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

NEW RELEASES

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aquaman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mortal Engines (12A)

It’s just over ten years since the soulless adaptation of The Golden Compass sailed off into the horizon, taking with it all hopes of any sequels to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.  The same may well prove the case with this, the first big screen outing for Phillip Reeve’s dystopian steampunk quartet, which, while Peter Jackson’s name looms large, he’s only co-producer and co-writer, the film marking the directing debut  of his storyboard artist and visual effects supervisor, Christian Rivers. It’s a background all too evident with the narrative sketched out in broad guiding strokes and the effects swamping any emotional heart or character depth.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future following the 60-Minute War that destroyed civilisation, the survivors have become either static settlements or traction cities, the latter clanking mobile motorised settlements (akin to that in Howl’s Moving Castle) on tank track wheels, though quite how this has come about given the collapse of technology is never explained. Most of these are small rustbuckets, preyed upon, in what’s termed Municipal Darwinism, by the larger behemoths which swallow them up for fuel and parts and enslave the populations. In this case, featuring  a replica of St Paul’s dome, the lions off Nelson’s Column and other landmarks, it’s the quasi-fascist warship empire of London, which, while ostensibly governed by the Mayor (Patrick Malahide) is effectively controlled by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving providing the only screen presence), the Head of the Guild of Historians at the Museum of London, with an obsession for collecting 21st century flash drives and other appliances.

In the film’s opening set-up, having captured his latest prey, he’s attacked by a knife-wielding woman with a facial scar shouting “this is for my mother!” and is saved by lowly wannabe aviator museum worker Tom (a charisma-free Robert Sheehan), who chases after her, only, now knowing too much, to be  pushed down the rubbish chute by Sullivan.  The girl, it transpires, is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and she has history with Thaddeus.

Thrown together by fate,  she and Tom,  along with the obligatory resistance (headed by Anna Fang, played blankly by Korean musician Jihae), have to prevent Sullivan from using the weapon he’s been secretly building to destroy the Shield Wall that protects Batmunkh Gompa, the static settlement base of the Anti-Traction League. Hester’s past holds the key, but also involves Shrike, a sort of zombie cyborg, with whom she also has a connection and who has been let loose by Sullivan to kill her. Thaddeus also has a daughter, Katherine (Leila George), who’s involved in a  perfunctory subplot involving her and a mechanic, named Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery).

While Terry Gilliam, Mad Max and The Terminator are all in evidence, it’s basically an unsubtle rehash of the original Star Wars with London substituting for the Death Star, Thaddeus for Vader, Hester for Luke and so on, even down a rerun of the X-wing space battles. The visual design and effects are stunning, but the performances never really ignite   and there’s never much sense of actual excitement as everyone goes about their heroics and villainy. Nor, save for a last act scene between Hester and Shrike, is there any emotional heft, though you do get a throwaway reference to Brexit and the amusing if rather incongruous inclusion of two rusty Minion figures as one of the museum’s exhibits.  These engines are all rev and no drive. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

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A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way have safely seen the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld NEC;  Vue Star City)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl In The Spider’s Web (15)

The inspired creation of the late Stieg Larsson, rebellious bi-sexual Swedish punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander was a central figure in three gripping novels, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and subsequently, played by Noomi Rapace in the original film adaptations and Mara Rooney in David Fincher’s less successful version of the first novel.

The character, and her journalist associate, Mikael Blomkvist, were resurrected for two further novels penned by David Lagercrantz, the first of which serves as the source for this screen resurrection, directed by Don’t Breathe’s Fede Álvarez and co-written by Steven Knight, Salander this time being played by Claire Foy with a cold and clipped Scandinavian accent with Sverrir Gudnason as a much younger Blomkvist.

But this is not Larson’s Salander. The novel reworks her back story to give her a twin sister (barely alluded to in the books), Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), the pair separated when the young Lisbeth fled their abusive paedophile father and Camilla elected to remain. Dad, it transpires, headed up a Russian crime syndicate and, since his death, it appears that Camilla has been running things, the Organization now rechristened the Spiders.

All his comes later. First up, the film offers Salander as some motorbike-riding, black leather-clad #metoo vigilante (she’s quite literally seen as an avenging angel) providing justice for women abused by powerful men before she’s hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an American programmer who devised software called FireFall capable of hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenals and no wished he hadn’t and wants her to steal it from the Americans. This, naturally, is no problem. The problem is in trying to crack the password. That and the fact that Balder’s had a change of heart and turned to the Swedish Secret Serice, NSA security agent  Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) has come to Stockholm to recover it and that the Spiders, in the figure of Camilla’s blonde-haired sociopath henchman Holtser (Claes Bang), want it too. To which end, Balder’s maths savant 6-year-old son August (Christopher Convery) is a key figure.

Dispensing with Lisbeth’s photographic memory and amping up her hacker skills to the extent of taking control of an airport’s entire security system, the film turns her into some sort of female Bond or Ethan Hunt super-spy, getting stuck into brutal fights and riding her bike corss a frozen river to escape the cops. As such, this works perfectly well, the action kicks along, the villains are suitably psychopathic and Foy does complex, cold, tormented and turbulent anti-heroine to fiercely solid effect. But whatever she may have on her back, the girl with the dragon tattoo she is not. (Vue Star City)

The Grinch (U)

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

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

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

It’s A Wonderful Life (U)

Frank Capra’s Christmas sentimental evergreen gets recycled once again as, suicidal after things go wrong and wishing he’d never been born, Jimmy Stewart,  with the help of an angel trying to earn his wings,  is shown what his town and its people would have been like if he’d never existed. (Electric)

Nativity Rocks! (U)

Four years on from the frankly dreadful Nativity3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? the franchise is given a new lease of life through the success of the stage musical, writer-director Debbie Isitt brings things back to her Coventry hometown  for a new Christmas outing, this time with an all-new cast, but, as in the first film, a finale in which Coventry Cathedral plays a major part.

The premise is pretty much the same, St Bernadette’s Junior School, now with a new head in the form of Mrs Keen (Celia Imrie) is gearing up for the annual Christmas musical, this year to be a rock opera as part of  Coventry’s bid to be Christmas City of the Year.

Enter Jerry Poppy (Simon Lipkin from the musical) who, having discovered Desmond Poppy is his long lost brother, has come to Coventry to find him, only to learn he’s gone to Australia. However, since he’s sporting a jacket with rock badges on, the head immediately enlists him as the new classroom assistant to help the reluctant Mr. Johnson (Daniel Boys) to put together material to audition for the opera in front of celebrity diva guest director Emmanuel Cavendish (Craig Revel Horwood) who wants to make Herod the leading character with himself in the role. And several of the others. The other problem is that Jerry, who is every bit the exuberant man child as his brother, has history with Cavendish.

Running alongside this is a second storyline involving young Syrian refugee Doru (Brian Bartle) who got separated from his dad (Ramin Karimloo) when they came ashore and has ended up in Coventry under the care of social worker Miss Shelly (Helen George) while his father’s looking for work down Shropshire way.

Plot strands come together as Jerry and Doru, neither of whom have family, bond and link up with Barnaby (Rupert Turnbull), a lonely kid from the rival posh school whose workaholic parents (Anna Chancellor, Hugh Dennis) are too busy to give him any attention.

And so it is that all the plotlines and characters, including Ruth Jones’ friendly farmer and, reprising her role from Nativity 2:Danger in the Manger, Jessica Hynes as Angel Matthews, converge on Coventry for the extended and emotionally moving musical climax with its big production songs and messages about family, forgiveness and, yes, the spirit of Christmas.

Of course, it’s silly and rife with poo and pee jokes, the children mystifyingly know all the words to songs like Born To Be Wild, We Built This City and Since You’ve Been Gone and the Syrian refugee storyline feels a tad contrived, but everyone throws themselves into the thing, an energetic Lipkin managing to be more endearing than he is annoying, Horwood relishing the permatanned panto villain routine and all the kids being as winningly cute as you could wish. It’s childish, it’s corny and it’s cheesy, but it’s also cheery fun with a  heart as big as a cathedral. (Cineworld Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Old Man & The Gun (12A)

Rumoured to be Robert Redford’s last film, this is based on the true story of  the dapper, Forrest Tucker, who, as reported in a New Yorker article, in 1981, aged 76, was jailed for a series of small time bank robberies (indeed, starting out as a teenager, he’d been in prison and escaped 16 times previously), in which, always the gent, he’d calmly walk into a bank, ask for the manager, show  his unloaded gun and walk out with the money. Occasionally abetted by fellow senior citizen accomplices  (played here by Tom Waits and Danny Glover), they were dubbed the Over-the-Hill Gang.

There’s not a  great deal to the story. Introduced to Tucker as he carries out one of his heists, it then sees him stop mid get-away to help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an attractive elderly horse ranching widow whose car’s broken down, takes her for a coffee and,  having confessed what he does for  a ‘job’, sparks up an autumn years romance.  Meanwhile, on his trail is soft spoken  Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, who also starred in director David Lower’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) who, humiliated after been waiting in line with his daughter during one of the robberies,  has made it his mission to bring them in, even as his appreciation and admiration for Tucker grows in the process, Even those he robs can’t help but like the old coot.

It’s a low key, warm and fuzzy affair, Redford exuding his trademark laid back charm, the wrinkle still in his blue eyes, that smile still a killer even if his face is now creased and lined.  But it’s never a one-man show, his co-stars all get their moments, Waits especially memorable for his account of why he hates Christmas. A leisurely paced character piece about loving hat you do, and with nothing that passes for an action sequence, this isn’t for those who want bangs for their buck, but audiences who appreciate acting craftsmanship, a dash of poignancy about a life left behind (a moving scene with  Elisabeth Moss as Tucker’s daughter) and a good story well told will swoon.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Hood (12A)

It seems that every generation gets their own version of 12th century folk hero outlaw Robin Hood, the latest, with a twinkle-eyed Taron Egerton behind the bow, geared very much for the  superhero audience, complete with fast and furious kinetic action, slo-mo effects, anachronistic haircuts and clothing, street sass, secret identity and messages about  corrupt authorities, religious hypocrisy  and international terrorism.

Although Egerton’s initial voiceover warns that this isn’t the story you know (and it certainly plays fast and loose with history), for a while it sticks largely to familiar legend, Nottinghamshire nobleman Robin of Loxley, a skilled archer,  going off to to fight in the Third Crusade in ‘Arabia’ (amusingly, here’s he served his call-up papers in a parchment scroll) returning home to discover his lands have been seized by the Sherif of Nottingham (an icy Ben Mendelsohn in a variation of his Star Wars uniform) who’s forcing crippling taxes on the people, prompting him to institute his own  take on (as he actually says here) the redistribution of wealth. He’s also in love with Marian (Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono), although in this version she’s one of the local yokels he first encounters when she’s trying to steal one of his horses for a poor farmer, and she’s Irish.

That’s just one of several new spins. Over in the Crusades, where the enemy is mowing down the English with the crossbow equivalent of a machine gun, Robin proves his skill in battle but takes exception when his commander, Guy of Gisbourn (Paul Anderson), starts executing the prisoners. He fails and is wounded in interceding to prevent one young Arab lad having his head lopped off, but earns the gratitude of the lad’s father (Jamie Foxx, not given nearly enough to do), whose name conveniently translates to John, who stows away and follows Robin when he’s shipped off back to England. Back home,  not only does he find the ancestral pile deserted and in disrepair, but he also discovers the Sheriff declared him dead and now Marian’s taken up with Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), who, also Irish, sees himself as the voice of the people, all of whom appear to live and work in the mines (though mining what is never clear) while being taxed into poverty to pay for the Sheriff’s war chest.

With John, who wants to put an end to the rich on all sides oppressing the people and stoking up wars and racial prejudice for their own gain, as his left-hand man, instructing him in the art of shooting three arrows at once in rapid succession, they decide to liberate the money and return it to the people. With Robin disguising himself to go about his thievery,  Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) pre-empts the Arrow TV series by  naming the mysterious masked man The Hood.

Suffice to say, the plot also has the Sheriff in league with the Church, embodied in the venal Archdeacon (Ian Peck) and, subsequently, a Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) from Rome  in, not just raising taxes, but a (wholly illogical) conspiracy against the crown, The Hood doing battle while simultaneously wheedling his way into the Sheriff’s inner circle as “spoiled toff” Robin.

With arrows that slam into walls and bodies like rounds from a high calibre automatic, the battles, Robin letting loose arrows while spinning in mid-air, while bloodless, are frenetic and dizzyingly choreographed by director Otto Bathurst channelling Guy Ritchie for his feature debut, albeit openly borrowing blatantly from other films, seemingly including the Ben Hur chariot race. Ending with Robin and the villagers heading off into Sherwood Forest and an unexpected twist in setting up the sequel’s villain, this is fully fletched fun.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Shoplifters (15)

The latest from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, this is a bittersweet exploration of family that juggles poignancy and humour with a deft hand. On a trip to a supermarket, a young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), is signalled by his part-time labourer father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), to slip goods into his bag while the store staff can’t see. On their way home, they come across a little girl, Juri  (Miyu Sasaki), who is shivering on her balcony while her parents fight in the house, Taking pity thinking she’s been abandoned, Osamu takes her home where, having discovered signs of abuse, she’s accepted by his laundry shift worker wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) and teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works at a peep show.

However, as it transpires, none of the people living in the cramped apartment are actually related, rather they are a family of circumstance and mutual support, their income depending on a variety of scams (even grandma’s drawing her dead husband’s pension and freeloading off his son from a previous marriage) and, as per the title, shoplifting, a way of life into which, under Osamu’s Fagen-like instruction,  young Rin is quickly introduced, even though it is now apparent that the authorities believe she’s been abducted. Shotu, however, is a little resentful of his new ‘sister’ and reluctant to call Osamu dad, as he would like, resulting in a moment of impulse that brings everything crashing down.

Proceeding in an unhurried and unshowy manner, Koreeda and cinematographer Ryuto Kondother conjure profound emotions in simple shots while the performances, totally devoid of any self-consciousness (Sasaki a particular delight), are both natural and involving, the film ultimately unfolding its socially-conscious message about how the vulnerable slip through the net and authorities that prefer to hide the wound with a plaster rather than prevent it from happening. (Sun-Thu;MAC)

Sorry To Bother You (15)

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

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

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

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

There’s the nub of a strong satire here on capitalism, selling out, self-serving ambition and  genetic science excess and, for a while, it works well. The problem is Riley overloads the film with visual trickery (the cold calls drop Cash’s desk into the homes of his marks) and things like the self-explanatory titled TV game show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me and how Cash becomes an internet sensation after being hit on the head by a protestor’s  soda can, leading to a sales boom in  bandaged-afro wigs which simply blunt the satirical edge the more wacky it all becomes. It doesn’t help either that the special effects, especially in the final scenes, look unfinished. Riley has a lot to say, it’s just unfortunate that so much of it gets lost in the noise. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Vue Star City)

 

Three Identical Strangers (12A)

In 1980, on his first day at college, Robert Shafran was unexpectedly greeted like an old friend by people he didn’t know and who called him Eddie. He figured out that, adopted as a baby, he must have an identical twin brother. In fact, he had two, Edward Galland and David Kellman. Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary begins with that first meeting and follows their talk show media celebrity path as they moved in together in Manhattan, and even made a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan, staring at  Madonna walking down the street. As you might imagine, they made the most of their identical looks, conning health insurance and women alike before they eventually all married, settled down and opened a restaurant called Triplets. They even met their birth mother for a drink, though  the reunion went little further. So far, so fairytale happy.

But then the documentary takes a darker turn as the brothers learn why they were separated, a  backstory that becomes more sinister and unsettling as it goes. On learning that  their adoptive sons had identical siblings, the respective parents were not unnaturally angry, but attempts to file a lawsuit were discouraged by the well-connected Jewish New York adoption agency, Louise Wise Services. That was hardly surprising since, in fact, the triplets had been deliberately separated as part of a psychological experiment by noted child psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, a  Holocaust refugee from Austria who seems to have had more in common with Nazi geneticists, who placed them placed them in different homes with carefully selected parents (affluent, middle-class, blue-collar) for a nature vs nurture study on child development and on parenting. Each set of parents were aware of this, but not that they weren’t the only guinea pigs. Indeed, as the brothers learned, they weren’t the only separated twins in Neubauer’s study, before he called an end to it in 1980 when it became too extensive.

Yet this is clearly only the top of a horrifying and disturbing iceberg, the study results never being published and the file under seal at Yale University until 2066, raising the question as to what else is being kept hidden and who is being protected. (Electric)

Tulip Fever (12A)

Directed by Justin Chadwick and adapted by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard from the former’s 1999 novel,  this has been gathering dust since being filmed in 2014,finally limping out on a handful of screen for what will surely be a very short run. An art house bodice ripper that balances an erotic love story between an artist and his model with that of the world’s first speculative bubble and financial crash, that of the tulip bulb hysteria of 1630s Amsterdam where trading, usually carried out in pub back rooms, gripped the country and fortunes and lives were made and lost.

Set against this, is the fairly predictable love affair that sparks when aspiring young artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) is commissioned to paint a portrait of  successful spice merchant Cornelis Sandvoort ( Christoph Waltz) and his much younger second wife,  Sophia (Alicia Vikander), A former orphan in the local convent run by a sly, business-minded Abbess (a delicious cameo by Judi Dench) with a keen eye on capitalising on the tulip boom, she was married off to  Sandvoort because he wanted an heir. Unfortunately, while he’s genuine in his affections for her and she feels honour-bound to repay his kindness, he and his ‘little soldier’ seem to be shooting blanks. So, after three years of trying, he decides to seek immortality through a portrait instead. What ensues should come as no surprise. There’s a nice twist to the familiarity, however, when the couple’s domestic servant, Maria (Holly Grainger, also providing the narration), finds herself pregnant by her secret fishmonger lover Willem (Jack O’Connell), who has mysteriously vanished, presumed dead, after getting into the bulb business, Sophia hits on an ingenious sway to provide hubbie with a child by pretending to be pregnant herself and then passing the baby off as his, to which end they’re abetted by the ethically-challenged local doctor (Tom Hollander).

Meanwhile, looking to make enough money so he and Sophia can run off, Jan has also got involved in tulips, fortuitously coming into ownership of a particularly rare and, as such, valuable bulb in which the white flower is streaked with red.

The problem is that this whole subplot is so confused that, rather than adding intrigue, it drains away what little energy the film has and overshadows the marital deceptions, the romance itself not helped by the fact that, for all the naked entwining, neither of the bland lovers have much by way of depth, dimension or chemistry.

Grainger and O’Connell inject some life into proceedings and Waltz proves an unexpectedly poignant figure, but names like Kevin McKidd, David Harewood, Zach Galifianakis (as Jan’s drunken manservant whose appetite scuppers his master’s get rich quick sceheme) and Cara Delevingne are cast adrift in the busy but unfocused narrative. The attention to period is impressive, a pity more wasn’t given to the storytelling, ending up with a sort of poor relation to The Girl With The Pearl Earring that’s even more boring.   (Cineworld NEC)

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Hardy plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

 

Wildlife (12A)

Having more than proved himself as an actor in films such as There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks and 12 Years A Slave, Paul Dano now turns in a hugely impressive directorial debut  with this adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel co-written with girlfriend Zoe Kazan. The setting is Great Falls, in 60s Montana, where 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) lives with his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the outskirts of the Rockies. Already struggling to make ends meet, when Jerry loses yet another job, at the local golf course, for being, as he puts it, “too personable” and is too proud to bag groceries or accept when he’s offered reinstatement, things begin to fall apart.

One day, much to his wife’s understandable anger after working to keep things together,  he announces that he’s going off to join other unemployed men battling the fires raging in the mountains. Joe, who’s already taken on part-time work at a local photographers, taking family portraits, finds himself having to be the man of the house and pretty much fend for himself while Jeanette begins to unravel and starts a relationship with the older, divorced and rich Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who’s all too willing to take advantage of the situation. The pensive, introverted Joe meanwhile can only look on in uncomprehending confusion as he sees his mother sinking into depression and becoming someone he doesn’t recognise, not least when, feeling the accusation in his eyes, she snaps “If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me. I don’t have one.” All he wants ad to come home and things to go back to how they were. Clearly, that’s not going to happen.

Suffused with vintage Sundance spirit, it’s a slow burning, spare coming of age study of  lives in freefall while trying to hang on to themselves to be while hating what they’ve become and not knowing what they want to be, only that change has to come, and Dano proves masterful in letting the camera tell the story, never imposing any judgements on the characters, Miller included. The central performances are unfussy and achingly understated, both Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, who’s off screen for the entire second act, superbly capturing the sense of  essentially good people who have become lost to themselves and each other, weighed down with disappointment, while Oxenbould’s Joe, through whose eyes the narrative unfolds,  is old before his time, carrying the world, or at least his world, on his shoulders, his face a map of worry, hurt, unease and love.

The film bathes in a flawlessly detailed sense of period, an American past that, like the forest, is being turned into the standing dead, the film moving through crises without catharsis as it heads towards a movingly bittersweet final moment that captures the fractures of the American ideal. (MAC)

MOVIE ROUND-UP; This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 7-Thu Dec 13

NEW RELEASES

Sorry To Bother You (15)

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

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

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

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

There’s the nub of a strong satire here on capitalism, selling out, self-serving ambition and  genetic science excess and, for a while, it works well. The problem is Riley overloads the film with visual trickery (the cold calls drop Cash’s desk into the homes of his marks) and things like the self-explanatory titled TV game show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me and how Cash becomes an internet sensation after being hit on the head by a protestor’s  soda can, leading to a sales boom in  bandaged-afro wigs which simply blunt the satirical edge the more wacky it all becomes. It doesn’t help either that the special effects, especially in the final scenes, look unfinished. Riley has a lot to say, it’s just unfortunate that so much of it gets lost in the noise. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

The Old Man & The Gun (12A)

Rumoured to be Robert Redford’s last film, this is based on the true story of  the dapper, Forrest Tucker, who, as reported in a New Yorker article, in 1981, aged 76, was jailed for a series of small time bank robberies (indeed, starting out as a teenager, he’d been in prison and escaped 16 times previously), in which, always the gent, he’d calmly walk into a bank, ask for the manager, show  his unloaded gun and walk out with the money. Occasionally abetted by fellow senior citizen accomplices  (played here by Tom Waits and Danny Glover), they were dubbed the Over-the-Hill Gang.

There’s not a  great deal to the story. Introduced to Tucker as he carries out one of his heists, it then sees him stop mid get-away to help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an attractive elderly horse ranching widow whose car’s broken down, takes her for a coffee and,  having confessed what he does for  a ‘job’, sparks up an autumn years romance.  Meanwhile, on his trail is soft spoken  Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, who also starred in director David Lower’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) who, humiliated after been waiting in line with his daughter during one of the robberies,  has made it his mission to bring them in, even as his appreciation and admiration for Tucker grows in the process, Even those he robs can’t help but like the old coot.

It’s a low key, warm and fuzzy affair, Redford exuding his trademark laid back charm, the wrinkle still in his blue eyes, that smile still a killer even if his face is now creased and lined.  But it’s never a one-man show, his co-stars all get their moments, Waits especially memorable for his account of why he hates Christmas. A leisurely paced character piece about loving hat you do, and with nothing that passes for an action sequence, this isn’t for those who want bangs for their buck, but audiences who appreciate acting craftsmanship, a dash of poignancy about a life left behind (a moving scene with  Elisabeth Moss as Tucker’s daughter) and a good story well told will swoon.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park)

 

Three Identical Strangers (12A)

In 1980, on his first day at college, Robert Shafran was unexpectedly greeted like an old friend by people he didn’t know and who called him Eddie. He figured out that, adopted as a baby, he must have an identical twin brother. In fact, he had two, Edward Galland and David Kellman. Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary begins with that first meeting and follows their talk show media celebrity path as they moved in together in Manhattan, and even made a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan, staring at  Madonna walking down the street. As you might imagine, they made the most of their identical looks, conning health insurance and women alike before they eventually all married, settled down and opened a restaurant called Triplets. They even met their birth mother for a drink, though  the reunion went little further. So far, so fairytale happy.

But then the documentary takes a darker turn as the brothers learn why they were separated, a  backstory that becomes more sinister and unsettling as it goes. On learning that  their adoptive sons had identical siblings, the respective parents were not unnaturally angry, but attempts to file a lawsuit were discouraged by the well-connected Jewish New York adoption agency, Louise Wise Services. That was hardly surprising since, in fact, the triplets had been deliberately separated as part of a psychological experiment by noted child psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, a  Holocaust refugee from Austria who seems to have had more in common with Nazi geneticists, who placed them placed them in different homes with carefully selected parents (affluent, middle-class, blue-collar) for a nature vs nurture study on child development and on parenting. Each set of parents were aware of this, but not that they weren’t the only guinea pigs. Indeed, as the brothers learned, they weren’t the only separated twins in Neubauer’s study, before he called an end to it in 1980 when it became too extensive.

Yet this is clearly only the top of a horrifying and disturbing iceberg, the study results never being published and the file under seal at Yale University until 2066, raising the question as to what else is being kept hidden and who is being protected. Featuring interviews with all three brothers as they recount being constantly studied as kids, growing more uncomfortable as they got older, this is mesmerising viewing. (Electric)

Tulip Fever (12A)

Directed by Justin Chadwick and adapted by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard from the former’s 1999 novel,  this has been gathering dust since being filmed in 2014,finally limping out on a handful of screen for what will surely be a very short run. An art house bodice ripper that balances an erotic love story between an artist and his model with that of the world’s first speculative bubble and financial crash, that of the tulip bulb hysteria of 1630s Amsterdam where trading, usually carried out in pub back rooms, gripped the country and fortunes and lives were made and lost.

Set against this, is the fairly predictable love affair that sparks when aspiring young artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) is commissioned to paint a portrait of  successful spice merchant Cornelis Sandvoort ( Christoph Waltz) and his much younger second wife,  Sophia (Alicia Vikander), A former orphan in the local convent run by a sly, business-minded Abbess (a delicious cameo by Judi Dench) with a keen eye on capitalising on the tulip boom, she was married off to  Sandvoort because he wanted an heir. Unfortunately, while he’s genuine in his affections for her and she feels honour-bound to repay his kindness, he and his ‘little soldier’ seem to be shooting blanks. So, after three years of trying, he decides to seek immortality through a portrait instead. What ensues should come as no surprise. There’s a nice twist to the familiarity, however, when the couple’s domestic servant, Maria (Holly Grainger, also providing the narration), finds herself pregnant by her secret fishmonger lover Willem (Jack O’Connell), who has mysteriously vanished, presumed dead, after getting into the bulb business, Sophia hits on an ingenious sway to provide hubbie with a child by pretending to be pregnant herself and then passing the baby off as his, to which end they’re abetted by the ethically-challenged local doctor (Tom Hollander).

Meanwhile, looking to make enough money so he and Sophia can run off, Jan has also got involved in tulips, fortuitously coming into ownership of a particularly rare and, as such, valuable bulb in which the white flower is streaked with red.

The problem is that this whole subplot is so confused that, rather than adding intrigue, it drains away what little energy the film has and overshadows the marital deceptions, the romance itself not helped by the fact that, for all the naked entwining, neither of the bland lovers have much by way of depth, dimension or chemistry.

Grainger and O’Connell inject some life into proceedings and Waltz proves an unexpectedly poignant figure, but names like Kevin McKidd, David Harewood, Zach Galifianakis (as Jan’s drunken manservant whose appetite scuppers his master’s get rich quick sceheme) and Cara Delevingne are cast adrift in the busy but unfocused narrative. The attention to period is impressive, a pity more wasn’t given to the storytelling, ending up with a sort of poor relation to The Girl With The Pearl Earring that’s even more boring.   (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park)

 

White Boy Rick (15)

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

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

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

 

 

 

NOW SHOWING

A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way have safely seen the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disobedience (15)                                             

The English-language debut by A Fantastic Woman’s Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, this explores a same sex relationship and the notions of personal freedom in a close-knit North London Orthodox Jewish community.

On learning that her estranged widowed father, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), a leading figure in the religious community, has dropped dead during his sermon on choice between  the sanctity of the angels and the desires of the beast, the first response of  New York based edgy portrait photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is to visit a  bar, have stranger sex and go ice-skating, in that order.  However, she eventually flies back home. Having been away with no contact for many years and clearly having left under a cloud, the reception on her arrival is cool to say the least. Her good-humoured Aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers) is welcoming,  but the other community members are politely disdainful, her Uncle Moshe (Alan Corduner) castigating her for not being there when her father fell ill (though no one bothered to tell her) and Dovid (Allesandro Nivola), a childhood friend and her father’s most gifted student and spiritual son (the Rav’s obituary pointedly read that he left no children behind), is stiff and distant, shrinking back when she tries to hug him because of his adherence to his religion’s prohibition of physical contact between men and women outside of family or marriage. However, he does invite her to stay rather than check into a hotel. She’s taken aback, however, to learn that he’s married and his wife is Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third side of their youthful triangle, now a schoolteacher at a Jewish secondary, and who  seems uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Given the looks that pass between the two women, it comes as no surprise to learn they were once lovers, duty and community pressure having forced Esti in a loveless marriage with once a week sex. Old flames are rekindled during a visit to Ronit’s childhood home which, she learns, has been willed to the synagogue, along with all the contents (although she can keep her mother’s candlesticks) and a passionate kiss reawakens buried feelings, further complicating matters when, after a night out, they’re caught in mid-snog by two of the community.

With Ronit the bohemian rebel, ruffling community feathers with her worldly attitudes and spiky outbursts, especially during a Shabbat dinner, and Esti struggling to reconcile her sexuality with her faith and role as  Dovid’s wife, the film sensitively addresses themes of grief, faith, repression, family, love and the freedom to be who you are. The central performances are low-key but beautifully played; Nivola a conflicted man of honour,  a deglamourised but magnetic McAdams gathering in strength and confidence as she seeks her own truth and Weisz especially good in conveying her character’s layered, often conflicting feelings. A particularly poignant scene between the two comes when, at her father’s house, she turns on the radio and tunes into The Cure’s Lovesong, the music taking the two women back to their time together.

There’s some subtly placed cues, Dovid and his yeshiva students are discussing the celebration of sensuality that is  Song of Songs while Esti is teaching Othello, and while the setting, the slow, deliberate pacing and the open ending may limit this to a niche audience, the rewards are immense. (Electric)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl In The Spider’s Web (15)

The inspired creation of the late Stieg Larsson, rebellious bi-sexual Swedish punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander was a central figure in three gripping novels, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and subsequently, played by Noomi Rapace in the original film adaptations and Mara Rooney in David Fincher’s less successful version of the first novel.

The character, and her journalist associate, Mikael Blomkvist, were resurrected for two further novels penned by David Lagercrantz, the first of which serves as the source for this screen resurrection, directed by Don’t Breathe’s Fede Álvarez and co-written by Steven Knight, Salander this time being played by Claire Foy with a cold and clipped Scandinavian accent with Sverrir Gudnason as a much younger Blomkvist.

But this is not Larson’s Salander. The novel reworks her back story to give her a twin sister (barely alluded to in the books), Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), the pair separated when the young Lisbeth fled their abusive paedophile father and Camilla elected to remain. Dad, it transpires, headed up a Russian crime syndicate and, since his death, it appears that Camilla has been running things, the Organization now rechristened the Spiders.

All his comes later. First up, the film offers Salander as some motorbike-riding, black leather-clad #metoo vigilante (she’s quite literally seen as an avenging angel) providing justice for women abused by powerful men before she’s hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an American programmer who devised software called FireFall capable of hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenals and no wished he hadn’t and wants her to steal it from the Americans. This, naturally, is no problem. The problem is in trying to crack the password. That and the fact that Balder’s had a change of heart and turned to the Swedish Secret Serice, NSA security agent  Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) has come to Stockholm to recover it and that the Spiders, in the figure of Camilla’s blonde-haired sociopath henchman Holtser (Claes Bang), want it too. To which end, Balder’s maths savant 6-year-old son August (Christopher Convery) is a key figure.

Dispensing with Lisbeth’s photographic memory and amping up her hacker skills to the extent of taking control of an airport’s entire security system, the film turns her into some sort of female Bond or Ethan Hunt super-spy, getting stuck into brutal fights and riding her bike corss a frozen river to escape the cops. As such, this works perfectly well, the action kicks along, the villains are suitably psychopathic and Foy does complex, cold, tormented and turbulent anti-heroine to fiercely solid effect. But whatever she may have on her back, the girl with the dragon tattoo she is not. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  MAC; Vue Star City)

The Grinch (U)

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

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

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

Nativity Rocks! (U)

Four years on from the frankly dreadful Nativity3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? the franchise is given a new lease of life through the success of the stage musical, writer-director Debbie Isitt brings things back to her Coventry hometown  for a new Christmas outing, this time with an all-new cast, but, as in the first film, a finale in which Coventry Cathedral plays a major part.

The premise is pretty much the same, St Bernadette’s Junior School, now with a new head in the form of Mrs Keen (Celia Imrie) is gearing up for the annual Christmas musical, this year to be a rock opera as part of  Coventry’s bid to be Christmas City of the Year.

Enter Jerry Poppy (Simon Lipkin from the musical) who, having discovered Desmond Poppy is his long lost brother, has come to Coventry to find him, only to learn he’s gone to Australia. However, since he’s sporting a jacket with rock badges on, the head immediately enlists him as the new classroom assistant to help the reluctant Mr. Johnson (Daniel Boys) to put together material to audition for the opera in front of celebrity diva guest director Emmanuel Cavendish (Craig Revel Horwood) who wants to make Herod the leading character with himself in the role. And several of the others. The other problem is that Jerry, who is every bit the exuberant man child as his brother, has history with Cavendish.

Running alongside this is a second storyline involving young Syrian refugee Doru (Brian Bartle) who got separated from his dad (Ramin Karimloo) when they came ashore and has ended up in Coventry under the care of social worker Miss Shelly (Helen George) while his father’s looking for work down Shropshire way.

Plot strands come together as Jerry and Doru, neither of whom have family, bond and link up with Barnaby (Rupert Turnbull), a lonely kid from the rival posh school whose workaholic parents (Anna Chancellor, Hugh Dennis) are too busy to give him any attention.

And so it is that all the plotlines and characters, including Ruth Jones’ friendly farmer and, reprising her role from Nativity 2:Danger in the Manger, Jessica Hynes as Angel Matthews, converge on Coventry for the extended and emotionally moving musical climax with its big production songs and messages about family, forgiveness and, yes, the spirit of Christmas.

Of course, it’s silly and rife with poo and pee jokes, the children mystifyingly know all the words to songs like Born To Be Wild, We Built This City and Since You’ve Been Gone and the Syrian refugee storyline feels a tad contrived, but everyone throws themselves into the thing, an energetic Lipkin managing to be more endearing than he is annoying, Horwood relishing the permatanned panto villain routine and all the kids being as winningly cute as you could wish. It’s childish, it’s corny and it’s cheesy, but it’s also cheery fun with a  heart as big as a cathedral. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Nobody’s Fool (15)

Yet another from the Tyler Perry production line,  this is a foul-mouthed rom-com in which overachieving ad exec Danica (Tika Sumpter) can’t decide to go with the sensitive nice guy who wants to be with her or  hold out in the hope something better comes along while Tiffany Haddish does trash talk as her black-sheep sister Tanya back on the scene after a five-year prison stretch and Whoopi Goldberg pays the rent as their dope dealing mother.

A sexually charged espresso machine adjustment lands Tanya a job at the coffee shop run by Frank, who is sweet on Danica, but she’s hung up on Chalie, someone she’s met online but never seen. Suspecting he’s a con, Tanya hires the Catfish team to check him out, at which point the film focuses on Danica learning to look beyond appearances to find love and Haddish pretty much vanishes from the film along with whatever comedic energy it ever possessed.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Possession of Hannah Grace (15)

Another knock-off horror  with  Shay Mitchell as a cop who, just out of rehab takes  the graveyard shift in the basement of the local morgue. When she takes delivery of a disfigured corpse, the victim of  an exorcism gone wrong, she starts to experience horrifying visions and suspects the body, which gets up off the slab, may be possessed by a demonic force seeking a new vessel. Set the expectations low. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Hood (12A)

It seems that every generation gets their own version of 12th century folk hero outlaw Robin Hood, the latest, with a twinkle-eyed Taron Egerton behind the bow, geared very much for the  superhero audience, complete with fast and furious kinetic action, slo-mo effects, anachronistic haircuts and clothing, street sass, secret identity and messages about  corrupt authorities, religious hypocrisy  and international terrorism.

Although Egerton’s initial voiceover warns that this isn’t the story you know (and it certainly plays fast and loose with history), for a while it sticks largely to familiar legend, Nottinghamshire nobleman Robin of Loxley, a skilled archer,  going off to to fight in the Third Crusade in ‘Arabia’ (amusingly, here’s he served his call-up papers in a parchment scroll) returning home to discover his lands have been seized by the Sherif of Nottingham (an icy Ben Mendelsohn in a variation of his Star Wars uniform) who’s forcing crippling taxes on the people, prompting him to institute his own  take on (as he actually says here) the redistribution of wealth. He’s also in love with Marian (Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono), although in this version she’s one of the local yokels he first encounters when she’s trying to steal one of his horses for a poor farmer, and she’s Irish.

That’s just one of several new spins. Over in the Crusades, where the enemy is mowing down the English with the crossbow equivalent of a machine gun, Robin proves his skill in battle but takes exception when his commander, Guy of Gisbourn (Paul Anderson), starts executing the prisoners. He fails and is wounded in interceding to prevent one young Arab lad having his head lopped off, but earns the gratitude of the lad’s father (Jamie Foxx, not given nearly enough to do), whose name conveniently translates to John, who stows away and follows Robin when he’s shipped off back to England. Back home,  not only does he find the ancestral pile deserted and in disrepair, but he also discovers the Sheriff declared him dead and now Marian’s taken up with Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), who, also Irish, sees himself as the voice of the people, all of whom appear to live and work in the mines (though mining what is never clear) while being taxed into poverty to pay for the Sheriff’s war chest.

With John, who wants to put an end to the rich on all sides oppressing the people and stoking up wars and racial prejudice for their own gain, as his left-hand man, instructing him in the art of shooting three arrows at once in rapid succession, they decide to liberate the money and return it to the people. With Robin disguising himself to go about his thievery,  Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) pre-empts the Arrow TV series by  naming the mysterious masked man The Hood.

Suffice to say, the plot also has the Sheriff in league with the Church, embodied in the venal Archdeacon (Ian Peck) and, subsequently, a Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) from Rome  in, not just raising taxes, but a (wholly illogical) conspiracy against the crown, The Hood doing battle while simultaneously wheedling his way into the Sheriff’s inner circle as “spoiled toff” Robin.

With arrows that slam into walls and bodies like rounds from a high calibre automatic, the battles, Robin letting loose arrows while spinning in mid-air, while bloodless, are frenetic and dizzyingly choreographed by director Otto Bathurst channelling Guy Ritchie for his feature debut, albeit openly borrowing blatantly from other films, seemingly including the Ben Hur chariot race. Ending with Robin and the villagers heading off into Sherwood Forest and an unexpected twist in setting up the sequel’s villain, this is fully fletched fun.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Shoplifters (15)

The latest from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, this is a bittersweet exploration of family that juggles poignancy and humour with a deft hand. On a trip to a supermarket, a young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), is signalled by his part-time labourer father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), to slip goods into his bag while the store staff can’t see. On their way home, they come across a little girl, Juri  (Miyu Sasaki), who is shivering on her balcony while her parents fight in the house, Taking pity thinking she’s been abandoned, Osamu takes her home where, having discovered signs of abuse, she’s accepted by his laundry shift worker wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) and teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works at a peep show.

However, as it transpires, none of the people living in the cramped apartment are actually related, rather they are a family of circumstance and mutual support, their income depending on a variety of scams (even grandma’s drawing her dead husband’s pension and freeloading off his son from a previous marriage) and, as per the title, shoplifting, a way of life into which, under Osamu’s Fagen-like instruction,  young Rin is quickly introduced, even though it is now apparent that the authorities believe she’s been abducted. Shotu, however, is a little resentful of his new ‘sister’ and reluctant to call Osamu dad, as he would like, resulting in a moment of impulse that brings everything crashing down.

Proceeding in an unhurried and unshowy manner, Koreeda and cinematographer Ryuto Kondother conjure profound emotions in simple shots while the performances, totally devoid of any self-consciousness (Sasaki a particular delight), are both natural and involving, the film ultimately unfolding its socially-conscious message about how the vulnerable slip through the net and authorities that prefer to hide the wound with a plaster rather than prevent it from happening. (Sun-Thu;MAC)

Suspiria (18)

Originally written and directed by Italian auteur Dario Argento back in 1977 and featuring a cult soundtrack by Goblin, this remake comes from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino (with a score by Thom Yorke) and, while remaining true to the basic supernatural horror storyline (American newcomer realises her German ballet school is a front for a witch’s coven), it adds an extra hour to the running time radically departing from and expanding the narrative to embrace Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in male prosthetics), an elderly psychiatrist grieving over the loss of his wife (a sly cameo by Jessica Harper who played the original Suzy) when the city was divided after the war, who’s investigating the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a dancer at the academy and one of his patients he’d marked down as delusional.  In addition, pointedly set in the same year as the original’s release, events play out against a backdrop of the Berlin Wall, in which shadow the academy stands,  and the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists with Germany’s climate of political rebirth as well as putting a very different and ambiguous spin on the central character of Susie Bannion (an impressive Dakota Johnson).

Arriving for an unscheduled audition for a place in an upcoming production of Volk, devised by imperious black-clad dance diva, Madame Blanc (Swinton again) who heads up the prestigious Markos Tanzgruppe troupe,  the Ohio-born Bannion (who, flashbacks reveals, fled an Amish upbringing on the death of her mother) quickly catches Blanc’s attention. It’s revealed early on that the place is run by witches (among them veteran actresses Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven) who are searching for the right girl they need for a ritual involving the mysterious Mother Markos (also played by Swinton under a mound of prosthetic rot, but sporting cool sunglasses), ostensibly one of three mythological mothers  representing, among other things, Death.

Gruesome sets in early as Bannion’s dance moves are mirrored in a secret chamber where the lead dancer who’s just stormed out in a strop is bent out of shape and broken before being carted out on meat hooks. As in the original, Susie becomes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), herself a former friend of the missing Patricia, and who is also destined to play a major role in Blanc’s plans.

Mining sexual electricity, dark exoticism, dark hidden chambers that clearly carry psychological resonances, body horror, issues of faith, politics  and some mesmerising dance sequences, the film, shot in oranges and greys with flashes of red and divided into six acts and an epilogue (along with  a brief post credits scene), weaves nightmarish horror and art house intellectual profundity (the screenplay talks extensively of male arrogance, guilt, shame and grief) into an intoxicating, if not always easy to follow, tapestry.

There’s times when the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, such as Blanc declaring “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing” and Susie asking “Why are people so ready to believe the worst is over?”

It’s ultimately a little cold and there’s times when the pace slows to a crawl, but, while it may not summon fear in the way Argento’s did, the terror it offers is hard to shake.  (Until Mon: MAC)

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Hardy plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Preview: The Cardigans, O2 Academy Birmingham

The Cardigans

20 years after the release of their seminal album Gran Turismo, Swedish pop-rockers The Cardigans return to UK shores for a four-date tour including Birmingham’s 02 Academy on Thursday 6 December.

The Swedish electronic rock five-piece mark two decades since the release of the game-changing fourth album which features classic singles including ‘Hanging Around’, ‘Erase / Rewind’ and ‘My Favourite Game’, and catapulted the band to super-stardom.

Gran Turismo achieved Platinum status in UK, sold over 3 million copies worldwide and saw the band nominated for an astounding seven Grammi Awards in Sweden.

The band, fronted by vocalist Nina Persson, said ahead of the tour, “We are delighted to return to the UK in December. We believe it’s the first time since the summer of 2007. This time we’ll indulge in the late 90s playing Gran Turismo all the way through.”

Support each night comes from singer-songwriters Moto Boy and Jenny Wilson.

Tickets for The Cardigans on Thursday 6 December at O2 Academy Birmingham are available via the venue’s official site.

Words: Dave Breeze

Dan’n’Boo for Christmas

Birmingham-based/ Wolverhampton-born songwriter Dan Whitehouse concludes a busy year with his annual Christmas concert on Thursday 20 December 2018 at Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton.

The gig will see Dan, who has this year been on tour with The Little Unsaid, Gretchen Peters and Brumbeat legend Roy Wood, team up with writer, producer and label-mate Boo Hewerdine, as both artists perform separately, as well as together.

Dan Whitehouse and Boo Hewerdine
Singer-songwriters Dan Whitehouse and Boo Hewerdine

Says Dan: “I’ll be playing some new material from my forthcoming album produced by Boo as well as joining Boo on some of his material and playing songs from previous albums too. We promise collaboration, celebration and festive joy!”

Signed to Reveal Records (Joan As Police Woman, Lau), Dan is currently working on his next album – due for release later in 2019 and produced by Boo Hewerdine.

Having dropped live versions of The State Of The English (with guest Emily Barker) and The Aerial View (with synth player Tom Livemore and vocalist Harriet Harkcom) online, early indications point to a more experimental release from Dan, who picked up Best Folk/ Country Artist at the Birmingham Music Awards 2018 and has been described as playing “Black Country Soul.”

Boo came to prominence in the late-1980s with The Bible, going on to make his name as a solo artist, songwriter and producer. He’s currently preparing a new album and continuing to work with both Eddi Reader and Chris Difford.

Says Dan: “I always look forward to playing my hometown especially in December – it’s a great time of year and caps off another rewarding 12 months of making new music and touring.

“I’m especially looking forward to playing with Boo, who is one of my favourite songwriters.”

Dan Whitehouse and Boo Hewerdine play Newhampton Arts Centre (NAC), Wolverhampton, on Thursday 20 December 2018. For more information and tickets, see: www.newhamptonarts.co.uk

More on BrumNotes: Dan Whitehouse collaborates with Danielle Cawdell for Silence Set Me Free

 

UB40 announce 40th anniversary album

UB40 have announced their new album, For The Many, will be released on 8 February 2019 on the Shoestring Music Productions label, distributed through Absolute/ Universal.

The album is available to pre-order with an instant grat download of the single You Haven’t Called and Moonlight Lover (ft Gilly G).

The release will be followed by the band’s 40th Anniversary Tour, which includes Leamington Spa’s Assembly Rooms on 12 April 2019.

For The Many is the Birmingham reggae veterans’ 19th studio album – their first since 2013’s Getting Over The Storm. It’s also their first 100% original album since Duncan replaced Ali Campbell in 2008.

Ali presently fronts UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey.

The current UB40 line-up features founding members Robin Campbell (co-vocals/ guitar), Brian Travers (saxophone/ keyboards), Jimmy Brown (drums), Earl Falconer (bass/ keyboards/ vocals) and Norman Hassan (percussion/ vocals), alongside long-time members Duncan Campbell (vocals), Martin Meredith (saxophone), Laurence Parry (trumpet) and Tony Mullings (keyboards).

For The Many features several guest appearances including Birmingham rapper Gilly G (on Moonlight Lover), Jamaican artist/ producer Kabaka Pyramid (Broken Man), and Pablo Rider (I’m Alright Jack) and Slinger (Gravy Train), both of whom appeared on the band’s 1985 album Baggariddim.

The album’s closing track, All We Do Is Cry, sees the band collaborate again with British Asian urban musician Hunterz, who previously co-wrote and sang on UB40’s single Reasons from the 2005 album Who You Fighting For.

UB40: For The Many (2019)
UB40: For The Many (2019)

Jimmy Brown said: “For The Many is our first original album with Duncan, and a true reflection of where the band are at right now. It gave us an opportunity to go back to our roots and draw on the 1970s-style reggae that inspired us to be in a band in the first place. We intended to make an uncompromising reggae album and I think we have achieved that. There’s lots of dub, various guest toasters and a blend of love songs and political songs. I’m really happy with the final result. We’re really looking forward to playing some of these tunes live on our 40th anniversary tour in spring next year”

Duncan Campbell said: “After ten years of fronting UB40, for us to make an album of our own original material feels like the final hurdle for me. The album and its title reflect how UB40 are all in support of Jeremy Corbyn and The Labour Party. Both of the songs I have written on the album (I’m Alright Jack and Poor Foo’) also reflect this. We all feel this album is going back to what UB40 was all about and we are all excited for everybody to hear the album and looking forward to touring it.”

Robin Campbell added: “For The Many is a great mix of reggae styles, while the different artists we have collaborated with will appeal to more fans and tastes in reggae – it really is an album for the many. The 2019 UK tour is a continuation of our 40th year celebrations, as well as sharing tracks from our latest album. We’re playing all over the UK instead of a few arenas dates, meaning our fans from all over the UK can get to see us much more locally and up close – truly a tour for the many.”

The album’s artwork was created by Brian Travers, whose abstract canvases have been the subject of several highly acclaimed exhibitions. He said, “Our 40th anniversary celebrations started earlier this year with our sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall in June, and we have our big hometown concert coming up at Arena Birmingham on 21 December 2018. We can’t wait to finally release For The Many in February and then start our 40th anniversary in March.”

For The Many – track listing:
01. The Keeper (lead vox: Robin Campbell)
02. Broken Man feat. Kabaka Pyramid (lead vox: Norman Hassan)
03. Gravy Train feat. Slinger (lead vox: Duncan Campbell)
04. I’m Alright Jack feat. Pablo Rider (lead vox: Duncan Campbell)
05. Moonlight Lover feat. Gilly G (lead vox: Norman Hassan)
06. You Haven’t Called (lead vox: Duncan Campbell)
07. What Happened to UB40 (lead vox: Earl Falconer)
08. Bulldozer (lead vox: Earl Falconer)
09. Poor Fool (lead vox: Duncan Campbell)
10. All We Do Is Cry feat. Hunterz (lead vox: Norman Hassan)

www.ub40.global 
http://facebook.com/ub40official 
@UB40official 
http://instagram.com/ub40official

Read more about UB40 on BrumNotes

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 30-Thu Dec 6

 

Creed II (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disobedience (15)                                             

The English-language debut by A Fantastic Woman’s Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, this explores a same sex relationship and the notions of personal freedom in a close-knit North London Orthodox Jewish community.

On learning that her estranged widowed father, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), a leading figure in the religious community, has dropped dead during his sermon on choice between  the sanctity of the angels and the desires of the beast, the first response of  New York based edgy portrait photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is to visit a  bar, have stranger sex and go ice-skating, in that order.  However, she eventually flies back home. Having been away with no contact for many years and clearly having left under a cloud, the reception on her arrival is cool to say the least. Her good-humoured Aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers) is welcoming,  but the other community members are politely disdainful, her Uncle Moshe (Alan Corduner) castigating her for not being there when her father fell ill (though no one bothered to tell her) and Dovid (Allesandro Nivola), a childhood friend and her father’s most gifted student and spiritual son (the Rav’s obituary pointedly read that he left no children behind), is stiff and distant, shrinking back when she tries to hug him because of his adherence to his religion’s prohibition of physical contact between men and women outside of family or marriage. However, he does invite her to stay rather than check into a hotel. She’s taken aback, however, to learn that he’s married and his wife is Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third side of their youthful triangle, now a schoolteacher at a Jewish secondary, and who  seems uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Given the looks that pass between the two women, it comes as no surprise to learn they were once lovers, duty and community pressure having forced Esti in a loveless marriage with once a week sex. Old flames are rekindled during a visit to Ronit’s childhood home which, she learns, has been willed to the synagogue, along with all the contents (although she can keep her mother’s candlesticks) and a passionate kiss reawakens buried feelings, further complicating matters when, after a night out, they’re caught in mid-snog by two of the community.

With Ronit the bohemian rebel, ruffling community feathers with her worldly attitudes and spiky outbursts, especially during a Shabbat dinner, and Esti struggling to reconcile her sexuality with her faith and role as  Dovid’s wife, the film sensitively addresses themes of grief, faith, repression, family, love and the freedom to be who you are. The central performances are low-key but beautifully played; Nivola a conflicted man of honour,  a deglamourised but magnetic McAdams gathering in strength and confidence as she seeks her own truth and Weisz especially good in conveying her character’s layered, often conflicting feelings. A particularly poignant scene between the two comes when, at her father’s house, she turns on the radio and tunes into The Cure’s Lovesong, the music taking the two women back to their time together.

There’s some subtly placed cues, Dovid and his yeshiva students are discussing the celebration of sensuality that is  Song of Songs while Esti is teaching Othello, and while the setting, the slow, deliberate pacing and the open ending may limit this to a niche audience, the rewards are immense. (Electric)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shoplifters (15)

The latest from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, this is a bittersweet exploration of family that juggles poignancy and humour with a deft hand. On a trip to a supermarket, a young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), is signalled by his part-time labourer father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), to slip goods into his bag while the store staff can’t see. On their way home, they come across a little girl, Juri  (Miyu Sasaki), who is shivering on her balcony while her parents fight in the house, Taking pity thinking she’s been abandoned, Osamu takes her home where, having discovered signs of abuse, she’s accepted by his laundry shift worker wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) and teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works at a peep show.

However, as it transpires, none of the people living in the cramped apartment are actually related, rather they are a family of circumstance and mutual support, their income depending on a variety of scams (even grandma’s drawing her dead husband’s pension and freeloading off his son from a previous marriage) and, as per the title, shoplifting, a way of life into which, under Osamu’s Fagen-like instruction,  young Rin is quickly introduced, even though it is now apparent that the authorities believe she’s been abducted. Shotu, however, is a little resentful of his new ‘sister’ and reluctant to call Osamu dad, as he would like, resulting in a moment of impulse that brings everything crashing down.

Proceeding in an unhurried and unshowy manner, Koreeda and cinematographer Ryuto Kondother conjure profound emotions in simple shots while the performances, totally devoid of any self-consciousness (Sasaki a particular delight), are both natural and involving, the film ultimately unfolding its socially-conscious message about how the vulnerable slip through the net and authorities that prefer to hide the wound with a plaster rather than prevent it from happening. (Electric)

Surviving Christmas With The Relatives (15)

A somewhat unlikely semi-autobiographical offering from writer-director James Dearden, who penned Fatal Attraction and Pascali’s Island, this is a familiar comedy about spending the festive season with your nearest and dearest, and wishing they were neither, but one given a distinctive British touch of restrained farce rather than the hyperactivity of American counterparts.

Having given up London to renovate her old family farmhouse in the countryside (actually, it looks more like a stately home) and embark on a  The Good Life-style existence, Miranda (Gemma Whelan) and architect husband Dan (Julian Ovenden) have invited her sister, Lyla (Joely Richardson), a US-based actress in a crappy soap that seems likely to be cancelled, her alcoholic and unemployed American husband Trent (Michael Landes) and their two kids, sulky teenager Bee (Sophie Simnett) and bratty Tyler (Harvey Fisher) to spend Christmas with them and their three kids, the first since mom and dad died. They’re to be joined on Boxing Day by Harry (Jonas Moore), Dan’s son by a previous marriage to Miriam (Sally Phillips), who has a cannabis problem.

Also along for the celebrations are assorted members of the extended family, Dan’s bohemian half-sister Vicky (Ronni Ancona), their aunt Peggy (Patricia Hodge), and Uncle John (James Fox) which, it turns out has some bad news for Miranda about their parents’ will. There’s also a bunch of Polish builders and Soon (Jade Ma), who Trent’s brought along for a treat as he’s trying to do a  deal with her a Chinese businessman father.

Rather inevitably, drink, hormones, money problems, malfunctioning ovens, leaking roofs, a rehab clinic, drunken gropes and a dog on Viagra all conspire to make this a particularly eventful Christmas as everyone’s tested, secrets are exposed, romances spark, siblings clash and, eventually, the feelgood spirit triumphs.  There is, perhaps, a surfeit of interconnected storylines and Miranda and Dan’s attempts to keep up family traditions, such as inviting the villagers over for Christmas Eve drinks and a festive football match serve to real purpose, but, while it may not ultimately deliver anything new or  be bedecked with the hilarious and   heartwarming Richard Curtis tinsel of a Love, Actually, this should jingle a few pleasure bells. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO SHOWING

Fahrenheit 11/9 (12A)

Playing on the title of his previous documentary about the Twin Towers tragedy (the numbers referring to the day after the 2016 election), Michael Moore’s latest directs its scattershot  aim at the rise of Donald Trump and those  to blame, taking in Clinton, Comey, Putin, the Republican party establishment, the New York Times and the millions who inexplicably vote for him thinking they were getting the star of  The Celebrity Apprentice as opposed to a deluded, ignorant, philandering megalomaniac. No, hang on, that was the star of The Celebrity Apprentice.

Unfortunately, no previews were made available and, given very little promotion,  the film, which took in all manner of only loosely related topics (the water crisis in Flint, Bernie Sanders, teachers strikes, the Parkland shooting) tanked in America. Reviews were not generous, though  overlaying Trump’s dialogue on footage of Adolf Hitler certainly hits the spot as does the conclusion that Trump is a symptom not the cause, a call to action with Moore’s finger pointing at  the way democracy has been made subservient to  the dollar.  (Sat-Wed: MAC)

The Possession of Hannah Grace (15)

Opening without previews, this is another knock-off horror  with  Shay Mitchell as a cop who, just out of rehab takes  the graveyard shift in the basement of the local morgue. When she takes delivery of a disfigured corpse, the victim of  an exorcism gone wrong, she starts to experience horrifying visions and suspects the body, which gets up off the slab, may be possessed by a demonic force seeking a new vessel. Set the expectations low. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way have safely seen the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl In The Spider’s Web (15)

The inspired creation of the late Stieg Larsson, rebellious bi-sexual Swedish punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander was a central figure in three gripping novels, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and subsequently, played by Noomi Rapace in the original film adaptations and Mara Rooney in David Fincher’s less successful version of the first novel.

The character, and her journalist associate, Mikael Blomkvist, were resurrected for two further novels penned by David Lagercrantz, the first of which serves as the source for this screen resurrection, directed by Don’t Breathe’s Fede Álvarez and co-written by Steven Knight, Salander this time being played by Claire Foy with a cold and clipped Scandinavian accent with Sverrir Gudnason as a much younger Blomkvist.

But this is not Larson’s Salander. The novel reworks her back story to give her a twin sister (barely alluded to in the books), Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), the pair separated when the young Lisbeth fled their abusive paedophile father and Camilla elected to remain. Dad, it transpires, headed up a Russian crime syndicate and, since his death, it appears that Camilla has been running things, the Organization now rechristened the Spiders.

All his comes later. First up, the film offers Salander as some motorbike-riding, black leather-clad #metoo vigilante (she’s quite literally seen as an avenging angel) providing justice for women abused by powerful men before she’s hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an American programmer who devised software called FireFall capable of hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenals and no wished he hadn’t and wants her to steal it from the Americans. This, naturally, is no problem. The problem is in trying to crack the password. That and the fact that Balder’s had a change of heart and turned to the Swedish Secret Serice, NSA security agent  Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) has come to Stockholm to recover it and that the Spiders, in the figure of Camilla’s blonde-haired sociopath henchman Holtser (Claes Bang), want it too. To which end, Balder’s maths savant 6-year-old son August (Christopher Convery) is a key figure.

Dispensing with Lisbeth’s photographic memory and amping up her hacker skills to the extent of taking control of an airport’s entire security system, the film turns her into some sort of female Bond or Ethan Hunt super-spy, getting stuck into brutal fights and riding her bike corss a frozen river to escape the cops. As such, this works perfectly well, the action kicks along, the villains are suitably psychopathic and Foy does complex, cold, tormented and turbulent anti-heroine to fiercely solid effect. But whatever she may have on her back, the girl with the dragon tattoo she is not. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Grinch (U)

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

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

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

 

The Hate You Give (15)       

Adapted from the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas and liberally pointing out the title associations with Thug Life, the name of Tupac’s first group and the tattoo he wore, George Tillman Jr.’s film plays like a poster child for the Black Lives Matter movement, undeniably effecting and affective, but also schematic and didactic in its portrayal of contemporary race relations.

Six years on from making her mark as Rue in The Hunger Games and putting behind her the recent misfire of The Darkest Minds, Amandla Stenberg gives an outstanding performance as Starr Carter, whose radical father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and family-first mother (Regina Hall) have sacrificed to send her and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) to a mostly white prep school in an affluent neighbourhood rather than the local high school which their peers from her low-income, high-crime predominantly black Garden Heights community attend.

As such, Starr has to play two roles. At home, she’s Starr Version 1, the black urban teen raised by her father in the precepts of the Black Panthers, while, at school, she’s Starr Version 2, the serious academic who is never remotely ghetto and even whiter than her white friends, like BFF Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) and boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), both of who use urban black slang in an attempt to be down with the street. The liberal-minded Chris even tells her that he doesn’t see colour, which, as Starr points out, is precisely the problem, telling him “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”

Starr’s two worlds collide when, on the way home from a  party with childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith), they’re pulled over and, while Starr duly carries out her father’s instructions of compliance,  he’s shot by a white police officer (Drew Starkey) while reaching into the car for a hairbrush, Starr watching him bleed out.

Protests duly ensue as those from her different worlds react in different ways. Her white friends protest, but more as excuse to take a day off school, while black lawyer and activist  (Issa Ray) wants her to speak out, even if anonymously, as the witness to the shooting. Her father wants her to use her voice, but her mother wants to keep her safe. Matters are further complicated by the fact her uncle Carlos (Common) is himself a policeman (with a  pretty good income judging by his house) and Seven’s actual mother is married to  King (Anthony Mackie), the local gangster for whom Maverick used to work and did time. Khalil too has links to King and, as such, we see how the system and the media skew the shooting to turn the focus on him rather than the cop who shot him.

Starr’s quest for justice will eventually place her too in the spotlight, putting herself and her family in danger from King as she looks to do the right thing by her dead friend, while when her separate lives are exposed, a rift inevitably opens up between her and her high school clique.

All this is undeniably powerful and provocative and the film frequently alludes to real life examples of racial murder, like those of  Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Emmett Till, but much comes across as schematic and, at times, manipulatively sentimental in its calls for change and understanding.

Nonetheless, for all its sometimes blunt approach, there’s no denying the moral fire that is its engine, especially in the wake of the current spate of shootings of unarmed blacks by white officers, with Stenberg providing the high octane fuel of a new generation of young Americans, of all colours, that feeds it.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Nativity Rocks! (U)

Four years on from the frankly dreadful Nativity3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? the franchise given a new lease of life through the success of the stage musical, writer-director Debbie Isitt brings things back to her Coventry hometown  for a new Christmas outing, this time with an all-new cast, but, as in the first film, a finale in which Coventry Cathedral plays a major part.

The premise is pretty much the same, St Bernadette’s Junior School, now with a new head in the form of Mrs Keen (Celia Imrie) is gearing up for the annual Christmas musical, this year to be a rock opera as part of  Coventry’s bid to be Christmas City of the Year.

Enter Jerry Poppy (Simon Lipkin from the musical) who, having discovered Desmond Poppy is his long lost brother, has come to Coventry to find him, only to learn he’s gone to Australia. However, since he’s sporting a jacket with rock badges on, the head immediately enlists him as the new classroom assistant to help the reluctant Mr. Johnson (Daniel Boys) to put together material to audition for the opera in front of celebrity diva guest director Emmanuel Cavendish (Craig Revel Horwood) who wants to make Herod the leading character with himself in the role. And several of the others. The other problem is that Jerry, who is every bit the exuberant man child as his brother, has history with Cavendish.

Running alongside this is a second storyline involving young Syrian refugee Doru (Brian Bartle) who got separated from his dad (Ramin Karimloo) when they came ashore and has ended up in Coventry under the care of social worker Miss Shelly (Helen George) while his father’s looking for work down Shropshire way.

Plot strands come together as Jerry and Doru, neither of whom have family, bond and link up with Barnaby (Rupert Turnbull), a lonely kid from the rival posh school whose workaholic parents (Anna Chancellor, Hugh Dennis) are too busy to give him any attention.

And so it is that all the plotlines and characters, including Ruth Jones’ friendly farmer and, reprising her role from Nativity 2:Danger in the Manger, Jessica Hynes as Angel Matthews, converge on Coventry for the extended and emotionally moving musical climax with its big production songs and messages about family, forgiveness and, yes, the spirit of Christmas.

Of course, it’s silly and rife with poo and pee jokes, the children mystifyingly know all the words to songs like Born To Be Wild, We Built This City and Since You’ve Been Gone and the Syrian refugee storyline feels a tad contrived, but everyone throws themselves into the thing, an energetic Lipkin managing to be more endearing than he is annoying, Horwood relishing the permatanned panto villain routine and all the kids being as winningly cute as you could wish. It’s childish, it’s corny and it’s cheesy, but it’s also cheery fun with a  heart as big as a cathedral. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Nobody’s Fool (15)

Yet another from the Tyler Perry production line,  this is a foul-mouthed rom-com in which overachieving ad exec Danica (Tika Sumpter) can’t decide to go with the sensitive nice guy who wants to be with her or  hold out in the hope something better comes along while Tiffany Haddish does trash talk as her black-sheep sister Tanya back on the scene after a five-year prison stretch and Whoopi Goldberg pays the rent as their dope dealing mother.

A sexually charged espresso machine adjustment lands Tanya a job at the coffee shop run by Frank, who is sweet on Danica, but she’s hung up on Chalie, someone she’s met online but never seen. Suspecting he’s a con, Tanya hires the Catfish team to check him out, at which point the film focuses on Danica learning to look beyond appearances to find love and Haddish pretty much vanishes from the film along with whatever comedic energy it ever possessed.  (Cineworld NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Overlord (18)

Taking its title from the codename for the D-Day invasion,  produced by JJ Abrams, written by Billy Ray and directed by the lesser-known  Julius Avery, this is basically a WWII movie with zombies, wherein, shot down over France en route to destroy a Nazi radio tower  so the invasion can have air support, the surviving American soldiers, explosives expert mission leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt),  Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and unblooded rookie who, at boot camp, couldn’t even kill a mouse, war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker),  and Bronx loudmouth Tibbet (John Magaro),  hook up with local villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who hides them in her attic.

There are, however, dastardly deeds afoot in the nearby church, where a suitably despicable Nazi scientist is experiment on the locals, bringing the dead back to life with a  serum  designed to create superhuman soldiers to achieve the Thousand-Year Reich. However, he’s not perfected it yet, meaning they’re churning out rabid, mutated zombies that either have to be burned to a  crisp or locked in cells for future experimentation. Chloe’s aunt was one of the volunteers, and is now secreted away at home, disfigured and with what sounds like a very bade case of asthma.

Send on a  scouting mission, Boyce gets into the bunker, discovers what’s going on (cue body bags with goo and guinea pigs) and, being the film’s conscience, insists they have to stop it. Ford, on the other hand, insists the mission comes first. All of which is further complicated by the fact that the Nazi Commander, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who has forced Chloe into a sexual arrangement to spare, turns up at the house.

Firmly balanced between utterly bad Germans  and good Americans (albeit Ford following his Sgt’s advice to be as ‘rotten’ as the enemy in securing their objective), the highly atmospheric opening, all orange glare, mist and parachutes and bodies hanging from trees, giving way to a lashing of gore and body horror special effects as the group head into the church to detrory the mast, blow up the lab and rescue Chloe’s cute young brother from the clutches of the hideously transformed Wafner.

A big budget war horror B-movie with solid cinematography, a robust sound design and plenty of bloody shoot-em-up action, it may play fast and loose with historical accuracy and, despite some brutal torture,  is less concerned about challenging  audiences  over  what’s morally defensible in the pursuit of what’s right  than it has at amping up the tension and scares. Don’t be surprised to see a video game spin-off. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Robin Hood (12A)

It seems that every generation gets their own version of 12th century folk hero outlaw Robin Hood, the latest, with a twinkle-eyed Taron Egerton behind the bow, geared very much for the  superhero audience, complete with fast and furious kinetic action, slo-mo effects, anachronistic haircuts and clothing, street sass, secret identity and messages about  corrupt authorities, religious hypocrisy  and international terrorism.

Although Egerton’s initial voiceover warns that this isn’t the story you know (and it certainly plays fast and loose with history), for a while it sticks largely to familiar legend, Nottinghamshire nobleman Robin of Loxley, a skilled archer,  going off to to fight in the Third Crusade in ‘Arabia’ (amusingly, here’s he served his call-up papers in a parchment scroll) returning home to discover his lands have been seized by the Sherif of Nottingham (an icy Ben Mendelsohn in a variation of his Star Wars uniform) who’s forcing crippling taxes on the people, prompting him to institute his own  take on (as he actually says here) the redistribution of wealth. He’s also in love with Marian (Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono), although in this version she’s one of the local yokels he first encounters when she’s trying to steal one of his horses for a poor farmer, and she’s Irish.

That’s just one of several new spins. Over in the Crusades, where the enemy is mowing down the English with the crossbow equivalent of a machine gun, Robin proves his skill in battle but takes exception when his commander, Guy of Gisbourn (Paul Anderson), starts executing the prisoners. He fails and is wounded in interceding to prevent one young Arab lad having his head lopped off, but earns the gratitude of the lad’s father (Jamie Foxx, not given nearly enough to do), whose name conveniently translates to John, who stows away and follows Robin when he’s shipped off back to England. Back home,  not only does he find the ancestral pile deserted and in disrepair, but he also discovers the Sheriff declared him dead and now Marian’s taken up with Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), who, also Irish, sees himself as the voice of the people, all of whom appear to live and work in the mines (though mining what is never clear) while being taxed into poverty to pay for the Sheriff’s war chest.

With John, who wants to put an end to the rich on all sides oppressing the people and stoking up wars and racial prejudice for their own gain, as his left-hand man, instructing him in the art of shooting three arrows at once in rapid succession, they decide to liberate the money and return it to the people. With Robin disguising himself to go about his thievery,  Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) pre-empts the Arrow TV series by  naming the mysterious masked man The Hood.

Suffice to say, the plot also has the Sheriff in league with the Church, embodied in the venal Archdeacon (Ian Peck) and, subsequently, a Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) from Rome  in, not just raising taxes, but a (wholly illogical) conspiracy against the crown, The Hood doing battle while simultaneously wheedling his way into the Sheriff’s inner circle as “spoiled toff” Robin.

With arrows that slam into walls and bodies like rounds from a high calibre automatic, the battles, Robin letting loose arrows while spinning in mid-air, while bloodless, are frenetic and dizzyingly choreographed by director Otto Bathurst channelling Guy Ritchie for his feature debut, albeit openly borrowing blatantly from other films, seemingly including the Ben Hur chariot race. Ending with Robin and the villagers heading off into Sherwood Forest and an unexpected twist in setting up the sequel’s villain, this is fully fletched fun.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Hardy plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Mockingbird; 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

Review, Christine and the Queens, O2 Academy Birmingham

Christine and the Queens. Image: Gaelle Beri

Christine and the Queens rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck in at O2 Birmingham Academy.

A Birmingham show on a Monday can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, but the Academy was packed, sweaty and sold out for Christine and the Queens.

“She’s here, she’s here and she’s fucking queer!” screams a guy no older than 20 with a slicked back bowl-cut and a baggy white jumper, who would later go on to slut drop during ballads and severely annoy his mother. Here and queer Christine is though, and the cheers as she joins her dancers onstage are deafening.

Dressed in tight jeans and an oversized red shirt, Christine looks a bit like the leader of the Sharks in West Side Story, Bernardo. The dancing too, with its elements of ballet, has a bit of a Broadway vibe but the gig is certainly not indebted to it.

The one and a half hour show is long enough for her to draw upon the bulk of her back catalogue with a weighting towards her recently released long player, ‘Chris’. The new album is soaked in Prince-like production and songwriting, some might say it’s derivative but I’m good with it, she brings a new voice tinged with millennial discourse.

The biggest cheers are saved for the tracks like her worldwide radio smash, ‘Tilted’, and new biggie ‘5 dollars’ and the approach to performance throughout elevates each and every track.

It’s a wondrously theatrical and conceptual show, but in an age where all the technology, pomp and circumstance that money can buy being splashed out on, the tools that are used in this performance are notably primitive and modest. The impact, however, is as massive as it is elegant.

The dancers are a huge aspect of the performance and seem to serve a number of purposes through the show. Sometimes the songs become silent plays set to music and at others, the dancers are an extension of Christine. Enhancing her sensuality, her aggression, her femininity, her masculinity – she is amplified by the bodies on the stage.

For all its art, it’s a show that Cracked Actor-era Bowie would probably appreciate.

As a result of all this attention to detail, it’s impossible to cover the intricacies of each track and do them justice. Goya Soda was a personal highlight, snow falls during the intro followed by a plume of green smoke that hangs in the air for the majority of the song she acts out a scene with a male dancer that portrays tensions and affections and culminates in an embrace that literally smoulders as the dancer’s jacket begins to pump out smoke, it’s an affecting visual.

An acapella performance of ‘Nuit 17 a 52’ which concludes with a refrain of Michael Jackson’s ‘Man In The Mirror’ is another beautiful moment.

One of the lasting impressions is just how personable she is. Plenty of stars proclaim their love of and debt to their fans at every show they play, and whilst the crowd will scream, cry and be touched by her every word, they still feel inaccessible or unrelatable. Some might think that’s part of the star/audience relationship, but Christine is a star, yet she transcends that distance. She does this through humility and humour, I suppose.

I say she shows humility but she’s pretty proud of herself, “I want to ring my mum and show her you all and say ‘look, it’s a real job, it’s working!’”.

It certainly worked in Birmingham tonight. Bravo, Christine, Bravo!

Words: Gareth Griffiths

Preview: Christine and the Queens, O2 Academy Birmingham

Christine and the Queens

France’s Pop saviour Christine and the Queens will play her first ever Birmingham show this Monday 26 November, at O2 Academy.

The French singer, real name Héloïse Letissier, is famous for tracks such as ‘Tilted’ and ‘5 Dollars’ and for vocally and lyrically challenging ideas of gender and sexuality.

She is currently in the middle of the UK leg of her world tour in support of her second album, ‘Chris’, released in September of this year. The record went straight in at number two in the UK album chart.

Christine has been on an impressive trajectory over the past few years, with her own brand of genre and gender-defying slick power pop. Her debut album, Chaleur Humaine, released in 2016, has sold well over a million copies worldwide since it was released.

Despite being two albums in and accruing a passionate UK fan base, she has played precious few performances in the UK – most notably a rain-soaked set at Glastonbury Festival. As such, this tour will be the first opportunity for many UK fans to see her live and in person.

The already highly-acclaimed tour is expected to deliver a theatrical and thought-provoking experience when it rolls into Birmingham on Monday. Supporting Christine and the Queens on the tour is the hotly-tipped West London MC, Lava La Rue.

Tickets for Christine and the Queens at O2 Birmingham Academy on Monday 26 November at the venue’s official site here.

Words: Gareth Griffiths

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

NEW RELEASES

Robin Hood (12A)

It seems that every generation gets their own version of 12th century folk hero outlaw Robin Hood, the latest, with a twinkle-eyed Taron Egerton behind the bow, geared very much for the  superhero audience, complete with fast and furious kinetic action, slo-mo effects, anachronistic haircuts and clothing, street sass, secret identity and messages about  corrupt authorities, religious hypocrisy  and international terrorism.

Although Egerton’s initial voiceover warns that this isn’t the story you know (and it certainly plays fast and loose with history), for a while it sticks largely to familiar legend, Nottinghamshire nobleman Robin of Loxley, a skilled archer,  going off to to fight in the Third Crusade in ‘Arabia’ (amusingly, here’s he served his call-up papers in a parchment scroll) returning home to discover his lands have been seized by the Sherif of Nottingham (an icy Ben Mendelsohn in a variation of his Star Wars uniform) who’s forcing crippling taxes on the people, prompting him to institute his own  take on (as he actually says here) the redistribution of wealth. He’s also in love with Marian (Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono), although in this version she’s one of the local yokels he first encounters when she’s trying to steal one of his horses for a poor farmer, and she’s Irish.

That’s just one of several new spins. Over in the Crusades, where the enemy is mowing down the English with the crossbow equivalent of a machine gun, Robin proves his skill in battle but takes exception when his commander, Guy of Gisbourn (Paul Anderson), starts executing the prisoners. He fails and is wounded in interceding to prevent one young Arab lad having his head lopped off, but earns the gratitude of the lad’s father (Jamie Foxx, not given nearly enough to do), whose name conveniently translates to John, who stows away and follows Robin when he’s shipped off back to England. Back home,  not only does he find the ancestral pile deserted and in disrepair, but he also discovers the Sheriff declared him dead and now Marian’s taken up with Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), who, also Irish, sees himself as the voice of the people, all of whom appear to live and work in the mines (though mining what is never clear) while being taxed into poverty to pay for the Sheriff’s war chest.

With John, who wants to put an end to the rich on all sides oppressing the people and stoking up wars and racial prejudice for their own gain, as his left-hand man, instructing him in the art of shooting three arrows at once in rapid succession, they decide to liberate the money and return it to the people. With Robin disguising himself to go about his thievery,  Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) pre-empts the Arrow TV series by  naming the mysterious masked man The Hood.

Suffice to say, the plot also has the Sheriff in league with the Church, embodied in the venal Archdeacon (Ian Peck) and, subsequently, a Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) from Rome  in, not just raising taxes, but a (wholly illogical) conspiracy against the crown, The Hood doing battle while simultaneously wheedling his way into the Sheriff’s inner circle as “spoiled toff” Robin.

With arrows that slam into walls and bodies like rounds from a high calibre automatic, the battles, Robin letting loose arrows while spinning in mid-air, while bloodless, are frenetic and dizzyingly choreographed by director Otto Bathurst channelling Guy Ritchie for his feature debut, albeit openly borrowing blatantly from other films, seemingly including the Ben Hur chariot race. Ending with Robin and the villagers heading off into Sherwood Forest and an unexpected twist in setting up the sequel’s villain, this is fully fletched fun.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Assassination Nation (18)

Fully earning its certificate with lashing of  gratuitous graphic and gory violence, writer-director Sam Levinson’s blackly comic horror-satire plunges into the deep end of the teenage avenging schoolgirls genre established by the likes of Heathers while, in setting events in Salem, clearly lays out a witch hunt parallel, this time through social media hacking rather than devil dolls.

It opens warning audiences to expect “drug use, sexual content, toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, guns, nationalism, racism, kidnapping, the male gaze, sexism, swearing, torture, violence, gore, weapons and fragile male egos,” and most certainly lives up to the promise as18-year-old senior Lily (Odessa Young), whose entire life revolves round  texting and sexting and, while supposedly dating nice guy Mark (Bill Skarsgard), who annoyingly won’t go down on her,  is having a secret affair with an older married man to whom she’s sending sexy selfies. When the authorities trace the source to her house, even though her own affair’s been outed, she’s accused of hacking the mobile phones  of everyone from the transphobic mayor and the principal to fellow students, posting their dirty secrets online and prompting one very bloody and public suicide.

Naturally, her three barely legal BFFs, Em (Abra), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and trans-gender Bex (Hari Nef), who’s hooked up with  school football hero ‘Diamond’ (though he wants to keep it under wraps), all get tarred with the same brush as hysteria grips the town, the racist local sheriff, the town’s “good people” white male mob (copyright D. Trump)  and the  testosterone-fuelled high school jocks taking it upon themselves to punish  those they hold responsible.

The problem is that our four Tarantino fantasies are presented, at least initially, as such obnoxious queen bee bitches, that it’s an uphill struggle to feel a huge amount of sympathy as victims when their peers turn on them as Salem meets The Purge.  Levinson knows how to handle that, however, a home invasion turning into a bloody murder and the four avenging fallen angels getting seriously tooled up and taking to the streets like  slo-mo Lolitas in matching red plastic raincoats, a legion of persecuted outsiders (gays, geeks, etc) lining up behind them in solidarity.

Playing like a flashy answer to Gregg Araki or Bret Easton Ellis on steroids, it says much about the way the film manipulates its audience and exploits #metoo sensibilities that, come the streets of fire girl power cathartic showdown, allegiances, rather like the identity of the real hacker,  are never in doubt.  There’s a message in there somewhere about how privacy is the price you pay for technology, but it’s all but drowned out in the deafening stylistic excess while Lily delivering a feminist  speech about hypocrisy in front of the Stars and Stripes (itself hypocritical given the film’s use of sex and violence) says everything about Levinson’s understanding of subtlety. It’s a shocker, just not in the way it was intended.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Girl In The Spider’s Web (15)

The inspired creation of the late Stieg Larsson, rebellious bi-sexual Swedish punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander was a central figure in three gripping novels, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and subsequently, played by Noomi Rapace in the original film adaptations and Mara Rooney in David Fincher’s less successful version of the first novel.

The character, and her journalist associate, Mikael Blomkvist, were resurrected for two further novels penned by David Lagercrantz, the first of which serves as the source for this screen resurrection, directed by Don’t Breathe’s Fede Álvarez and co-written by Steven Knight, Salander this time being played by Claire Foy with a cold and clipped Scandinavian accent with Sverrir Gudnason as a much younger Blomkvist.

But this is not Larson’s Salander. The novel reworks her back story to give her a twin sister (barely alluded to in the books), Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), the pair separated when the young Lisbeth fled their abusive paedophile father and Camilla elected to remain. Dad, it transpires, headed up a Russian crime syndicate and, since his death, it appears that Camilla has been running things, the Organization now rechristened the Spiders.

All his comes later. First up, the film offers Salander as some motorbike-riding, black leather-clad #metoo vigilante (she’s quite literally seen as an avenging angel) providing justice for women abused by powerful men before she’s hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an American programmer who devised software called FireFall capable of hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenals and no wished he hadn’t and wants her to steal it from the Americans. This, naturally, is no problem. The problem is in trying to crack the password. That and the fact that Balder’s had a change of heart and turned to the Swedish Secret Serice, NSA security agent  Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) has come to Stockholm to recover it and that the Spiders, in the figure of Camilla’s blonde-haired sociopath henchman Holtser (Claes Bang), want it too. To which end, Balder’s maths savant 6-year-old son August (Christopher Convery) is a key figure.

Dispensing with Lisbeth’s photographic memory and amping up her hacker skills to the extent of taking control of an airport’s entire security system, the film turns her into some sort of female Bond or Ethan Hunt super-spy, getting stuck into brutal fights and riding her bike corss a frozen river to escape the cops. As such, this works perfectly well, the action kicks along, the villains are suitably psychopathic and Foy does complex, cold, tormented and turbulent anti-heroine to fiercely solid effect. But whatever she may have on her back, the girl with the dragon tattoo she is not. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Nativity Rocks! (U)

Four years on from the frankly dreadful Nativity3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? the franchise given a new lease of life through the success of the stage musical, writer-director Debbie Isitt brings things back to her Coventry hometown  for a new Christmas outing, this time with an all-new cast, but, as in the first film, a finale in which Coventry Cathedral plays a major part.

The premise is pretty much the same, St Bernadette’s Junior School, now with a new head in the form of Mrs Keen (Celia Imrie) is gearing up for the annual Christmas musical, this year to be a rock opera as part of  Coventry’s bid to be Christmas City of the Year.

Enter Jerry Poppy (Simon Lipkin from the musical) who, having discovered Desmond Poppy is his long lost brother, has come to Coventry to find him, only to learn he’s gone to Australia. However, since he’s sporting a jacket with rock badges on, the head immediately enlists him as the new classroom assistant to help the reluctant Mr. Johnson (Daniel Boys) to put together material to audition for the opera in front of celebrity diva guest director Emmanuel Cavendish (Craig Revel Horwood) who wants to make Herod the leading character with himself in the role. And several of the others. The other problem is that Jerry, who is every bit the exuberant man child as his brother, has history with Cavendish.

Running alongside this is a second storyline involving young Syrian refugee Doru (Brian Bartle) who got separated from his dad (Ramin Karimloo) when they came ashore and has ended up in Coventry under the care of social worker Miss Shelly (Helen George) while his father’s looking for work down Shropshire way.

Plot strands come together as Jerry and Doru, neither of whom have family, bond and link up with Barnaby (Rupert Turnbull), a lonely kid from the rival posh school whose workaholic parents (Anna Chancellor, Hugh Dennis) are too busy to give him any attention.

And so it is that all the plotlines and characters, including Ruth Jones’ friendly farmer and, reprising her role from Nativity 2:Danger in the Manger, Jessica Hynes as Angel Matthews, converge on Coventry for the extended and emotionally moving musical climax with its big production songs and messages about family, forgiveness and, yes, the spirit of Christmas.

Of course, it’s silly and rife with poo and pee jokes, the children mystifyingly know all the words to songs like Born To Be Wild, We Built This City and Since You’ve Been Gone and the Syrian refugee storyline feels a tad contrived, but everyone throws themselves into the thing, an energetic Lipkin managing to be more endearing than he is annoying, Horwood relishing the permatanned panto villain routine and all the kids being as winningly cute as you could wish. It’s childish, it’s corny and it’s cheesy, but it’s also cheery fun with a  heart as big as a cathedral. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Wildlife (12A)

Having more than proved himself as an actor in films such as There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks and 12 Years A Slave, Paul Dano now turns in a hugely impressive directorial debut  with this adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel co-written with girlfriend Zoe Kazan. The setting is Great Falls, in 60s Montana, where 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) lives with his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the outskirts of the Rockies. Already struggling to make ends meet, when Jerry loses yet another job, at the local golf course, for being, as he puts it, “too personable” and is too proud to bag groceries or accept when he’s offered reinstatement, things begin to fall apart.

One day, much to his wife’s understandable anger after working to keep things together,  he announces that he’s going off to join other unemployed men battling the fires raging in the mountains. Joe, who’s already taken on part-time work at a local photographers, taking family portraits, finds himself having to be the man of the house and pretty much fend for himself while Jeanette begins to unravel and starts a relationship with the older, divorced and rich Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who’s all too willing to take advantage of the situation. The pensive, introverted Joe meanwhile can only look on in uncomprehending confusion as he sees his mother sinking into depression and becoming someone he doesn’t recognise, not least when, feeling the accusation in his eyes, she snaps “If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me. I don’t have one.” All he wants ad to come home and things to go back to how they were. Clearly, that’s not going to happen.

Suffused with vintage Sundance spirit, it’s a slow burning, spare coming of age study of  lives in freefall while trying to hang on to themselves to be while hating what they’ve become and not knowing what they want to be, only that change has to come, and Dano proves masterful in letting the camera tell the story, never imposing any judgements on the characters, Miller included. The central performances are unfussy and achingly understated, both Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, who’s off screen for the entire second act, superbly capturing the sense of  essentially good people who have become lost to themselves and each other, weighed down with disappointment, while Oxenbould’s Joe, through whose eyes the narrative unfolds,  is old before his time, carrying the world, or at least his world, on his shoulders, his face a map of worry, hurt, unease and love.

The film bathes in a flawlessly detailed sense of period, an American past that, like the forest, is being turned into the standing dead, the film moving through crises without catharsis as it heads towards a movingly bittersweet final moment that captures the fractures of the American ideal. (Electric)

 

ALSO SHOWING

Nobody’s Fool (15)

Yet another from the Tyler Perry production line,  this is a foul-mouthed rom-com in which overachieving ad exec Danica (Tika Sumpter) can’t decide to go with the sensitive nice guy who wants to be with her or  hold out in the hope something better comes along while Tiffany Haddish does trash talk as her black-sheep sister Tanya back on the scene after a five-year prison stretch and Whoopi Goldberg pays the rent as their dope dealing mother.

A sexually charged espresso machine adjustment lands Tanya a job at the coffee shop run by Frank, who is sweet on Danica, but she’s hung up on Chalie, someone she’s met online but never seen. Suspecting he’s a con, Tanya hires the Catfish team to check him out, at which point the film focuses on Danica learning to look beyond appearances to find love and Haddish pretty much vanishes from the film along with whatever comedic energy it ever possessed.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way have safely seen the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grinch (U)

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

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

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

 

The Hate You Give (15)       

Adapted from the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas and liberally pointing out the title associations with Thug Life, the name of Tupac’s first group and the tattoo he wore, George Tillman Jr.’s film plays like a poster child for the Black Lives Matter movement, undeniably effecting and affective, but also schematic and didactic in its portrayal of contemporary race relations.

Six years on from making her mark as Rue in The Hunger Games and putting behind her the recent misfire of The Darkest Minds, Amandla Stenberg gives an outstanding performance as Starr Carter, whose radical father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and family-first mother (Regina Hall) have sacrificed to send her and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) to a mostly white prep school in an affluent neighbourhood rather than the local high school which their peers from her low-income, high-crime predominantly black Garden Heights community attend.

As such, Starr has to play two roles. At home, she’s Starr Version 1, the black urban teen raised by her father in the precepts of the Black Panthers, while, at school, she’s Starr Version 2, the serious academic who is never remotely ghetto and even whiter than her white friends, like BFF Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) and boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), both of who use urban black slang in an attempt to be down with the street. The liberal-minded Chris even tells her that he doesn’t see colour, which, as Starr points out, is precisely the problem, telling him “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”

Starr’s two worlds collide when, on the way home from a  party with childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith), they’re pulled over and, while Starr duly carries out her father’s instructions of compliance,  he’s shot by a white police officer (Drew Starkey) while reaching into the car for a hairbrush, Starr watching him bleed out.

Protests duly ensue as those from her different worlds react in different ways. Her white friends protest, but more as excuse to take a day off school, while black lawyer and activist  (Issa Ray) wants her to speak out, even if anonymously, as the witness to the shooting. Her father wants her to use her voice, but her mother wants to keep her safe. Matters are further complicated by the fact her uncle Carlos (Common) is himself a policeman (with a  pretty good income judging by his house) and Seven’s actual mother is married to  King (Anthony Mackie), the local gangster for whom Maverick used to work and did time. Khalil too has links to King and, as such, we see how the system and the media skew the shooting to turn the focus on him rather than the cop who shot him.

Starr’s quest for justice will eventually place her too in the spotlight, putting herself and her family in danger from King as she looks to do the right thing by her dead friend, while when her separate lives are exposed, a rift inevitably opens up between her and her high school clique.

All this is undeniably powerful and provocative and the film frequently alludes to real life examples of racial murder, like those of  Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Emmett Till, but much comes across as schematic and, at times, manipulatively sentimental in its calls for change and understanding.

Nonetheless, for all its sometimes blunt approach, there’s no denying the moral fire that is its engine, especially in the wake of the current spate of shootings of unarmed blacks by white officers, with Stenberg providing the high octane fuel of a new generation of young Americans, of all colours, that feeds it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)

When a  hacker blows the cover of all of MI7’s agents, the only way to track them down is to recall one the retirees. Among them is Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), currently working as a geography teacher with a sideline in training his pupils in espionage techniques. After accidentally eliminating the other candidates (cameos by Michael Gambon, Edward Fox and Charles Dance), MI7 boss Pegasus (Adam James) and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) have no choice but to assign the obliviously bumbling English to the job, who, along with his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) insists, in addition to a gun and other retro spy kit gadgets that are now out of fashion, on going totally analog so they can’t be tracked. This also includes him driving a weaponised snazzy red Aston Martin

Quickly, but not before burning down a French restaurant, English identifies the source of the attack as coming from a luxury yacht, Dot Calm, which, with one of the funniest throwaway gags involving magnets, they infiltrate and cross paths with Russian spy Ophelia Bulletova (former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko).

Meanwhile, following yet more cyber attacks, the PM, looking for a way to bolster her image at the upcoming G12 summit,  is trying to recruit smarmy and slick billionaire tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who immediately fixes the latest attack and, recommending she divert all the country’s servers to his,  agrees to come on board. He also happens to own the Dawn Calm.

Reprising his 007 spoof character after a seven year gap, in keeping with a world where the likes of Spy and Kingsman have restyled such parodies, there’s a little less slapstick and a little more self-aware sophistication  this time round. Even so, the screenplay still finds plenty of room for Atkinson’s unique brand of physical comedy, including scenes involving letting him loose on the London streets in a virtual reality headset and displaying his caffeine-high dance moves.

The climax, set in a Scottish castle, in which English attempts to stop Volta while wearing suit of armour is a touch drawn out and the screenplay frequently obvious and telegraphed, but, ably supported by Miller’s ever reliable straight man, Kurylenko providing the glamour and Thompson on fine comic form as the flustered, and exasperated PM looking to put her own prestige and survival before the country (drawn your own satirical conclusions), Atkinson mixture of accidental heroics, smug self-delusion, elastic expressions and perfect timing ensures that this is far more family friendly fun than some reviews would have you believe. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Overlord (18)

Taking its title from the codename for the D-Day invasion,  produced by JJ Abrams, written by Billy Ray and directed by the lesser-known  Julius Avery, this is basically a WWII movie with zombies, wherein, shot down over France en route to destroy a Nazi radio tower  so the invasion can have air support, the surviving American soldiers, explosives expert mission leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt),  Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and unblooded rookie who, at boot camp, couldn’t even kill a mouse, war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker),  and Bronx loudmouth Tibbet (John Magaro),  hook up with local villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who hides them in her attic.

There are, however, dastardly deeds afoot in the nearby church, where a suitably despicable Nazi scientist is experiment on the locals, bringing the dead back to life with a  serum  designed to create superhuman soldiers to achieve the Thousand-Year Reich. However, he’s not perfected it yet, meaning they’re churning out rabid, mutated zombies that either have to be burned to a  crisp or locked in cells for future experimentation. Chloe’s aunt was one of the volunteers, and is now secreted away at home, disfigured and with what sounds like a very bade case of asthma.

Send on a  scouting mission, Boyce gets into the bunker, discovers what’s going on (cue body bags with goo and guinea pigs) and, being the film’s conscience, insists they have to stop it. Ford, on the other hand, insists the mission comes first. All of which is further complicated by the fact that the Nazi Commander, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who has forced Chloe into a sexual arrangement to spare, turns up at the house.

Firmly balanced between utterly bad Germans  and good Americans (albeit Ford following his Sgt’s advice to be as ‘rotten’ as the enemy in securing their objective), the highly atmospheric opening, all orange glare, mist and parachutes and bodies hanging from trees, giving way to a lashing of gore and body horror special effects as the group head into the church to detrory the mast, blow up the lab and rescue Chloe’s cute young brother from the clutches of the hideously transformed Wafner.

A big budget war horror B-movie with solid cinematography, a robust sound design and plenty of bloody shoot-em-up action, it may play fast and loose with historical accuracy and, despite some brutal torture,  is less concerned about challenging  audiences  over  what’s morally defensible in the pursuit of what’s right  than it has at amping up the tension and scares. Don’t be surprised to see a video game spin-off. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Peterloo (12A)

On August 16, 1819, between 60 and 80,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, gathered peacefully at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, at the heart of the city’s linen mills trade, to hear famed radical orator Henry Hunt (a magnificent Rory Kinnear) speak out to demand the reform of parliamentary representation, the city itself having no representative at Westminster. Determined to suppress what they feared might lead to an English version of the French Revolution, especially given the unrest over the Corn Laws that had created huge poverty in the north, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort)  and Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), the Home Secretary, working with the local magistrates, arranged for several hundred troops, among them the 15th Hussars and cavalry from the  Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry  to disperse the crown once Hunt had been arrested. Ten minutes later, around 11 of the crowed were dead and over six hundred injured. The press dubbed it the Peterloo Massacre (one of the dead was a young soldier who’d survived Waterloo) while the government claimed the actions were justified, However, while the immediate aftermath saw a crackdown on the reform movements, subsequent protests eventually led to virtually all of the demands being met.

It’s a story made to be directed by Mike Leigh, who duly turns in a  two and half hour epic that, while frequently didactic and leaving no doubt as to the heroes and villains of the hour (the authorities are obnoxious to a man, the Yeomanry are seen getting drunk before the protest, although one Hussar does  register his revulsion at the way the militia are acting), is a compelling work that never feels its running time. What might have been a dry and dusty history lesson becomes a film full of outrage and political passion, one that clearly has resonance in contemporary politically divided Britain where very little has changed in the terms of social justice.

With a strong cast that includes Maxine Peake and Pearce Quigley as the hard scrabble parents of the doomed former soldier and Tim McInnerny as the bloated Prince Regent providing part of the film’s dark humour,  Leigh recreates events and historical figures in precise detail, never airbrushing the friction that often sparked between the reformists, among them Lancashire firebrand  Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell), John Saxton (John-Paul Hurley), co-founder of the Manchester Observer,  and the more cool-headed fellow journalist John Knight (Neil Jackson), as regards courses of action and is at pains to show the involvement of the local women in the reform movement too. There are also a couple of government figures advising restraint and caution, if only to avoid criminal charges.

Inevitably, a great deal of it involves people talking and it could have possibly lost the scenes with a woman singing a folk lament and a trio of men rehearsing tune on the hillside while a couple of women look on admiringly, but it never loses your interest, investing you in the movement’s figures, whether at the centre or on the fringes, as it gradually builds to its shocking tightly focused climax, making the impact bloody events even more powerful. (MAC)

Suspiria (18)

Originally written and directed by Italian auteur Dario Argento back in 1977 and featuring a cult soundtrack by Goblin, this remake comes from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino (with a score by Thom Yorke) and, while remaining true to the basic supernatural horror storyline (American newcomer realises her German ballet school is a front for a witch’s coven), it adds an extra hour to the running time radically departing from and expanding the narrative to embrace Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in male prosthetics), an elderly psychiatrist grieving over the loss of his wife (a sly cameo by Jessica Harper who played the original Suzy) when the city was divided after the war, who’s investigating the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a dancer at the academy and one of his patients he’d marked down as delusional.  In addition, pointedly set in the same year as the original’s release, events play out against a backdrop of the Berlin Wall, in which shadow the academy stands,  and the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists with Germany’s climate of political rebirth as well as putting a very different and ambiguous spin on the central character of Susie Bannion (an impressive Dakota Johnson).

Arriving for an unscheduled audition for a place in an upcoming production of Volk, devised by imperious black-clad dance diva, Madame Blanc (Swinton again) who heads up the prestigious Markos Tanzgruppe troupe,  the Ohio-born Bannion (who, flashbacks reveals, fled an Amish upbringing on the death of her mother) quickly catches Blanc’s attention. It’s revealed early on that the place is run by witches (among them veteran actresses Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven) who are searching for the right girl they need for a ritual involving the mysterious Mother Markos (also played by Swinton under a mound of prosthetic rot, but sporting cool sunglasses), ostensibly one of three mythological mothers  representing, among other things, Death.

Gruesome sets in early as Bannion’s dance moves are mirrored in a secret chamber where the lead dancer who’s just stormed out in a strop is bent out of shape and broken before being carted out on meat hooks. As in the original, Susie becomes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), herself a former friend of the missing Patricia, and who is also destined to play a major role in Blanc’s plans.

Mining sexual electricity, dark exoticism, dark hidden chambers that clearly carry psychological resonances, body horror, issues of faith, politics  and some mesmerising dance sequences, the film, shot in oranges and greys with flashes of red and divided into six acts and an epilogue (along with  a brief post credits scene), weaves nightmarish horror and art house intellectual profundity (the screenplay talks extensively of male arrogance, guilt, shame and grief) into an intoxicating, if not always easy to follow, tapestry.

There’s times when the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, such as Blanc declaring “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing” and Susie asking “Why are people so ready to believe the worst is over?”

It’s ultimately a little cold and there’s times when the pace slows to a crawl, but, while it may not summon fear in the way Argento’s did, the terror it offers is hard to shake.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Vue Star City)

 

Utoya – July 22 (15)

Following on from 22 July, the gripping Netflix film by Paul Greengrass, this is a second telling of the tragic events that took place on the island Utoya in 2011 when, in protest against the country’s immigration policy and having already bombed a government building in Oslo, a lone terrorist, Anders Breivik, killed 69 people and injured a further 110 at the Worker’s Youth League summer camp of the Norwegian Labour Party, before surrendering to the police.

Unlike the Greengrass film, which also included the trial aftermath, followed Breivik on his murderous spree and told the story of two of the actual teenage survivors, while based on testimonies, this Norwegian account, directed by Erik Poppe and more in keeping with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, features fictitious characters and, save for one brief outline,  Breivik is never seen.

Shot in one take for five consecutive days, its focus is on 18-year-old Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) who, as she tell her mom over the phone,  is at “the safest place in the world” with her younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne). When the shooting starts, she, like everyone, has no idea what’s going on, one boy even suggesting it’s a drill to test them, while another rumour is that the police are killing them. As the sound of gunfire gets closer, she and a few others seek shelter, Kaja returning to the tent site in search of her sister and finding a scared young kid who’s become separated from his brother. It’s a moment that sets up a devastating scene later in the film.

The running time precisely matching the duration of the terror, the camera spends all its time with Kaya, creating the sense of her fear and confusion as she navigates her way back and forth across the island, through what’s happening, taking shelter amid the trees, looking to keep her friends and others safe and trying to get news about her sister, uncertain whether it’s best to stay where they are or to run.  At one point, she sings True Colors to try and raise everyone’s spirts, at another she is alone as she holds a dying girl in her arms.

Finally, she and a boy called Magnus (Aleksander Holmen) wind up clinging to a crevice on the rocky shore, talking of what they’ll do when they get home to keep their spirits raised.

Although Berntzen has an air of Jennifer Lawrence about her, Kaya isn’t some iconic Katniss Everdeen, but she is a symbol of the everyday courage of those who survived and saved the lives of others, the film fading to black on a note that leaves you both numbed and relieved. (Mon-Wed:MAC)

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Hardy plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 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 Reviews, Fri Nov 16-Thu Nov 22

NEW RELEASES

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dead In A Week Or Your Money Back (15)

As a black comedy controversially themed around suicide, the fact writer/director Tom Edmunds’ debut feature is playing on only one screen is perhaps understandable, but undeserved. It starts off somewhat falteringly as would be writer William (Aneurin Barnard) prepares to throw himself off a bridge in his seventh attempt to kill himself. At which point, he’s approached by a mysterious figure, Leslie (Tom Wilkinson), who asks if he can help in sending him on his way and leaves him with his business card.

When this attempt fails like the others before it, William decides to give him a  call. Leslie, you see, is an ageing suburban hitman who works for the British Guild of Assassins, he even produces a glossy brochure showing the different options he offers when the pair meet up in a café where William signs up for Leslie to kill him. Although, not being exactly flush, he has to go for the cheapest (a bullet to the head) rather than the heroic death.

However, William is then contacted by Ellie (Freya Mavor), who wants to publish his book.  So he asks Leslie to hold off for a bit. However, when he and Ellie meet up to discuss things, Leslie accidentally shoots her boss. Which throws everything into chaos and from which point the film shifts into a more confident gear. William has decided he now wants to love, Leslie wasn’t to complete the contract to fill his quota, and the head of the guild (Christopher Eccleston) isn’t happy about the screw-ups (“we don’t go around killing people”, he barks), and reckons it’s time Leslie was put out to pasture. And alongside all this, Leslie’s wife Penny (Marion Bailey) is worried her embroidered cushion might not be good enough to win a local needle-work competition.

Some might find the jokes about Michael J Fox’s Parkinson’s tremors in the aftermath of the accidental shooting in somewhat dubious taste, but, like many moments in the film, it’s undeniably funny. Bevan’s performance settles as the film goes along, Bailey’s a gentle delight, Wilkinsn’s on his best form in ages and Eccleston is wonderfully over the top in a very laid back British way. Indeed, the whole film is very British, it even has cups of tea and budgies. Suicide is, obviously,  no laughing matter, but the film’s actually about finding a  reason to live (love, obviously) than to die, so you can chuckle away with a good conscience. And, you’ll be glad to know there’s a message about the Samaritans at the end too. (Odeon Birmingham)

 

Hell Fest (18)

Arriving too late for Halloween, directed by Gregory Plotkin, who edited Get Out, while it may have a couple of imaginative sequences (two girls running through a passageway full of outstretched arms), this is still generic man in a grotesque mask slasher stuff that’s neither scary nor, save for perhaps the ‘test your strength’ moment,  gory enough for the Friday night audience it seeks.

The Hell Fest of the title is an extreme  horror attraction at a travelling fright-themed circus, the film opening with an unfortunate teenage female punter ending up dead and hanging among the gruesome props after discovering one of the figures is actually real and doesn’t handle rejection well.

Cut to a year or so later at its latest location and a bunch of friends are up for some thrills, among them recently reunited best friends Natalie (Amy Forsyth) and  Brooke (Reign Edwards)  and the latter’s new flatmate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and their respective boyfriends. Needless to say, our unnamed slasher (Stephen Conroy) in his hoodie targets Natalie (after dispatching his first victim while she, thinking it’s part of the show, urges him on) , gradually working his way through her anonymous mates, adding their corpses to the plethora of fake bodies, en route to the climax.

Horror veteran Tony Todd puts in a cameo as a carnival barker and, visually, it looks fairly impressive, but, despite having six writers, there’s no actual plot as such and any hints there might have been one at some stage are quickly brushed aside, winding up with a daddy’s home coda that suggests Hell Fest 2 is only a scream away. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Suspiria (18)

Originally written and directed by Italian auteur Dario Argento back in 1977 and featuring a cult soundtrack by Goblin, this remake comes from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino (with a score by Thom Yorke) and, while remaining true to the basic supernatural horror storyline (American newcomer realises her German ballet school is a front for a witch’s coven), it adds an extra hour to the running time radically departing from and expanding the narrative to embrace Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in male prosthetics), an elderly psychiatrist grieving over the loss of his wife (a sly cameo by Jessica Harper who played the original Suzy) when the city was divided after the war, who’s investigating the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a dancer at the academy and one of his patients he’d marked down as delusional.  In addition, pointedly set in the same year as the original’s release, events play out against a backdrop of the Berlin Wall, in which shadow the academy stands,  and the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists with Germany’s climate of political rebirth as well as putting a very different and ambiguous spin on the central character of Susie Bannion (an impressive Dakota Johnson).

Arriving for an unscheduled audition for a place in an upcoming production of Volk, devised by imperious black-clad dance diva, Madame Blanc (Swinton again) who heads up the prestigious Markos Tanzgruppe troupe,  the Ohio-born Bannion (who, flashbacks reveals, fled an Amish upbringing on the death of her mother) quickly catches Blanc’s attention. It’s revealed early on that the place is run by witches (among them veteran actresses Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven) who are searching for the right girl they need for a ritual involving the mysterious Mother Markos (also played by Swinton under a mound of prosthetic rot, but sporting cool sunglasses), ostensibly one of three mythological mothers  representing, among other things, Death.

Gruesome sets in early as Bannion’s dance moves are mirrored in a secret chamber where the lead dancer who’s just stormed out in a strop is bent out of shape and broken before being carted out on meat hooks. As in the original, Susie becomes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), herself a former friend of the missing Patricia, and who is also destined to play a major role in Blanc’s plans.

Mining sexual electricity, dark exoticism, dark hidden chambers that clearly carry psychological resonances, body horror, issues of faith, politics  and some mesmerising dance sequences, the film, shot in oranges and greys with flashes of red and divided into six acts and an epilogue (along with  a brief post credits scene), weaves nightmarish horror and art house intellectual profundity (the screenplay talks extensively of male arrogance, guilt, shame and grief) into an intoxicating, if not always easy to follow, tapestry.

There’s times when the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, such as Blanc declaring “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing” and Susie asking “Why are people so ready to believe the worst is over?”

It’s ultimately a little cold and there’s times when the pace slows to a crawl, but, while it may not summon fear in the way Argento’s did, the terror it offers is hard to shake.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO SHOWING

Female Human Animal (15)

Set in the contemporary art world with cameos from Marina Warner, Juliet Jacques, Adam Thirlwell and Tom McCarthy, director Josh Appignanesi delivers a dark psycho-thriller in which, playing a fictionalised version of herself, writer Chloe Aridjis lives alone with her cat and is the subject of unwanted sexual advances of a colleague (Angus Wright). She’s also curating a Tate retrospective of real life Anglo-Mexican  surrealist Leonora Carrington, who also  appears as herself in documentary-style interviews, but when an elusive, brooding figure she’s dreamed of spying on her actually materialises Chloe descends into a world of obsession, the question arises is she the hunter or  the hunted?

Shot on an 80s analogue camcorder and interweaving fact and fiction, it explores today’s  sexual politics as the lines between reality and dreams blur. The screening will be followed by a live Q&A with the director. (Thu:MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way have safely seen the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Grinch (U)

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

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

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

The Hate You Give (15)       

Adapted from the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas and liberally pointing out the title associations with Thug Life, the name of Tupac’s first group and the tattoo he wore, George Tillman Jr.’s film plays like a poster child for the Black Lives Matter movement, undeniably effecting and affective, but also schematic and didactic in its portrayal of contemporary race relations.

Six years on from making her mark as Rue in The Hunger Games and putting behind her the recent misfire of The Darkest Minds, Amandla Stenberg gives an outstanding performance as Starr Carter, whose radical father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and family-first mother (Regina Hall) have sacrificed to send her and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) to a mostly white prep school in an affluent neighbourhood rather than the local high school which their peers from her low-income, high-crime predominantly black Garden Heights community attend.

As such, Starr has to play two roles. At home, she’s Starr Version 1, the black urban teen raised by her father in the precepts of the Black Panthers, while, at school, she’s Starr Version 2, the serious academic who is never remotely ghetto and even whiter than her white friends, like BFF Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) and boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), both of who use urban black slang in an attempt to be down with the street. The liberal-minded Chris even tells her that he doesn’t see colour, which, as Starr points out, is precisely the problem, telling him “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”

Starr’s two worlds collide when, on the way home from a  party with childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith), they’re pulled over and, while Starr duly carries out her father’s instructions of compliance,  he’s shot by a white police officer (Drew Starkey) while reaching into the car for a hairbrush, Starr watching him bleed out.

Protests duly ensue as those from her different worlds react in different ways. Her white friends protest, but more as excuse to take a day off school, while black lawyer and activist  (Issa Ray) wants her to speak out, even if anonymously, as the witness to the shooting. Her father wants her to use her voice, but her mother wants to keep her safe. Matters are further complicated by the fact her uncle Carlos (Common) is himself a policeman (with a  pretty good income judging by his house) and Seven’s actual mother is married to  King (Anthony Mackie), the local gangster for whom Maverick used to work and did time. Khalil too has links to King and, as such, we see how the system and the media skew the shooting to turn the focus on him rather than the cop who shot him.

Starr’s quest for justice will eventually place her too in the spotlight, putting herself and her family in danger from King as she looks to do the right thing by her dead friend, while when her separate lives are exposed, a rift inevitably opens up between her and her high school clique.

All this is undeniably powerful and provocative and the film frequently alludes to real life examples of racial murder, like those of  Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Emmett Till, but much comes across as schematic and, at times, manipulatively sentimental in its calls for change and understanding.

Nonetheless, for all its sometimes blunt approach, there’s no denying the moral fire that is its engine, especially in the wake of the current spate of shootings of unarmed blacks by white officers, with Stenberg providing the high octane fuel of a new generation of young Americans, of all colours, that feeds it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)

When a  hacker blows the cover of all of MI7’s agents, the only way to track them down is to recall one the retirees. Among them is Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), currently working as a geography teacher with a sideline in training his pupils in espionage techniques. After accidentally eliminating the other candidates (cameos by Michael Gambon, Edward Fox and Charles Dance), MI7 boss Pegasus (Adam James) and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) have no choice but to assign the obliviously bumbling English to the job, who, along with his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) insists, in addition to a gun and other retro spy kit gadgets that are now out of fashion, on going totally analog so they can’t be tracked. This also includes him driving a weaponised snazzy red Aston Martin

Quickly, but not before burning down a French restaurant, English identifies the source of the attack as coming from a luxury yacht, Dot Calm, which, with one of the funniest throwaway gags involving magnets, they infiltrate and cross paths with Russian spy Ophelia Bulletova (former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko).

Meanwhile, following yet more cyber attacks, the PM, looking for a way to bolster her image at the upcoming G12 summit,  is trying to recruit smarmy and slick billionaire tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who immediately fixes the latest attack and, recommending she divert all the country’s servers to his,  agrees to come on board. He also happens to own the Dawn Calm.

Reprising his 007 spoof character after a seven year gap, in keeping with a world where the likes of Spy and Kingsman have restyled such parodies, there’s a little less slapstick and a little more self-aware sophistication  this time round. Even so, the screenplay still finds plenty of room for Atkinson’s unique brand of physical comedy, including scenes involving letting him loose on the London streets in a virtual reality headset and displaying his caffeine-high dance moves.

The climax, set in a Scottish castle, in which English attempts to stop Volta while wearing suit of armour is a touch drawn out and the screenplay frequently obvious and telegraphed, but, ably supported by Miller’s ever reliable straight man, Kurylenko providing the glamour and Thompson on fine comic form as the flustered, and exasperated PM looking to put her own prestige and survival before the country (drawn your own satirical conclusions), Atkinson mixture of accidental heroics, smug self-delusion, elastic expressions and perfect timing ensures that this is far more family friendly fun than some reviews would have you believe. (Cineworld Solihull; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Overlord (18)

Taking its title from the codename for the D-Day invasion,  produced by JJ Abrams, written by Billy Ray and directed by the lesser-known  Julius Avery, this is basically a WWII movie with zombies, wherein, shot down over France en route to destroy a Nazi radio tower  so the invasion can have air support, the surviving American soldiers, explosives expert mission leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt),  Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and unblooded rookie who, at boot camp, couldn’t even kill a mouse, war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker),  and Bronx loudmouth Tibbet (John Magaro),  hook up with local villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who hides them in her attic.

There are, however, dastardly deeds afoot in the nearby church, where a suitably despicable Nazi scientist is experiment on the locals, bringing the dead back to life with a  serum  designed to create superhuman soldiers to achieve the Thousand-Year Reich. However, he’s not perfected it yet, meaning they’re churning out rabid, mutated zombies that either have to be burned to a  crisp or locked in cells for future experimentation. Chloe’s aunt was one of the volunteers, and is now secreted away at home, disfigured and with what sounds like a very bade case of asthma.

Send on a  scouting mission, Boyce gets into the bunker, discovers what’s going on (cue body bags with goo and guinea pigs) and, being the film’s conscience, insists they have to stop it. Ford, on the other hand, insists the mission comes first. All of which is further complicated by the fact that the Nazi Commander, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who has forced Chloe into a sexual arrangement to spare, turns up at the house.

Firmly balanced between utterly bad Germans  and good Americans (albeit Ford following his Sgt’s advice to be as ‘rotten’ as the enemy in securing their objective), the highly atmospheric opening, all orange glare, mist and parachutes and bodies hanging from trees, giving way to a lashing of gore and body horror special effects as the group head into the church to detrory the mast, blow up the lab and rescue Chloe’s cute young brother from the clutches of the hideously transformed Wafner.

A big budget war horror B-movie with solid cinematography, a robust sound design and plenty of bloody shoot-em-up action, it may play fast and loose with historical accuracy and, despite some brutal torture,  is less concerned about challenging  audiences  over  what’s morally defensible in the pursuit of what’s right  than it has at amping up the tension and scares. Don’t be surprised to see a video game spin-off. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Possum (15)

The feature debut by British writer-director Matthew Holness (aka horror writer Garth Marenghi), this is pretty much a two-hander  surreal and expressionist art house psychological horror with Sean Harris as Philip, a disgraced children’s puppeteer haunted by a disturbing past.

Returning to his now near derelict former childhood Norfolk flatlands home, where his school satchel still hangs by the door opposite a crucifix, he spends most of the chronologically disjointed film trying to dispose  of the titular Possum, a hideous human-headed spider puppet he  created to go with the illustrated poem he’d written, and which he carries around in a  doctor’s bag. However, burning, crushing and drowning it seem to have no effect as it’s always back hanging on the wall of his room or crawling toward him.

Sharing the house is his estranged loathsome uncle, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who sits in  the filthy kitchen, chain-smoking, cackling to himself, taunting Philip and offering him gobstoppers in a jar.

Clues as to past events are dropped out, Philip returns to his old school, there’s hints about a classmate who vanished, and Holness litters the film with religious imagery  as, the madness gathering,  it disorientingly makes its way to the reveal explaining the reasons for Philip’s guilt, self-loathing  and trauma, symbolised in the creepy puppet.  Exploring a central theme of abuse and psychological fall-out, mingling influences from Ted Hughes, Samuel Beckett, David Cronenberg  and Freud, with a muddy pallete and an  unsettling score by the former BBC Radiophonic Workshop , with its recurring nightmare structure, it’s an uncomfortable and at times repetitive watch, but it’s undeniably one that you’ll find hard to shake. (Electric)

 

Smallfoot (U)

Form and content are at distinct odds in this latest musical animation, an amusing family friendly perspective reversal concept tale about Yetis and humans for the post-Trump, fake news generation.

Living high up in the Himalayan mountains, beyond the cloud cover, Yetis live a contented life governed by the rules handed down over the years in the form of the ‘stones’. They believe that they originated from the backside of the great yak in the sky, that their mountain is held up by giant woolly mammoths who have to be kept cool by machines that generate water from ice, that the sun is a giant snail that has to be woken every morning to travel across the sky and that there is no such creature as a smallfoot, it’s just something to scare the kids.

But then, one day, Migo (Channing Tautum), eager to take over from his dad (Danny DeVito) as the one responsible for waking the snail every day (by firing themselves at a giant gong and striking it with their protective helmet, witnesses a plane crashing into the show and – even more – his first sight of a human: a smallfoot.

However, when the wreckage is swept away, he has no proof and is firmly reminded by the tribe’s elder, the Stonekeeper (Common), that the sacred stones say that the smallfoot doesn’t exist, and claiming they do is tantamount to saying  that their whole belief system is a lie. When Migo refuses to recant, he’s banished from the village.

There are, however those who believe him; fluffy purple Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Meechee (Zendaya), who’s actually the Stonkeeper’s daughter and Migo’s secret crush, comprise the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society and  they come up with a plan to lower Migo below the clouds to find the evidence he needs.

Which is where he crosses paths with Percy Patterson (James Cordon), a nature show presenter who, in an attempt to boost his flagging viewing figures, wants his assistant to dress up as a Yeti so he can fake the discovery.  To cut to the chase, Migo ends up taking him back to the village where he proves something of a hit, even though neither understands the others language (Yetis hear high pitched squeals, humans hear fierce growls), all of which threatens forces the Stonekeeper to reveal some historical truths to Migo in order to get him to tell everyone he’d made a mistake.  Further to which, Meechee having herself gone down the mountain to take the ailing Percy home, she and Migo get a personal taste of the Stonekeeper’s account of how humans treat so called ‘monsters’.

Save for Common’s Let It Lie rap about Yeti history (good) and Cordon’s karaoke version of Under Pressure (hideous), the songs are  basically Frozen-lite, but, despite  the repetitive narrative (and inconsistent character scales), the cartoonish physical  comedy and colourful characters will keep the kids amused while the grown ups ponder such heavy messages about questioning religion, authority and society’s rules and whether a lie is sometimes better than the truth that are a long subversive way from the familiar be yourself, love everyone Disney life lessons of your usual kid’s movie.  (Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Hardy  plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld 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

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