene during the 1990s, one which also included fellow Moseley-ites Broadcast. They released their debut long-player in 1993 via Too Pure before moving to Domino at the end of the decade, releasing five albums to date on the label.

For more information on Pram see: facebook.com/pushthepram/

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

 

 

NEW RELEASES

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Freak Show (15)

The directorial debut of Trudie Styler, likely more familiar to most as Mrs. Sting,   this is a terrific Sundance-friendly gender choice dramady about a self-proclaimed sissy high school teenager who, in a touch of Ma Vie en Rose, would rather be a girl than a boy. Encouraged in his flamboyant burlesque extravagances by his blousy, boozehound and self-indulgent mother (Bette Midler), Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther), much to the consternation of his banker father (Larry Pine), life’s fine when his parents divorce until mom vanishes into rehab and Billy’s forced to move from Connecticut into his wealthy dad’s palatial red state home, taking with him his mother’s frocks and make-up, and, worse go to school.

Things get off to a bad start when, on his first day, he swans in dressed pirate-style like Adam Ant. Next, it’s Marilyn Monroe    It’s pretty much downhill from there as his new peers relentlessly bully him while, masking his insecurity,  he defiantly responds with even more outrageous wardrobes.  He does, however, find two allies, a talkative fellow misfit known only a Blah Blah Blah (AnnaSophia Robb) and, unlikely as it may seem, the school’s non-judgemental football star, Flip (Ian Nelson), who himself has identity issues (he would rather be a painter than a jock) who reckons he can turn him into a regular guy’s guy and tries to persuade Billy to tone things down a bit. Maybe even wear regulation blue jeans.

When the bullying gets violent, briefly leaving Billy in a coma with concussions and internal haemorrhaging (when he wakes his joking first request is for lip gloss, remarking that they probably didn’t like the dress) , it only strengths his determination to be who he is (“I didn’t choose fabulous, fabulous chose me!”)  and leads him to announce his candidacy for Homecoming Queen up against bitchy queen bee bigot and head cheerleader Lynette (Abigail Breslin). Her campaign is founded on decency vs. depravity while his slogan is, what else, ‘Let Billy Bloom’, promoting “glamour, pageantry and good hair.” His move sees him aided by a bunch of other fellow outcasts who hide in the shadows, but it does, however, cause a rift between him and Flip.

It’s at this point in the plot that the film shifts into its moral lesson gear climaxing with Billy’s address to the students, appealing to them to embrace difference and fly their own inner freak flag. Last year’s Presidential Election might indicate how this all turns out.

It can feel a little preachy in places, but that never undermines its message about tolerance and standing up for who you are, the last act hitting some particularly powerful emotional notes with its various reconciliations and  personal triumphs,  as well as a devastating scene as Billy’s mother returns and he thinks she’s come for him.

Lawther is mesmerisingly good (never afraid to, at times, make Billy an unsympathetic jerk)  and Breslin is a revelation in a character that’s  the polar opposite of  Little Miss Sunshine (especially good in her scenes opposite Laverne Cox’s local reporter ) , but the entire cast are superb with especially strong supporting turns from Celia Weston as his father’s housekeeper and a true mother to Billy, John McEnroe as the cruelly demanding school coach  and Christopher Dylan White as the student who conceals his sexuality behind brutal homophobia.

Variously hilarious and deeply moving, sporting an inevitable array of  over the top costumes and a soundtrack that includes Perfume Genius, T. Rex, Plastic Bertrand  and, of course, Boy George, it’s one of the year’s best films, all the more a disgrace that it should receive such an ignominious  release, hidden away on a  single screen. Seek it out. (Mon-Thu:Mockingbird)

 

Mary Shelley (12A)

The daughter of  political philosopher William Godwin  and  feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the latter dying just a few weeks after giving birth, Shelley, a well-educated and independent spirit homeschooled by her father,  is internationally renowned as the author of the seminal gothic novel Frankenstein, penned when she was just 18.

The English language debut of Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour and written by Emma Jensen, this period drama doggedly charts, albeit in somewhat compressed form,  the tale’s  origins  in Mary’s own life, in particular her somewhat troubled romantic relationship with  the rebellious – and married – poet  Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In this telling, Mary (a finely accented Elle Fanning)  first meets Shelley (Douglas Booth) in Scotland where, having clashed with her brittle stepmother (Joanne Froggatt), she’s been sent by her father (Stephen Dillane) to continue her education and self-discovery under radical thinker William Baxter. A spark immediately flares between them,

Summoned home to care for her supposedly seriously  ill stepsister Claire  Clairmont (Bel Powley), she and Shelley are reunited when he applies to work for her father’s bookshop (offering a welcome payment to bail Godwin out of debt) and, meeting secretly at her mother’s grave,  romance blossoms, only to hit a scandal when, albeit estranged,  it’s revealed he’s married with a child. Broke, ostracised by  English society and given an ultimatum by her father, Mary, accompanied by Claire, chooses to run off with Shelley, embarking on a life that will bring them into contact with the notorious debauchee Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge in rock star eyeliner) , who will get Claire pregnant, and the physician William Polidori (Ben Hardy),  and, of course, during a stay in Geneva in summer 1816 (the same year Shelley’s wife committed suicide), prompt the legendary proposition that they should each pen a ghost story, Mary having already been depicted as having a fascination for the genre.

Without labouring the point (but nevertheless spelled out by Percy when he reveals the book’s authorship and  inspiration), the film underlines how the death of  three of her children, the experiences of rejection and the men in her life, living penniless and the often volatile relationship with Shelley (the couple were often parted as he hid from his creditors while he also had a fling with Clairmont) all fed into Frankenstein; there’s also an early scene where she witnesses a display of galvanism that later  informs her fevered dream).

Impressively shot and finely acted with illuminating insights in the period, even so it tends to plod dutifully along rather than flare into life, never quite capturing the full extent of Mary’s radicalism   and, surprisingly, is somewhat cursory in  detailing her  treatment by the literary circle on account of being a woman. Even so, it’s a solid contribution to the literary biopic genre and should especially be seen by GCSE students studying Frankenstein.  (Electric)

 

Pin Cushion  (15)

Marking the full-length debut of writer-director Deborah Haywood, this  quirky coming-of-age British indie is built upon two stand-out  performances from Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark who, respectively, play eccentric mother Lyn and her  gawky ugly duckling teenage daughter Iona.  Cemented by their shared outsider status, they refer to each other as Dafty One and Dafty Two), they  have an intensely close bond that can border on the suffocating .  Although excited about starting a new life in a new village, the former is soon subject to mocking by the local kids on account of her hunchback and having one leg shorter than the other while  the latter inevitably finds difficulty in making friends at her new school, ignoring her fellow misfits in an cringe-inducing attempt to get in with the popular girls. Again, although nice boy Daz (Loris Scarpa) seems to take a shine to Iona, it seems as the  mother-daughter relationship will be their mutual life-support system. However, when  queen bee Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice) and her sidekicks  Stacie (Sasika Paige Martin) and Chelsea (Bethany Antonia) switch from hostility to deceptive friendship, like three cats toying with a  mouse, things begin to change, the frenemy trio taking cruel advantage of Iona’s naiveté, especially in matters of sex, for their own amusement   while,  eager to fit in, she slides down a  slippery slope that soon sees her tagged as the local slag. Meanwhile, the mousy and somewhat self-destructive  Lyn is suffering her own humiliations, rejected by the snobbish local community centre  circle who  supposedly help in settling conflicts as being too weird  when she complains about a neighbour refusing to return the stepladders she borrowed.

The further Iona falls, the more the repressed anger simmers inside Lyn, eventually boiling over in an act of parental  revenge on her daughter’s tormentors that is shockingly unexpected.

Iona’s fantasies of having a glamorous air-hostess mother don’t really work, but, otherwise, and especially in a devastating confessional by Lyn, in upending expectations and surrounding Lyn and Iona with  despicably self-serving characters, Haywood  mines very similar misanthropic territory to the films of Todd Soldentz (most notably Welcome to the Dollhouse) and fully serves to be given similar acclaim.  There’s a Q&A with Haywood, Antonia and producer Gavin Humphries following the screening on Monday. (Mon-Thu: MAC: Q&A Mon)

 

The Secret Of Marrowbone  (15)

A well-crafted but ultimately flawed and underwhelming psychological thriller cum ghost story, this sees writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez  (who scripted  The Orphanage) rework a familiar convention with one of those reveal climaxes that, like The Others, The Sixth Sense and The Cement Garden,  make you reassess everything you’ve just seen.

It opens with a mother (Nicolas Harrison) returning to her  overgrown and dilapidated family home in rural America with her four children, youngster Sam (Matthew Stagg), adolescent daughter Jane (Mia Goth), son Billy (Charlie Heaton) and his older brother  Jack (George MacKay), the family reverting to her maiden  name of Marrowbone (also that of the house)  and fleeing from some mysterious scandal involving her husband back in England.

Before long, mom takes sick and dies, leaving Jack having to pretend she’s still alive  until he turns 21 in order to keep the family together. This means forging mom’s signature on deeds to the house, insisting his sibling remain inside the grounds and keeping romantic interest  local librarian Allie (Ana Taylor-Joy), who lives in a  farm over the hill,  from dropping by, meeting her in town or  cutely communicating by semaphore from their respective bedroom windows.

There’s tension in the house, where all the mirrors are covered, with Sam believing there’s a ghost, as its revealed that their father, a serial killer, came after them and they walled him up alive. Matters are further complicated when Porter (Kyle Soller), the ambitious local attorney, becomes suspicious, the plot involving  the money  mom stole from her husbands’ ill-gotten gains and which he came in search of and which Porter now seeks to blackmail Jack for.

With the house’s decayed look and dark recesses and bricked-up rooms, the set design is impressive and atmospheric, intended to reflect the film’s overarching  psychological thread, but neither it nor the acting it can compensate for the increasingly convoluted and gimmicky narrative that, when  all has finally been revealed,  ends with a particularly clunky coda. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Skyscraper (12A)

With this making it three in a row, Dwayne Johnson  is the currently undisputed king of the blockbusters, a  title once held by Bruce Willis, which is all rather ironic given that his latest is basically Die Hard meets Towering Inferno.

The prologue has Johnson’s FBI agent and negotiator Will Sawyer attempting to talk down a family hostage situation when the guy detonates a body bomb, leaving Sawyer some years later with a prosthetic leg, married to his medic, former combat-surgeon  Sarah (Neve Campbell) and with two cute kids (McKenna Roberts,  Noah Cottrell ).  He now runs a one man company advising on security and, thanks to a former member of his squad, he lands the lucrative job of  vetting the Pearl, the world’s tallest building, a state of the art 240-storey Hong Kong two-thirds of a mile high project by multi-millionaire developer Zhao (Chin Han) with, as per its name, a giant pearl-like globe at  the top containing a virtual-reality space that you just know is going to become the  stage for the final showdown.

Having duly confirmed the place is super-safe (though the scene in the trailer with Noah Taylor’s insurance exec questioning his skills is curiously absent), events inevitably set out to prove Sawyer wrong as a team of mercenaries led by ruthless Swedish psycho  Kores Botha (Roland Møller) break into the basement, planning to set the place  on fire in order to get their hands on something Zhao has locked away in a safe in his Penthouse fortress.

With another part of the team having obtained and hacked into the tablet storing Sawyer’s facial recognition, from which they can control the building’s function from the off-site control centre they’ve stormed,  Botha duly shuts down the fire prevention systems, locks down the exits and sets the 96th floor ablaze.

Unfortunately, Sarah and the kids are trapped in the building, which means Will, subject of  a poorly conceived manhunt by the Hong Kong cops, has to somehow get inside, rescue them and take out the bad guys, armed only with his prosthetic leg,  a   lot of duct tape and incredible finger-strength.

Those with an aversion to heights will finds the scenes of Sawyer climbing up a construction crane, leaping a 40-foot chasm, scaling the burning building and dangling precariously from a  rope (all captured on the big screen by TV crews for the assembled cheering crowds)  or Sarah carrying  her son across a plank between two ends of a broken causeway while the fire blazes below hard to watch, but even those without acrophobia will find the stomach tightening as they chew their fingernails, regardless of the fact the characters will naturally survive.

Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, it’s a tad clunky on the dialogue and the double-crosses are signalled a mile-off while not only does the fire seem to defy all the laws of physics but the building also has the world’s most robust and fireproof sprinklers. But then logic and realism aren’t ingredients listed on the box as, gloriously idiotic and deliriously implausible to the extreme, the film simply gets on with delivering a thrillingly exciting , visually spectacular  series of high rise stunts and the sort of sensitive but tough masculinity at which Johnson excels.  There’s not a shred of originality in sight, but as family action movie entertainment goes, this is a total  conflagration.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Also Opening

A Ciambra (15)

Produced by Martin Scorsese and set in a small Romani community in Calabria, rebellious adolescent  Pio Amato wants to grow up in a hurry  and is determined  prove he’s ready to step into big brother Cosimo’s shoes and become a man. However, with the region divided between three factions, the Romani, African refugees and Italians, when Cosimo goes missing  and things start to go wrong, Pio finds himself facing an impossible decision. (Fri-Sun:MAC)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Adrift (12A)

Having directed Everest, Baltasar Kormakur returns for another true survival tale, albeit a rather more intimate affair  that is, almost exclusively, a two-hander about free-spirited 23-year-old American Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and  30sish British yachtsman Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), based on Red Sky in Mourning, the former’s 1983 memoir of how they met in Tahiti, fell in love and, while sailing a couple’s luxury boat to California, fell victims to one of the worst hurricane ever seen in the Pacific.

Intercut with flashbacks to their romance , it details how, after the storm, Tami finds a barely conscious Richard clinging to a dinghy, gets him back on board and, with his internal injuries  and badly broken leg, nurses him while single-handedly making repairs and trying to  navigate the disabled craft to Hawaii, the only chance of survival.

It’s a compelling story, but not one that, in Kormakur and  the three screenwriters’ handling, translates successfully to the screen. The flashbacks defuse rather than accentuate the tension and claustrophobia, the dialogue is often stilted and, while the storm effects are persuasive, the fact that this is based on Tami’s book rather renders any anticipation of making it redundant. Nor is there very much by way of personal backgrounds to either of them; Tami wanted to get away from home and is no hurry to return, the somewhat blandly depicted Richard built his own boat and set out to sail the world. That said, for those that aren’t familiar with the book or the story, there is a twist that, while a touch cheesy, does underscore how she found the strength to carry on, even abandoning her vegetarian principles to spear some fish for food.

It never attains the power of Robert Redford’s All is Lost or the psychological ideals of Colin Firth misfire The Mercy, there’s no obvious spark between Woodley and Claflin to make the romance convincing, a major problem as this is the core of the survival and self-confidence narrative,  which never finds a satisfying shape leaving the film and its characters, like its title, very much adrift. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

The movie equivalent of going to an all you can eat buffet and  still wanting more, this brings together pretty much every major  superhero in the Marvel Universe (or at least the Disney manifestation thereof), and even those not on screen still get a mention,  for the ultimate slugfest mashup as they take on the towering, ridged-chin world destroyer Thanos (a surprisingly soulful Josh Brolin) who is out to gather all six of the infinity stones (gems of indescribable power governing Mind, Soul, Time, Power, Space and Reality), so that he can bring balance to the universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants (as a flashback reveals he did to Gamora’s world before adopting her as his daughter), so that the remaining half have a chance to survive. It’s galaxy-wide genocide, but he means well.

Given the showdowns between Thanos and the various ad hoc team ups take place in various parts of the planet and the universe, the massive cast of characters don’t actually all occupy the same scene at any one time. Rather we have different pockets of resistance. After an initial confrontation in New York with Thanos’s icily effete and sadistic factotum and a couple of his enforcers, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland with fetching new bio-suit) are paired up on both Thanos’s flying wheel and his home planet Titan;  Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and, with a traumatised Hulk reluctant to emerge, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) face off in Wakanda with the Black Panther (Chadwick Bosemen), ultimately joined by Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Vision  (Paul Bettany), who, lest you forget, has one of the stones in  his forehead. As it turns out, Doctor Strange also has one nestling in his amulet.

After rescuing him from space following the opening massacre of Asgardians, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), stick-teen Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) join forces with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), described by Drax “like a pirate had a baby with an angel!”. The bruised and battered but still up for it God of Thunder  and the ‘rabbit’, as he refers to him, taking off to forge a new hammer  (leading to a wryly amusing scene in which Peter Dinklage dwarfs them both), while the others head for Knowhere, home of the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who’s supposedly got one of the stones. Also in the mix is Thanos’s other ‘daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan) and pretty much all of the other core characters from Black Panther, along with a Gwyneth Paltrow cameo as Tony Stark’s new fiancée, Pepper Potts and a surprise post-credits appearance of a long absent figure.

If you can get your head round that line-up, then you might just make it through the near three hours of  cataclysmic jawdropping, eye-popping action that comes liberally laced with intense emotional beats, pop culture references and the sort of dry and droll humour you’ve come to expect, here primarily in the alpha male arrogance stand-offs between egotistical Stark and supercilious Strange, the testosterone tag match between Thor and an intimidated Peter Quinn (who deepens his voice to assert himself) and the former’s ever hilarious unintended casual put downs. Indeed, Hemsworth pretty much owns every scene he’s in, and his dramatic lightning flashing appearance armed with his new axe, Stormbringer, and a new eye, is one of the film’s major cheer out loud moments

All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and sef-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises,  these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Bookshop (PG)

A tale of small town vindictiveness adapted from a Booker-shortlisted novel by Penelope Fitzgerald by Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet with a voice-over by Julie Christie, this simmers but, save for one memorable but underplayed scene, never really comes to the boil.

In 1959 Suffolk, widowed for some years, middle-aged Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) decides to convert the drafty, damp, rat-infested Old House in the seaside town of Hardborough into a bookshop. This doesn’t sit well with the town’s imperious socialite queen bee, Mrs Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who wants  to turn the building into an arts centre. Outraged that Florence doesn’t agree to find somewhere else, she sets about bringing every effort and political connection to bear to force her out.

Meanwhile, Florence  takes on Christine (Honor Kneafsey), a self-assured schoolgirl  to help out as her assistant after school , even though she’s too young and professes to not like reading and, after  sending  him a  copy of Farenheit 451 in response to a note requesting suitable books,  strikes up  a friendship with Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy being very Bill Nighy), a reclusive eccentric widow whose wife, gossip says, drowned in mysterious circumstances.  He has  little time for the townsfolk, but forms a bond with Florence  that, he confesses, might have been something more had he been much younger.  After being sent a copy for his advice, he also encourages Florence to stock Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita, which, of course, gets some people’s backs up even more. Also in her orbit  is preeningly self-satisfied and self-serving BBC radio personality Milo North (James Lance, who looks as if he’s to be privy to some joke  no one else is in on). One will fatally attempt to come to her rescue, one will betray her friendship.

A modest and old-fashioned allegory about personal courage, it touches on the serpents that often hide behind polite surfaces, the post-war resistance of the old school to the change represented in the world of feelings embodied in Florence’s rebellious spirit and the pioneering books she stocks as well as the tyranny of British social class and privilege, but the film is too genteel to have much bite even if, in a socio-political moment, it raises the iniquity of compulsory purchase (although the timescale here seems a little skewed) by which Florence is undone.  Cosy and watchable, but one you’d probably put back on the shelf after skimming through.  (Electric; Fri-Wed: MAC)

Deadpool 2 (15)

The original movie made a fortune from  taking the mocking piss out of itself and the whole superhero franchise genre, a self-referential orgy of meta-fiction that demolished the fourth wall, winked to the camera and the audiences  and bundled together onscreen and offscreen personas (at one point Deadpool signs an autograph as  Ryan Reynolds) in a gloriously violent and hilarious WTF of gargantuan proportions. This one tops it. Indeed, directed by Atomic Blonde’s David Leitch (or, as the opening credits have it, One of the Two Guys Who Killed John Wick’s Dog), it starts with scarred cancer victim wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Reynolds) turning on a  dead Wolverine musical box before posing on a bunch of gasoline drums, tossing a lit cigarette and blowing himself to pieces. And then backtracking six weeks to explain why as, having gone into the scum-killing business fulltime (cue gallons of blood), the one that got away ends up killing  girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) just as she and Wade have decided to make a baby, sending him into a guilt-ridden, suicidal funk. Of course, the body parts gathered together by Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and hauled back to the X-Men’s mansion, he regenerates and the plot kicks in.

It’s fairly simple, joining  Colossus, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and her new girlfriend (Shioli Kutsuna), he gets to become an X-Men trainee, his first call to action being an attempt to cool down, fireball-hurling teenage mutant Randall (New Zealand’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople breakout star Julian Dennison) who’s threatening to incinerate the mutant hating headmaster (Eddie Marsan) of his orphanage. Suffice to say, things don’t quite work out as planned and both he and the kid end up  in the high-tech mutants prison, the Ice-Box. At which point, enter uber-intense Cable (Josh Brolin), a bionic-enhanced super-soldier who’s beamed in from the future intent on killing Randall in revenge for turning his family to cinders. Cue Deadpool resignedly opting to play the surrogate dad (thereby earning his redemption stripes to reunite with Vanessa) and protect Randall, ultimately attempting to change the course of events that will lead to the present scenario.

Along the way there’s the formation of   his own mutants spin-off, X-Force (“tough, morally flexible and young enough to carry this franchise another 10 to 12 years”, Bedlam (Terry Crews), Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), Vanisher (a blink of Brad Pitt), Zeigeist (Bill Skarsgård), Domino (a spin-off friendly Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is being lucky, and Peter (Rob Delaney), an ordinary schmuck who just saw the ad. Not that they get to stick around long, only one (and you can guess who from the powers) surviving to take the fight to Cable in one of the many spectacular action sequences, as it gathers to a vaguely Terminator salvational climax.

Bloodier, more visceral and far more foul-mouthed than the original, it sprays pop culture references and in-jokes like nail-bomb confetti, cameos including Alan Tudyk, a glimpse of three X-Men and a very surprising mid-credits appearance of a fourth, alongside returning characters Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), Weasel (T.J.Miller)  and taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) who wants in on the mercenary lark, not to mention Wade’s favourite  unstoppable villain from the X-Men comics. There’s also deluge of references to and quips about the DC Universe, the Avengers (at one point Deadpool calls Cable Thanos), Robocop, Canada, James Bond , Frozen (how come no one else drew the Yentl comparison!), Annie, Say Anything and a hysterical Green Lantern gag set to Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, plus dozens more you’ll have to catch on subsequent viewings as well as its brazen acknowledgement of  the plot holes. And the four post-credit scenes that change everything. Basically, it’s everything you loved about Deadpool – on Viagra. (Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The First Purge  (15)

Despite having effectively  shut down any likely  future sequels with the last film, the cash cow continues to graze with this prequel explaining how it all began in the first place under the newly elected NRA—endorsed New Founding Fathers of America facist administration.   Conceived as a sort of Stanford Prison-like experiment by  psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei)  and over seen by  NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh),  the idea is use the self-contained borough of Staten Island, a predominantly poor Black community,  as a human rat lab  to see how people respond to a 12-hour period in which, motivated by getting paid to break the law (the more the mayhem,  the more the payment),  they are free to vent their anger and frustrations with no legal comebacks, so, from looting to murder, anything goes. If enough people participate, then the plan is to roll out The Purge on a national level.

A rather inevitable and decidedly perfunctory sidebar is that one drug lord sees it as an opportunity to remove another, while it will come as no surprise, especially for those who’ve seen the other films, to learn that it’s all part of a government plot to reduce overpopulation by culling the poor – and predominantly Black – working class. As such, the film wears it political intent  with a distinct lack of subtlety as, when the residents, save for a scarred psychopath called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who makes the first kill, would rather  party than pillage, Sabian sends in a bunch  of mercenaries, racist cops, rabid neo-Nazis and the Klan among them, to give things a nudge and, in the end, embark  on a  block by block massacre.

Fighting back, there’s  righteous dreadlocked  African-American anti-Purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother,  Isaiah (Joivian Wade), the latter briefly signing up  (and getting to wear those luminous contact lens cameras to record footage), partly as some misguided rites of passage and partly to  revenge him on Skeletor for cutting him. Meanwhile on the other side of the Projects, there’s Nya’s ex, self-possessed calm under pressure drugs kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his crew get tooled up to fight to protect their neighbourhood. Only in a film where the authorities are the bad guys would a ruthless, cold blooded drug kingpin  and  murderer  be the  Ramboesque  hero, spouting nonsense like  “killing comes from our damaged hearts.”

Clearly looking to zone in on the Black Lives Matter  movement as well as anti-Trump sentiments,  this would like to think itself in the same socio-political playing  field as Get Out, but it has none of the finesse or depth and just winds up a dystopian blaxploitation gangbanger B-movie. Once things kick in, there’s plenty of violence to paper over the thin political satire about modern America, but  you can’t help but think that the financial incentive to participate in the Purge has rather more irony than intended.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hereditary (15)

Don’t believe the hype that this is the scariest horror movie since The Exorcist (that would be the original Ring);  yes, first-timer writer-director Ari Aster gradually builds from unease to a sense of stark terror, but the film also sports well worn clichés of unsettling noises, glimpsed figures, enigmatic symbols, dark rooms and even a bird flying into a window.  And something in the attic.

It opens with the funeral for Ellen Taper Leigh, the highly secretive and not entirely much missed mother of Annie (a monumentally good Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist currently working on a series of  highly detailed small rooms encapsulating her family and its experiences. Indeed, the only member of the family truly upset by the old dear’s passing is her brooding 13-year-old niece, Charlie (Milly Shapiro looking creepily unsettling), a strange autistic child  with an intense gaze and given to making tongue clucking noises whose sketchpad of angry drawings suggests a decidedly troubled psyche, and whom Granma took it upon herself to raise, pretty much shutting Annie out of her daughter’s life. Charlie has her own workshop in her treehouse where she crafts bizarre effigies, at one point decapitating (a portent of much to follow) the aforementioned bird to add to her collection. The rest of the family comprises Annie’s voice of reason husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who has no backstory at all, and their teenage affable stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) whose role intensifies as the narrative unfolds.

The first inkling of chills comes when Annie thinks she sees her mother’s shade in her workshop and the film spends a considerable time hinting that the spookiness might all be down to Annie’s mental state (she sleepwalks and recounts one finding herself at the foot of her children’s bed with paint stripper and matches). But when, after a horrific accident (of which Annie crafts a model, much to Steve’s understandable revulsion), Peter, consumed with guilt, has his own ‘hallucination’, then it seems external forces are at work. Steve also gets a call to say his mother-in-law’s grave has been desecrated. And then there’s those shimmers of light dancing around Charlie.

All this is made more manifest when, in seeking to deal with her grief when Charlie is killed, Annie (who earlier found one of her mom’s books on spiritualism) is persuaded to take part in a  séance with Joanie (Anne Dowd), a friendly soul who approaches her outside the counselling session where, following her mother’s funeral,  she’d previously revealed her depressed father’s suicide by starvation and how her schizophrenic older brother hung himself, leaving behind a note accusing his mother of “putting people inside him.”  Well, we all know what séances portend in horror movies.

At which point, the film becomes somewhat less successful as its heads into overfamiliar Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining territory involving cults (with both  living and dead members), possession and malevolent demon lords looking for host bodies, at time resorting to dream sequences for exposition (though the one where Annie spills out a shocking highly unmaternal confession to Peter is effective). With the help of his cinematographer, Aster keeps the sense of dread, but can’t prevent the film from touching on the slightly silly even as its themes of dysfunctional family secrets, maternal guilt and mounting hysteria   collide with the supernatural. Well-crafted, well-designed and well-acted, yes it is scary in parts (and has its sudden jolt moments too), but not so much that you won’t sleep at night.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie,  the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s  former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.

However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team  recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex  has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction  being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).

Left to die by  the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres,  Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a  timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in  cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue  even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act.  It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Oceans 8 (12A)

As with the recent Ghostbusters, this is another gender reversal attempt to reboot a franchise, thankfully with rather more successful results. The kid sister of Danny Ocean (apparently deceased), after spending just over five years inside for fraud, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) smooth talks herself into getting parole. However, no sooner is she back on the New York streets than she’s back into her felonious ways, conning herself a bagful of beauty products and a swanky hotel room.  However, she has her sights set on rather bigger game, having spent her time in jail devising a foolproof plan to heist the world’s most valuable diamond necklace, the Toussaint, valued at $150million during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala.

For this she needs a crew, starting off with her old partner-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gradually recruiting fading fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter),  a streetwise hacker  and surveillance expert known as Nine Ball (Rhianna), Indian jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mom  thief Tammy (Sarah Poulson) and  slick sleight of hand street hustler Constance (Awkwafina). The plan, by initially seeming as though she’s going to be working with a hot celebrity (Dakota Fanning), is is to get Weil appointed to dress snobby socialite Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) for the Gala, insisting that she wear the Toussaint. With Kruger as the unwitting mule, the necklace will then, via series of ingenuous meticulously planned moves, be switched from under the noses of the security team and replaced by a copy, broken up and smuggled out with each of them getting $16mill.

However, Debbie also has a second agenda, intending to set up her art gallery owner ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), engineering it so that he’s Daphne’s date for the Gala, as the fall-guy in revenge for him ratting her out to save his own skin over a scam that got her set down.

As with the previous instalments, the fun is primarily in the interplay between the cast and the ingenuity and split-second timing of the robbery, as well as a couple of unexpected twists and, of course, the flashbacks revealing how things were done. A bosoms buddy screwball comedy, it’s slick, stylish and smart with some sharp and snarky dialogue and perfect comic timing. Bullock who at one point declares she’s not doing this for the money but as inspiration to any budding criminal eight-year-old girls, is every bit as good here as she was in Miss Congeniality, but the whole gang, and that includes Hathaway (who even gets an in-joke about herself), all of whom get their individual turn to shine as well as working as a perfectly synchronised team, are a charismatic delight to watch. On top of that James Corden turns up in a  scene-stealing turn as an impish insurance-fraud investigator who has history with the Oceans while, in a nod to the franchise legacy, there’s cameos by both Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff  and Shaobo Qin as the acrobatic Yen as well as the likes of Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Common, Serena Williams and Katie Holmes all appearing as themselves for the lavish Gala. Here’s to sequels 9 and 10. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Patrick (PG)

The daughter of Jennifer Saunders and Ade Edmondson, Beattie Edmondson first attracted attention in flatshare sitcom Josh and now graduates to a leading big screen role in this  affable but undernourished and sentimental Disney-produced   affair that feels as though its escaped from some second division  70s BritCom timewarp.

She’s Sarah Francis, a confidence-lacking, underachieving  singleton who, dumped by her latest boyfriend just after they started living together in to her Richmond flat, also gets to inherit her late gran’s spoiled pug, Patrick. Unfortunately, her live-in landlord has a strictly no pets policy and she’s just about to start work as a teacher in the local Grange Hill-like secondary, leading her to try and offload her unwanted dog on, first, a neighbour who also has a secret canine and then the school caretaker (Roy Hudd), both ending in disaster.

Patrick is, naturally, a total handful, chasing deer in the local park (presumably having seen the YouTube clip of several years back), eating everything except what he’s fed and chewing up anything resembling a cat. On the plus side, taking Patrick for walks brings her into contact with a hunky if  narcissistically self-absorbed vet (Ed Skrein) and sensitive fellow dog-owner Matt (Tom Bennett).

There’s not much of a plot. She has a disastrous dinner date with the vet, starts a tentative relationship with Matt, enters the school’s 5k fun run to raise money for a pensioner’s mobility scooter  and prove a point to a snidey fellow teacher (Adrian Scarborough) despite being patently physically unsuited to  jogging more than a few yards, surprisingly gets her rowdy class into Jane Eyre, befriending a girl whose stuck in the middle of her parent’s divorce, and, of course, gets to bond with Patrick.

Coming over as low grade Richard Curtis  (there’s even a nod to Notting Hill), it’s inoffensive whimsical and utterly predictable fluff  that makes things like Nativity seem cutting edge, peppered with support turns and cameo appearances by the likes of Peter Davidson,  Gemma Jones, Emily Atack, Bernard Cribbins, Cherie Lunghi, Meera Syal and, inevitably, Jennifer Saunders in what, one assumes, is a fat suit as the school’s quirky cookery teacher.  Lazily written with blissful ignorance of  education protocol, child protection rules and   GCSE exam procedures  and wallowing in eager to please cliches, it has a couple of touching moments, Edmondson is a genuine comic talent and Patrick, who gets several squashed face close-ups,  is infinitely more adorable than was the late Pudsey. It’s also wall to wall with Amy MacDonald songs. Even so, this is really should never have been let off the development lead.  (Cineworld Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Sicario 2:Soldado (15)

Emily Blunt may not be back (but her story was confined to the first film in any event) and Stefano Sollima has replaced Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair, but Taylor Sheridan remains the screenwriter and  both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro return for what proves to be an incredibly tense and dramatic sequel, even if the testosterone level is bouncing in the red and it takes a while to figure out the what, who and why.

Opening with a night vision filmed scene of American authorities apprehending migrants in the desert as they seek to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, one of them blows himself up. Cut to Kansas City and chillingly matter-of-factly staged and hard to watch suicide bombing of a supermarket, followed by CIA op Matt Graver (Brolin) interrogating a captured terrorist in Somalia to obtain information as to how, it is assumed, the bombers arrived from Mexico. It’s a scene that, in Graver’s by any means necessary approach, foreshadows the comment by  the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) that, with Mexican drug gangs now officially added to the terrorist list,  “dirty is exactly why you’re here” when Braver’s brought in by his steely boss, Cynthia Foard (Catherine Keener), to clean things up.

To which end, he, in turn, reactivates lawyer turned hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) in a plot to spark a cartels war by abducting Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of Carlos Reyes, the drug lord who was responsible for the murder of Alejandro’s family, and then posing as her liberators.

Running parallel to this, and inevitably crossing paths at a crucial moment, is the story of Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), an adolescent Mexican-American citizen who, bored with school and looking for excitement and  money, is recruited by his cousin to assist in people trafficking.

The core plot takes any number of twists and turns, a shoot-out with corrupt Mexican police leading to Braver being told to shut down the mission and clean the scene of any loose ends. These include Alejandro who in the foul up during with the girl escaped, has been left in the Mexican desert looking after Isabela and responsible for getting her across the border. Shades of John Ford’s The Searchers are obvious.

Revealing more would spoil the tension and surprise twists, although it is not too hard to see where the narrative strands are leading as they build to the film’s central climax. It’s a grim, politically cynical affair, though not as morally bankrupt as it might first appear as mutually protective captor/captive bonds develop and friendship and duty lock heads.  It’s often incredibly violent, but also not without some gritty humour, while both Brolin and Del Toro are magnetic masculine screen presences with both Moner and Rodriguez delivering finely shades  performance as both victims of and collaborators in the social tragedies and political webs in which they are ensnared. A compelling, often narratively ruthless thriller with a strong topical intelligence in which there are no clear cut good guys, all of which ends in an unexpected but fascinating set up for the next chapter. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)

A case of Star Wars fatigue perhaps, the box office response to this Han Solo prequel has been decidedly lacklustre, certainly nowhere near the fervour there was for Rogue One. Nor, playing it on a lighter note more along the lines of the Young Indiana Jones than its predecessor’s drama, is it as good a film.

Essentially an origin tale, we first meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich), not yet named Solo, as, having stolen a vial of  coaxium, an indescribably  valuable spaceship fuel, he and fellow thief romantic interest  Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) seek to escape the oppression of Corellia to follow his dream of becoming a  pilot. He makes it past the gate, she doesn’t, and, to avoid capture, he impulsively enlists with the Empire, earning his surname in the process, vowing to return for her when he has his own ship.

Some years later, thrown out of the Imperial Fleet for insubordination, he’s a grunt caught up in one of the Empire’s planet conquering wars when he encounters Tobias  Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his fellow smugglers, Val (Thandie Newton) and chimp-like multiple-armed pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) with whom, after a brief interlude in a mud pit prison where he teams up with imprisoned Wookiee, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), he joins forces in a plan to steal a consignment of coaxium from a transport train. This too doesn’t quite work out, both thinning down the gang and leaving them in debt to Beckett’s ruthless gangster employer Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who fronts the sinister crime cabal the Crimson Dawn,  and facing the likely fatal consequences of failing. They do, however, talk him into giving them another opportunity, this time to steal coaxium directly from the mines  and then processing it before it has the chance to explode.  For this, however, they need a ship. So, enter dandy-ish hustler Lando Calrissian (scene stealer Duncan Glover) who owns, as fans will be aware, the Millennium Falcon (we also learn Hans’ unnamed father used to build Corellian YT-1300 freighters before being laid off) and, along with his sassy droid, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge),  agrees to come aboard for a take of the payout.  It should also be mentioned that, along the way, Han finds himself unexpectedly reunited with Q’ira who now reluctantly works for Dryden as his top lieutenant. There’s also the slight problem that there’s another gang of thieves, headed up by Beckett’s arch-enemy, who also want the coaxium.

So, there you have it, surname, ship, Wookiee, blaster, trademark clothes, all character’s trademark details ticked off as the core narrative finally kicks in leading to assorted fights, narrow escapes, double crosses, a Warwick Davis cameo, betrayals and surprise twists, including a last act entry by the Alliance rebels and the appearance of a figure from the franchise that doesn’t really actually fit with the timeline.

Although the early chase sequences are suitably kinetic, the narrative’s slow to gather momentum until the gang set off to steal the raw coaxium, involving a tense escape aboard the Falcon through the Maw and Maelstrom as Solo gets to show off his flying skills and  L3 turning into a robot Spartacus to liberate her fellow droids from slavery, but even then the who can you really trust plotting gets a bit repetitive. There’s no Force or lightsabres, though Dryden’s weapon does make a slight nod to the latter, but replacement director Ron Howard and father-son screenwriters  Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan ensure the Star Wars sensibilities remain well polished. Dropping in plenty of franchise references along with the poetry  in-joke character names. And it rarely looks less than amazing.

Ehrenreich is hugely enjoyable channelling the young Han with his rogueish smile, body language, gait, recklessness and charm, so it’s a bit unfortunate that he looks as though he’s more likely to grow up into Dennis Quaid than Harrison Ford. It’s also unfortunate that the chemistry between him and Clarke never fizzles, indeed there’s more spark between Llando and L3 (who reckons her boss has the hots for her). Everyone else is serviceable enough, though sadly Newton’s not round long enough to make good on her first impression, and, at the end of the day, it serves up a fun slice of big screen adventure in the tradition of those Saturday morning matinees that inspired Star Wars in the first place.  However, its disastrous box office means that not only will there not be a sequel but all Star War spins-offs have been put on the back burner. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Swimming With Men (12A)

Oliver Parker has built a career out of directing such innocuous and predictable but amiable British comedies as St. Trinian’s and  Dad’s Army, and this, a sort of Full Monty in swimming trunks,  adds another to the tally. Rob Brydon is Eric Scott, an account  having a mid-life crisis, bored with the mind-numbing nine to five, taken for granted by and living in the shadow of wife  Heather (Jane Horrocks in a somewhat unsympathetic role) who’s just been elected o the local  council  and something of an embarrassment to his moody teenage son.

Persuaded his wife’s having an affair with her smarmy boss (Nathaniel Parker), he walks out in a strop and moves into a hotel.  Around much the same time, he also pops in to his local swimming pool where he’s surprised to encounter an all-male amateur  synchronised swimming team, among them  widower Ted (Jim Carter),  insecure builder Colin (Daniel Mays), teenage petty thief likely lad Tom (Thomas Turgoose), the enigmatic Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), divorcee Luke (Rupert Graves), the team backbone, and someone  simply known as Silent Bob.

Observing that they’re floundering in the water because the numbers are uneven, he’s invited to join them, having to observe such rules as what happens in the pool stays in the pool and that no one talks about their life outside the club, though clearly all have flaws and vulnerabilities and  something in their background that’s led them to form this unlikely bond.

In the time-honoured tradition of underdog sporting movies,  they’re persuaded to enter the unofficial make synchronised swimming world championships in Milan,  with  fellow swimmer Susan (Charlotte Riley) as the coach – and Luke’s potential love interest – who has to knock them into shape in just six weeks.  You can pretty much write the rest of the plot from there yourself, the film ending with an overextended men in speedos variation on John Cusak’s classic apology scene in Say Anything .

The metaphor about male friendships helping you to stay afloat when you’re sinking is obvious, but never hammered home and the screenplay’s  sprinkled with some amusing one-liners, confessional moments and physical comedy. With very different  and much gentler and very British strokes to its  brash, vulgar and shallower American counterparts, it’s unlikely to make much of a box office splash, but its  easy going chemistry and good natured spirit ensure it never treads water.  (Electric)

Tag (15)

Loosely inspired by a 2013 Wall Street Journal article about  a bunch  of grown men, Americans obviously, who  spent 23 years playing the game of tag they started in high school, here, every May, the friends embark on another round of attempting to ‘tag’ one of the others. This year, Hoagie (Ed Helms) persuades egotistical CEO Callahan (Jon Hamm), stoner divorcee Chilli (Jake Johnson) and paranoid Sable (Hannibal Buress) that this is the year they are finally going to tag alpha fitness start  Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who, he tells them, has announced that he’s retiring from the game as he’s getting married. So, joined by Hoagie’s  aggressive wife (Isla Fisher) and journalist  Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), they  decide to crash the wedding to which they’ve not been invited, Jerry persuading them to accept a  series of amendments to the game  so as not to disrupt proceedings and annoy his hard-headed bride to be (Leslie Bibb). Shenanigans ensue, Jerry looking to distract them by inviting along  Cheryl (Rashida Jones), the girl Chilli and Callahan  were love rivals over back in school, as a honeytrap and Renner switching into Bourne Legacy mode when cornered.

Functionally directed and ploddingly scripted, it flirts with notions of male friendships and arrested development (which it seems to regard as a good thing), forever trotting out the  George Bernard Show quote (misattributed to Benjamin Franklin) “we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”  As such it’s pretty much indistinguishable from similar homophobic humour male buddy hanging out and learning about  but not acting on responsibility movies like The Hangover, the guys’ game causing supposed hilarity as they disrupt a mall, an AA meeting and wedding rehearsal dinner, sending things  flying and trampling over bystanders.

Sporadically amusing but ultimately  dullingly repetitive, some scenes, such as Hoagie impersonating a grannie and been tagged at his father’s funeral, are, as seen in the end credits, recreated from the antics of the real life taggers. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or despair.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Uncle Drew (12A)

Featuring a  character originally created for Pepsi Max  commercials in 2012 , following a predicable underdog sports movie arc and featuring NBA All-Stars  swathed in unconvincing old man latex prosthetics, thisBroadway Plaza Luxe,  African-American centric basketball comedy won’t mean much to anyone not a hoops devotee.  Kyrie Irving stars as Uncle Drew, a septuagenarian  legend who dropped out of the game instead of turning pro, who’s persuaded to come out of retirement by Dax (Lil Rel Howery) who’s desperate to win Harlem’s Rucker Classic street ball tournament and its $1000k prize (and hang on to his high maintenance girlfriend,  Tiffany Haddish)  after  sinking all his life savings to enter a team only to have his star player stolen away by his arch rival coach, Mookie (Nick Kroll).

As such, the pair head off on a road trip round up Drew’s old neighbourhood-league squad,  Big Fella, (Shaquille O’Neal), Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller) and Boots (Nate Robinson), now, respectively  a martial arts teacher, a hellfire sermon minister,  legally blind and near catatonic and  wheelchair-bound, to take on the cocky young upstarts.  Boots’ granddaughter (Erica Ash) is along to provide Dax’s love interest salvation.

Predictable and formulaic, right down to an obligatory barbershop scene,  it  plays out all the expected moves as the old-timers teach the hotheads a thing or two about basketball and, hey yes, life itself as they themselves get to deal with old grudges, it’s not exactly a slamdunk but  it dances around the moves enjoyably enough. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Whitney (15)

A year on from Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Kevin Macdonald  offers up his take on the rise and tragic fall of Whitney Houston, indisputably one of the finest female singers of the 20th century. Unlike Broomfield, however, Macdonald had official access to her inner circle and family, though former husband Bobby Brown is less than forthcoming when he refuses to talk about her drugs problems and the link to her death, declaring it had nothing to do with her life.

Significantly, it begins with a voiceover extract from an interview in which she talks about a recurring dream of being chased by, according to her mother, Cissy Houston, a devil seeking her soul. It’s an apt metaphor what her life would become: her mother pushing her to the limits to vicariously achieve the success that always eluded her;  her father  taking over her management, siphoning off her money and eventually suing her for $10million,; her two brothers  (who are incredibly candid about their drug use and how they introduced Whitney to cocaine) and other relatives  forming her drugs-addicted entourage;  Brown becoming abusive in his jealousy over her fame; and, ultimately, the media feeding frenzy when her drug problems became public knowledge, even being parodied on the cartoon series Family Guy.  Add to that the infidelity of both her parents and their subsequent divorce, and it’s difficult to see how she could have ever turned out well-adjusted.

As with the Amy Winehouse documentary, the arc is from dazzling potential to massive success and an adoring public to a slide into addiction and self-destructive behaviour that would ultimately cost her life, aged just 40, drowned in a hotel bathtub.

The years on her way to international fame are, for the most, upbeat, at least in terms of her then innocent enthusiasm and thrill of singing, whether in church or  being tipped for greatness on her first television appearance, aged 10, singing and Whitney mastered all three, which gave her tremendous range. Just watching her first TV appearance at 19, singing Home from The Wiz.

But the figure seen in the  footage of I Wanna Dance With Somebody,  How Will I Know and Greatest Love of All  and the vocals for  her unforgettable career-salvaging rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the  1991 Super Bowl, is s dramatically different from the one seen in the later years when drugs and domestic abuse were taking their toll, Houston looking a gaunt shadow of her former self on an ABC television interview when she’s confronted with the change in her physical appearance and grilled over her cocaine habit. Memories are still strong of her failed comeback tour when audiences walked out of a show in Australia, slamming her vocal performance, or when she was booed during the 1989 Soul Train Awards.

But Macdonald’s insightful documentary  makes it clear  the drugs were a symptom rather than a cause, probing the psychological issues that trace back to childhood, when she earned her family nickname of Nippy,  and, it’s shockingly revealed, sexual abuse by her aunt, Dee Dee Warwick, something that also raises the issue of her own sexual identity problems  and how they connected to her long time creative director and some-time lover Robyn Crawford Crawford and her decision to marry Brown and raise a family.

That too proved a disaster as, aside from the problems with Brown, the film also reveals the devastating impact on their  daughter Bobbi Kristina, who, embraced in the spotlight and privately neglected,  never had  a  chance,  following  her mother down the road of addiction to death. The intercutting of socio-political footage distracts somewhat and never really makes the  contextual points Macdonald clearly intends, but this is a depressingly riveting piece of work that leaves you wanting to point the angry finger of  blame, but with  too many targets to count.  (Electric; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

 

Review: Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul 2018

Jimmy Cliff live at Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival 2018. Image: Jolyon Holroyd

A hefty schedule of music pioneers, a football result, and a heatwave that’s sure to become the stuff of legends, converged to create one of the most awe-inspiring three-dayers on the small festival calendar.

Despite World Cup carnage raging outside, Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul was nothing short of idyllic, touching hearts and souls across generations.

Unlike many festival sites, that require some time to orientate to, the park is concise, easy to navigate and enclosed within a series of immersive natural backdrops.

An emerald green lake sits adjacent to the Main and Jazzline stages while a loose-stone path twists round to the Off-Piste area; despite some at-times distracting footballism, the DJ booth-turned-boat and marquee offered some welcome respite from the scorching heat and bustling central attractions.

Friday’s line-up saw some choice performances from The Brass Funkeys and Jungle Brothers who brought unique helpings of eight-piece band soulfulness and hip-hop infused jazz respectively. David Rodigan was up to his usual tricks: gruff commentary cut amongst raw dubplates and audience interaction. And while it may seem cliché, Reggae royalty Jimmy Cliff’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ drummed up a sense of the ethereal as crystal blues skies collapsed into a soft collage of pastel pinks and violets.

As a festival that prides itself on celebrating both local talent – predominately found on the Jazzlines and Off-Piste stages – and international innovators, it certainly delivered. One act to make their mark on the Saturday bill was Osaka Monaurail. Sharp suits and slick stage presence tethered to a faultless funk orchestra show made for a thrilling experience.

Osaka Monouarail live at Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul 2018. Image: Richard Shakespeare

Following a rallying cry from festival curator Craig Charles dispensed in the form of soulful dance beats and funky classics, the stage was set for the brassy energy of Lucky Chop followed by Candi Staton’s big entrance. Fusing elements of Gospel, Soul and dance groove, the crowd response was an equal measure of heartfelt and electric; “You Got The Love” and “Young Hearts Run Free” rightly prompting roaring singalongs.

Sunday, the third and final day, was the hottest one yet but did little to slow down the jubilant masses. Ezra Collective draw huge support with their contemporary take on a classic genre, melding undeniable grit with a timeless jazz sound. Thick layers of funkadelic jives from Fred Wesley and music-maestro Roy Ayers constructed a hip shaking timewarp open to all ages. Earthy blues tones and fluid jazz-rock from Fervour loosened up those feeling static from the heavy evening before.

And could there have been a better way to end the festivities? No. You hear the rumours of the exceptional quality of a Sister Sledge live production, but seeing it form on centre stage with a subtle breeze in the air, and the sun hanging low in the sky, defies description.

Choreographed, eccentric, funny, polished, and full of boogie goodness, the Sisters with their talented family and band at their side relayed impressive 10 minute + renditions of disco classic ‘Lost In Music’ and ‘Nature Boy’, a Nat King Cole cover.

Sister Sledge live at Mostly, Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival. Image: Richard Shakespeare

An enthralling constant running throughout the entirety of the festival was the advocacy and celebration of musicianship. Acts were not simply faces with a band in the background, they were complete, equally balanced outfits. Jaw dropping instrumental solos were commonplace, each musician introduced and applauded for their playing.

Sunkissed, star studded, and never without a healthy dose of chugging grooves from every genre in the festival’s namesake: Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul was certainly family friendly, an oasis of nostalgia that never compromises on the younger demographic appeal.

The food, fashion, curios and festival goers reflecting the rich diversity of the acts and performers on a smartly curated line up.

The good time memories of a stunning weekender sure to outlast the raging sunburns and clinging hangovers felt by those invested most in the celebrations.

For an event that could have been so easily marred by World Cup mania, everything ran at maximum jazz, funk and soul tenacity.

Festival team – Take a bow.

Words: Kristian Birch-Hurst

 

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