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MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 16-Thu Feb 22

NEW RELEASES

Black Panther (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Father Figures (15)

Gathering dust on the studio shelf for almost three years, this alleged comedy finally staggers into a limited number of screens, pairing Ed Helms and Owen Wilson as twin brothers despite not looking even remotely related) who, learning at the remarriage of their mother (Glenn Close) that the man in the photo they believed to be their late father  was in fact just an actor and that mom, being a  bit of  a free spirit in the 70s (the way she’s talked about she’s was virtually a  porn athelete), doesn’t actually know who their dad was, set out to find the most likely suspect, a former NFL star (Terry Bradshaw playing himself).  Suffice to say, he’s just the first pit stop along the paternity trail (next up is J.K.Simmons as a Studio 54-partying Wall Street whiz kid who’s now steals cars to order) in a film that’s more about the two chalk and cheese brothers (Helms is a negative attitude divorcee doctor with an estranged teenage son, Wilson’s a carefree positive attitude hippie with a sexy Hawaiian wife who made his money as the model for the figure on a barbecue sauce brand and talks to the ‘universe’ on his cell phone) forging a bond in-between assorted juvenile escapades, the low points of which involve Wilson and a young boy pissing on each other in a rest area toilet and, in somewhat racist shades,  insisting on tying up a hitchhiker (Katt Williams) on the off chance he might be a serial killer. There’s also a joke about the possibility of Peter having engaged in incest with a woman he meets in a  hotel bar.

All of this is delivered without a hint of any comedic spark as the film plods from one set-up to the next before throwing in another implausible – supposedly emotional – twist, along with a cameoing Christopher Walken, at the end. The two leads, neither at the top of their game, do at least have the brothers’ lack of chemistry, but that’s not intended as any sort of recommendation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Journey’s End (12A)

First staged in 1928, starring a  young Laurence Oliver, and a repertory theatre staple ever since (as well as the inspiration for Blackadder Goes Forth), RC Sherriff’s anti-war drama is set in a WWI trench as comic relief cook Mason (Toby Jones) and a  group of British officers, variously former public school teacher Osborne (Paul Bettany) who insist the men call him Uncle, newly commissioned compulsive eater Trotter (Stephen Graham), mentally-disintegrating veteran Stanhope (Sam Claflin), the officer in charge, whose taken refuge in drink and, having specifically requested the assignment,  his younger, hero-worshipping naïve new arrival school chum Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) to whose sister he’s  engaged, await the imminent – and inevitably fatal – March 1918 German offensive.

Directed by Saul Dibb, this broadens out from the play’s one-set staging to take in the battlefield as well as scenes back in Blighty, but remains suitably claustrophobic, focusing on the men’s psychological collapse under the stress, Stanhope worried that Raleigh will write home to his sister and expose his drunkenness and weakness, and underlining the futility and brutality of war, particularly in the suicide mission to take a German prisoner. The backdrop may be familiar, but the performances, which also include Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp and  Tom Sturridge, are all top notch and the sense of the looming inevitability ratchets up the tension, at the end of it all audiences likely to feel utterly drained by the experience. (MAC)

The Shape of Water (15)

Set in what could just as easily be some retro dystopian future as Cold War era Baltimore, 1962, Guillermo del Toro’s latest, his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth, leads the Oscar and BAFTA nominations and is pretty much guaranteed to take Best Film and Director with Sally Hawkins the main Best Actress threat to what most assumed would be a shoe-in for Frances McDormand.

Hawkins plays Elisa, a  physically and mentally scarred mute cleaner who works the night shift alongside her friend Zelda (Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates through signing, at a secret government aerospace research facility to which is brought a new important asset. This turns out to be an amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones, who performed a similar role in del Toro’s Hellboy films), regarded as a god by the Amazonian natives where he was captured, kept chained in a tank to be experimented on and with whom, both being misunderstood and unable speak out, she soon forms first a bond (by feeding him hard-boiled eggs and playing jazz music) and, subsequently, a romantic interspecies attachment that eventually supplants her daily masturbation sessions in the bath.

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

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

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

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

 

NOW PLAYING

The 15:17 To Paris (15)

In similar fashion to Paul Greengrass’s United 93 account of how the titular plane’s doomed passengers foiled the 9/11 hijack plot,  Clint Eastwood retells the events of August 21, 2015, when a gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, assumed to have been an Islamic terrorist, armed with an AK-47 and a pistol, opened fire on passengers aboard a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris and, when his rifle jammed, was overcome by three American passengers, Anthony Sadler and his friends  Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, the latter two serving in the military, who were  celebrated as heroes. The twist to Eastwood’s film is that the three men, none of whom had acting experience, portray themselves, re-enacting their actions on that day. However, given that the brief struggle isn’t going to take up an entire film, Eastwood subjects viewers to a long preamble (interspersed with a couple of brief clips from the selling point) about the friendship between the three men, starting with Stone and Skarklatos, both the sons of single devout Christian moms (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer), hooking up with cool black kid Sadler at their Sacramento school where, when not at home playing war (something about which Spencer has an obsession) and the three of them spend a considerable amount of time in the principal’s office. They’re eventually split up, but remain in contact,  Sadler (who has the least backstory) going on to university and Stone and Skarlatos eventually enlisting, the latter serving in Afghanistan.

They decide to take an impromptu backpacking tour around Europe which ultimately leads them to board the titular train and the incident at the crux of the story, taking time to underline how Spencer felt his life was building to a purpose. Fate, chance, the unfathomable workings of God? Who knows, and the film doesn’t dwell on the debate either, finally getting down to an authentic recreation of what went down, in which Stone was injured while the three subdued the gunman, but also saved the life of a shot passenger (Mark Moogalian also rather bravely playing himself as does his wife), and closing with a splicing of actual and reconstructed footage of the three of them being awarded the Legion of Honour. Actually there’s four of them; however, the other, Chris Nolan, being an elderly British businessman, doesn’t warrant  a mention.

In a cinema universe overpopulated by super-powered beings, it’s applaudable that Eastwood should make a film honouring ordinary everyday heroes and, even if they are reliving their own script, the three guys deliver reasonable performances as versions of themselves, even if the exchanges between them sometimes feel stiff. Even so, even Oscar winners would have a hard time making the  uneventful lengthy Euro tourist mid-section involving and, until that moment on the train, the film drags.  Part docudrama, part action thriller, for a few confused moments it grips your attention it its fist, the other 80 odd are just about waiting for something to happen. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Call Me By Your Name (15)

Adapted from André Aciman’s novel of homosexual awakening and first love,  directed by Luca Guadagnino and set in   the north of Italy in the summer of 1983,  Timothée Chalamet stars as Elio Perlman, a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian whiling away his time in the family’s lavish villa transcribing and playing classical music. He flirts with his friend Marzia (Esther Garre) and has  a close bond with his father and mother, (Michael Stuhlbarg. Amira Casar), respectively a classics archeologist and a  translator. Then, one day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American academic working on his PhD, arrives to intern with Elio’s father,  stirring the awakening of desire in the two of them over the course of a summer romance. Gently told with lots of meaningful looks, it has a quiet poignancy.  (Mockingbird)

Coco (PG)                                              

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

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

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar nominated ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Commuter (15)

Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time  for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old  ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work),  insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant.  Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.

Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions,  threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and  hook up with the FBI,   Is it the  black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or  the student  with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?

As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.

Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a  feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a  tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a  gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this  delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket.  (Vue Star City)

 

Darkest Hour  (PG)

Oscar nominated for Best Picture, this is the third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, BAFTA and Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (Cineworld Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Den Of Thieves  (15) 

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

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

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

There’s an attempt to introduce some moral ambiguity to the characters, forcing audiences, as in Michael Mann’s classic, to question who they should be rooting for, but, failing to much humanise either of the opposing protagonists (Butler crying over being an estranged daddy is about as convincing as his generic tough cop bluster) the script never really pulls it off, just as a clumsily written Japanese restaurant, where Davis pretends to bump into Donnie as he’s eating with the gang and, as Merriman susses, is patently obviously a cop, makes no logical sense.  There’s a final unexpected twist, but that too is stolen from another crime classic, suggesting that while Gudegast may make a decent thief, he’s a pretty poor fence.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Downsizing  (15)

An awkwardly assembled environmental end of days Swiftian allegory, Alexander Payne’s latest is an interesting concept flawed by its telling. With over-population and climate change putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, a team of Norwegian scientists headed up by Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) come up with a means of miniaturising people to around six  inches, creating a colony and eventually announcing their discovery to the world. It’s not long before hundred are volunteering to downsize and moving to purpose built communities such as Leisureland where, apparently, going small means you can live a much grander life. Overstretched as they are, that certainly appeals to occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and, convinced by a friend (Jason Sudeikis) who’s opted for a Lilliputian life, and the fact that their $152,000 asserts are worth $12m in Leisureland, having had the sales spiel and seen the presentation (hosted by a cameoing Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) he and his wife Audrey (Kirstin Wiig) decide to follow suit.

However, waking up after the procedure (during which all body hair has to be  removed along with any dental fillings), while peering under the sheet and happily finding that certain things have shrunk in proportion, he’s then shocked to learn Audrey backed out at the last moment.

Now, he has to make a new life for himself alone. At which point the film introduces a couple of new narrative strands in the form of his playboy Eurotrash neighbour, Dusan (Christopher Waltz), who’s made a fortune on the black market by smuggling contraband from the ‘outside’ world, and his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), leg, the embittered sole only survivor of Vietnamese dissidents who were shrunk by her government as a punishment. Now with an ill-fitting artificial  leg, she lives in Leisureland’s equivalent of ghettoised housing projects with the other ‘undesirables’ and it is through her that Paul begins to  learn to see the world and his life in a different perspective,  helping her distribute leftover food to the  less fortunate.  Inevitably an unlikely romance sparks. Then comes news that the world is facing an extinction event.

Encased in a  glass-dome, Leisureland is clearly America in microcosm, with all the same racial and class inequalities still writ large, but the Faustian bargain screenplay never seems to quite find its focus or tone, veering between satirical comedy, mutual healing romance,  eco parable and commentary on the economic crisis. Not helped by a running gag about the mispronunciation of his character’s name, a rather bland Damon never feels quite comfortable in the role while Waltz and, as his equally hedonistic partner in crime, Udo Kier, turn up the dial on their performances to an almost camp degree.  Unexpectedly, initially appearing to be something of an ethnic stereotype with her broken English and rapid speaking patters, Chau hijacks the film, proving genuinely funny (her list of the different types of American fuck is hilarious) and giving  the film’s strongest  and most emotional performance as Ngoc emerges as the most interesting and complex character. Feeling like a film written to fit the title pun, it’s a big idea but it comes up short. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Early Man  (PG)

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

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

It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway  football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocen/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fifty Shades Freed (18)

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Insidious: The Last Key  (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Vue Star City)

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  game sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maze Runner: The Death Cure  (12A)

Delayed on account of the on-set accident suffered by Dylan O’Brien, this is the third and final chapter in the adaptation of James Dashner’s young adults novels, original director Wes Ball returning to provide the send-off.  Despite Enders Game and The 5th Wave both having failed to launch the anticipated franchise and the planned conclusion to the Divergent series demoted to a TV series  without its star, Shailene Woodley, the fact that this dislodged Jumanji from the box office throne shows there’s still a hefty audience for the dystopian genre if it’s done right.

Certainly, this makes no attempt to involve anyone not already familiar with the narrative, opening with Thomas (O’Brien) and resistance fighters Vince (Barry Pepper), Rosa (Brenda Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) staging a thrilling assault on a train to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Unfortunately, while freeing some of the other immunes (remember, a deadly virus, the Flare, is wiping out humans by turning them into zombie-like  ‘cranks’), Minho’s not among them, prompting Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to try and infiltrate the walled WKD city stronghold where he’s been taken for experimentation in search of a cure by scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s now assisted by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a former Glader and Thomas’s erstwhile love interest  who betrayed them in the last film in her belief that science was the only answer.

Here, they’re surprised to be reunited with someone from the first film they all thought dead  and, of course, are destined to be ruthlessly hunted down by the series chief villain, WKD’s head of security, Janson (Aiden Gillen, with his permanent smile cum sneer, the film gathering to top gear after a somewhat saggy mid-section for combination of jailbreak and  full-on storming of Last City by those outside its walls.

While it’s possible to see allusions to the Trump administration, this is less about scoring any political points and more about delivering explosions, shoot-outs and not one but two dramatic airlifts by attaching a hook to a vehicle filled with WKD captives. Plus, with one of the team showing signs of infection and Thomas’s reunion with Teresa, themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice  and assorted moral quandaries all percolate the screenplay.

Featuring some pretty spectacular action sequences and aerial shots, hugely impressive CGI effects and a welcome boost in screen time and involvement by Salazar, at 140 minutes it may drag out the climax longer than needed, but, with a sense of genuine chemistry among the central cast to go with the firefights, this brings the curtain down in impressive style.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Mercy (12A)

The first of two films this year, both from the same distributor, about infamous British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, a family man and electronic engineer, this one comes from The Theory of Everything director James Marsh and looks to give a sympathetic spin on why Crowhurst, one of nine entrants in the nine-month long Golden Globe Race, a 1968 competition sponsored by The Sunday Times in the wake of Sir Francis Chichester’s ground breaking voyage the previous year, with prizes of £5000 to both  the first person to sail around the world single-handed but, unlike Chichester, without  any stops on land, and the fastest to do so. Whether he won or not, if he completed the voyage, it would  be a huge boost to the commercial success of the self-invented electronic equipment he was using.

However, as history recounts, Crowhurst, an amateur weekend sailor with no ocean-going experience and a ship that wasn’t ready to set sail, even after several delays, found himself lagging behind and in trouble, Faced with possible death if he continued and certain ruin if he gave up, he  consequently faked his position and progress. Unfortunately, when the sole remaining contestant in came a cropper, it meant Crowhurst’s deception was certain to be exposed, prompting him, it is assumed, to commit suicide, his boat subsequently found adrift and unoccupied.

It’s a sympathetic portrait of a man out of his depth, isolated and under enormous pressure from his sponsors (to secure the funds he needed to build the Teingmouth Electron trimaran, Crowhurst (Colin Firth) mortgages  his home and business to local entrepreneur Stanley Best, played by Ken Stott) to complete the voyage while, back home, his exploits were being exaggerated by his ethically dodgy press agent Rodney Hallworth (David Thewliss) in order to secure more media attention. Not surprisingly, alone at sea, unable to tell his wife what was happening without giving himself away, the film shows him slipping into madness, hallucinating as loses his grip on reality. Unfortunately,  although shooting at sea gives it an authenticity, other than some straggly beard and overgrown hair, without any in-depth backstory or exploration of his personality, Firth never really looks like a man at end of his tether, his performance far removed from that of Robert Redford in the similarly ocean-set one man on a boat survival drama All Is Lost.

Things are no more convincing back on land with Thewlis, Stott, Mark Addis as Sunday Times editor Ronald Hall and Rachel Weisz as supportive wife Clare all one-dimensional, though, to be fair, Weisz does have a strong and almost moving moment as, after her husband’s deception’s revealed, she addresses the media vultures gathered at her doorstep, even if this never actually happened in reality.

The photography gives the film a 60s look to match the period, but the narrative itself lacks depth and context, almost as if the screenplay too set sail before it was seaworthy. (Empire Great Park)

Phantom Thread  (15)

Having already had one five-year period of semi-retirement, it seems that triple Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis has decided to finally quit acting for good. This, then, is his swansong, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, making his first British film affording him the opportunity to bow in style (and with another Oscar nomination) as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, dressmaker to the vulgar but rich high society women of British post-war society he despises but relies on, not to mention the occasional Belgian princess. He’s a cold fish, fastidious to the point of anal, crabby, humourless and preeningly self-important, still in thrall to his late mother who launched him on a  career as a couturier and unable to make emotional connections. Indeed, he’s first seen breakfasting with his latest live-in lover, making it abundantly clear he’s tired of her, her removal duly facilitated by his domineering, caustic and equally frosty business partner sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).

Taking a  brief seaside break, he encounters shy, clumsy German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately as smitten as his personality allows, seeing in her potential for beauty and poise, duly whisking her back to London where, much to Cyril’s initial displeasure,  she becomes both his assistant, muse, star model and occasional sexual gratification. Naturally, given Raymond’s controlling nature and lack of tolerance (there’s brilliant scene in which the sounds of Alma having breakfast are magnified to indicate his irritation at such ‘distraction’ from his work), the relationship seems set to collapse. However, Alma’s not about to lie down and be walked over, proving, with the help of a little poison mushroom omelette (another daringly nuanced scene) that she can be just as manipulative in making him emotionally rely upon her while he tries to keep her at a remove. It is, as she puts it at one point, something of a staring contest to see who blinks first.

Affecting a mannered speaking voice and sinuous body language, Day-Lewis is superb in his portrayal of toxic masculinity shot through with ineffable vulnerability and need, creating but never finding beauty, his composure also rattled by the threat from a new fashion trends that are seducing way his clients, giving rise to a riveting explosion of anger when Cyril dares to mention the term ‘chic’. He’s brilliant complemented though by both Kriebs and Manville, the former giving a complex and intricately textured performance while the latter feels as though she’s stepped out of the pages of a Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Working on themes of desire, ambition and control and enrobed in Jonny Greenwood score, Hitchcock, Bergman and Losey are all evident influences in Anderson’s claustrophobic design and fabric  while the relationship between Woodcock and his sister. An unusual and at times oblique love story, it has a definite refined art house quality that might prove testing for less patient audiences, but its narrative needlework is true craftsmanship. (Electric; Everyman; MAC)

The Post  (12A)

Some 40 years after All The President’s Men told how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee  serves up this swiftly made prequel about the 1971  leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. These were a classified report into the role of the US in IndoChina commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that, initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst with the Rand Corporation (and whose story was told in a 2003 TV movie), revealed how the US administration, from Truman to Nixon, had been lying to the American public about policy towards Vietnam, prolonging a war  they knew could never be won – at the cost of American lives – to avoid humiliation.

With  the Times barred from publishing further details by the Attorney General, when The Washington Post, a regional daily under the managing editorship of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), the socialite who had inherited the company following her husband’s suicide,  acquired the rest of the papers, they prepared to take up the story.

Opening with the Post initially having a  run-in with the White House when Nixon refused to let it cover his daughter’s wedding, the  film focuses on the pressures and decisions around whether to publish or not; Graham was in the process of  taking the company public on the Stock Exchange and any “catastrophic occurrence”  could cause investors to pull out and potentially cause the paper to collapse. Equally, there was the possibility they could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for treason, again bringing the paper to its knees. As the film tells it, Graham was also under pressure from members of her Board of Directors who did not feel she had the experience and strength to handle matters, not least being a woman. This strand runs parallel with Bradlee’s race against the clock to obtain the papers and get the articles written in the event Graham, who was a close friend of McNamara, elected to give the go-ahead  to publish.

Unfolding a confrontation between the press and the government, it’s a taut, suspenseful thriller about the freedom of the press to hold those in power accountable, a throwback to the days of hot metal type when a regional newspaper actually meant something rather than filling its pages with lightweight ‘user generated’  dross.  Streep and Hanks (in rolled up shirt sleeves snapping out lines like “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”) are terrific, especially in the scenes they share, and are well supported by a  cast that also includes  Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie,  Bradley Whitford and, as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who tracked down Ellsberg to get hold of the papers, Bob Odenkirk. Spielberg drives things along at pace that captures the urgency of the situation as the deadline for going to print approaches and there’s much here to make veteran newshounds nostalgic, but, more to the point, it’s a potent reminder of the power of great journalism in the cause of the public interest at a time when the press is under increasing pressure from those who would prefer the truth of their deception and corruption remained unreported. (Electric; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

Status Update (12A)

Opening without any previews and starring people you’ve probably never heard of, this is a teen be careful what you wish for romcom in which Kyle Moore (vanilla Disney Channel  regular Ross Lynch), uprooted after his parents split up, has a hard time fitting into his new hometown and school. But then, in getting his phone fixed, he’s given a magical app called The Universe that causes his social media updates to all come true and, from being the unpopular outsider he’s suddenly the centre of attention, able to do anything he wants (singing and dancing like Bruno Mars, hot shot ice hockey player), except, naturally, it’s not necessarily what he needs, especially when Charlotte (Courney Eden), the school’s resident queen bitch, decides she wants him and throws a spanner into his budding romance with nice girl Dani (Olivia Holt). Now, as mom says, he has to try and make it right. Directed by Scott Speer whose only previous big screen credit was the forgettable Step Up 4, this promises to be every bit as bland and awful as the trailer suggests. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Vue Star City)

 

Tad the Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas (U)

After the first film only got a DVD release in the UK, dubbed into English from the original Spanish, this animation sequel gets the full cinema treatment, although there’s nothing that particularly warrants the promotion to the big screen. Although it helps to have seen the original to know more about the characters, basically Tad Jones is a construction worker and archeology student with dreams of being an Indiana Jones-like adventurer and is in love with famous explorer Sara and is hoping she’ll become his girlfriend. She’s just discovered an ancient manuscript that gives a final clue to the existence of the necklace that gave King Midas the ability to turn things into gold and has invited him to its unveiling in Las Vegas. However, the dastardly Jack Rackham (Ramon Tikaram) is determined to find it too and, with his henchman, steals the papyrus and kids Sara, but not before she can give Tad the map with the clues to the three parts of  the necklace. So, he sets off to rescue her, accompanied by his stupid dog, Jeff,  Sara’s intelligent but grouchy pet bird,  her assistant Melissa and, the over-enthusiastic Mummy from the last film, who’s sought him out after being exiled from the city of the Incas. On a quest that takes them from America to  Spain and Turkey and involves betrayal and making a sacrifice for love, it’s unambitious and has none of the spark or details of animations from the likes of Pixar, but it’s enjoyable enough with Joseph Balderrama providing the best and funniest moments as Mummy, whose limbs have a habit of falling off, who, at one point, disguises himself as a Spanish woman in a  red dress, attracting their besotted taxi driver.  It doesn’t have the golden touch, but younger audiences will find it fun.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Heavily represented in both the BAFTA and Oscar nominations,  Best Picture included, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winchester (15)

History records that, back in the first decade of the 20th century, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the  company that created the Winchester repeating rifle, began extension work on the family mansion in San Jose, California, construction continuing for 38 years as more and more rooms, as well as stairs that led nowhere were added, allegedly under the belief that she was cursed on account of the deaths the rifles had caused and the house was meant as an atonement to the spirits. Legend also relates that the place as haunted and that Winchester was obsessed with the number 13. All of which provides the basis for this period horror, in which laudanum-addict doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the company to assess Winchester (Helen Mirren) as mentally incompetent so they can remove her from the board.

He duly fetches up at the eccentric mansion where Winchester, who always dresses in black widow weeds (she also lost her daughter shortly after her birth) and holds solo midnight seances, is living with her recently widowed niece, Marion (Sarah Snook in a mostly thankless role), and her young son, Henry, (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), as well as a couple of creepy butlers, Arthur (Tyler Coppin) and Ben (Eamon Farren), the place also populated by assorted housemaids and the workmen who continue the building day and night.

He’s barely been shown to his room that he’s seeing ghostly figures and is subsequently confirmed that the rooms are all recreations of where those who were killed died so that their spirits can come to terms and move on. Those nailed shut (with 13 nails), including the garden room, house spirits who remain too angry to do so. Naturally, there’s a tormented soul at large who’s regularly possessing young Henry and wants to kill Sarah and, equally naturally, Price refuses to believe what he’s seeing until events force him to do otherwise. There’s also a backstory involving his own wife, Ruby (Laura Brent) who committed suicide and how he himself was shot and died for three minutes, all of which, of course, proves to be bound to why he’s connected to the house, his search for redemption and the means to sort out the vengeful ghost of a dead Confederate soldier.

There’s a vague anti-gun commentary limping through the contrived screenplay (though, keeping the NRA on board, Marion duly points out it’s not the gun that kills but the people who pull the trigger), but it’s mostly buried in the generic jolts and shocks involving ghosts suddenly popping up, rattling cupboards and the like, there’s even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to bring down a  few walls too. What there isn’t is much tension or many actual scares, but at least Mirren seems to be having fun and Clarke delivers an unremarkable but sufficiently solid enough performance to at least prevent the film from firing complete blanks. (Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 9-Thu Feb 15

NEW RELEASES

Fifty Shades Freed (18)

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

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

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

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

 

The 15:17 To Paris (15)

 

 

Unless it’s a major blockbuster and they’re looking to avoid spoilers, it’s generally not a good sign when a distributor embargoes reviews of a film until the day it opens, usually suggesting they don’t expect it to be well-received. However, it’s something of a surprise when the director is  Clint Eastwood.

In similar fashion to Paul Greengrass’s United 93 account of how the titular plane’s doomed passengers foiled the 9/11 hijack plot, it retells the events of August 21, 2015, when a gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, assumed to have been an Islamic terrorist, armed with an AK-47 and a pistol, opened fire on passengers aboard a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris and, when his rifle jammed, was overcome by three American passengers, Anthony Sadler and his friends  Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, the latter two serving in the military, who were  celebrated as heroes. The twist to Eastwood’s film is that the three men, none of whom had acting experience, portray themselves, re-enacting their actions on that day. However, given that the brief struggle isn’t going to take up an entire film, Eastwood subjects viewers to a long preamble (interspersed with a couple of brief clips from the selling point) about the friendship between the three men, starting with Stone and Skarklatos, both the sons of single devout Christian moms (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer), hooking up with cool black kid Sadler at their Sacramento school where, when not at home playing war (something about which Spencer has an obsession) and the three of them spend a considerable amount of time in the principal’s office. They’re eventually split up, but remain in contact,  Sadler (who has the least backstory) going on to university and Stone and Skarlatos eventually enlisting, the latter serving in Afghanistan.

They decide to take an impromptu backpacking tour around Europe which ultimately leads them to board the titular train and the incident at the crux of the story, taking time to underline how Spencer felt his life was building to a purpose. Fate, chance, the unfathomable workings of God? Who knows, and the film doesn’t dwell on the debate either, finally getting down to an authentic recreation of what went down, in which Stone was injured while the three subdued the gunman, but also saved the life of a shot passenger (Mark Moogalian also rather bravely playing himself as does his wife), and closing with a splicing of actual and reconstructed footage of the three of them being awarded the Legion of Honour. Actually there’s four of them; however, the other, Chris Nolan, being an elderly British businessman, doesn’t warrant  a mention.

In a cinema universe overpopulated by super-powered beings, it’s applaudable that Eastwood should make a film honouring ordinary everyday heroes and, even if they are reliving their own script, the three guys deliver reasonable performances as versions of themselves, even if the exchanges between them sometimes feel stiff. Even so, even Oscar winners would have a hard time making the  uneventful lengthy Euro tourist mid-section involving and, until that moment on the train, the film drags.  Part docudrama, part action thriller, for a few confused moments it grips your attention it its fist, the other 80 odd are just about waiting for something to happen. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Mercy (12A)

The first of two films this year, both from the same distributor, about infamous British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, a family man and electronic engineer, this one comes from The Theory of Everything director James Marsh and looks to give a sympathetic spin on why Crowhurst, one of nine entrants in the nine-month long Golden Globe Race, a 1968 competition sponsored by The Sunday Times in the wake of Sir Francis Chichester’s ground breaking voyage the previous year, with prizes of £5000 to both  the first person to sail around the world single-handed but, unlike Chichester, without  any stops on land, and the fastest to do so. Whether he won or not, if he completed the voyage, it would  be a huge boost to the commercial success of the self-invented electronic equipment he was using.

However, as history recounts, Crowhurst, an amateur weekend sailor with no ocean-going experience and a ship that wasn’t ready to set sail, even after several delays, found himself lagging behind and in trouble, Faced with possible death if he continued and certain ruin if he gave up, he  consequently faked his position and progress. Unfortunately, when the sole remaining contestant in came a cropper, it meant Crowhurst’s deception was certain to be exposed, prompting him, it is assumed, to commit suicide, his boat subsequently found adrift and unoccupied.

It’s a sympathetic portrait of a man out of his depth, isolated and under enormous pressure from his sponsors (to secure the funds he needed to build the Teingmouth Electron trimaran, Crowhurst (Colin Firth) mortgages  his home and business to local entrepreneur Stanley Best, played by Ken Stott) to complete the voyage while, back home, his exploits were being exaggerated by his ethically dodgy press agent Rodney Hallworth (David Thewliss) in order to secure more media attention. Not surprisingly, alone at sea, unable to tell his wife what was happening without giving himself away, the film shows him slipping into madness, hallucinating as loses his grip on reality. Unfortunately,  although shooting at sea gives it an authenticity, other than some straggly beard and overgrown hair, without any in-depth backstory or exploration of his personality, Firth never really looks like a man at end of his tether, his performance far removed from that of Robert Redford in the similarly ocean-set one man on a boat survival drama All Is Lost.

Things are no more convincing back on land with Thewlis, Stott, Mark Addis as Sunday Times editor Ronald Hall and Rachel Weisz as supportive wife Clare all one-dimensional, though, to be fair, Weisz does have a strong and almost moving moment as, after her husband’s deception’s revealed, she addresses the media vultures gathered at her doorstep, even if this never actually happened in reality.

The photography gives the film a 60s look to match the period, but the narrative itself lacks depth and context, almost as if the screenplay too set sail before it was seaworthy. (Cineworld  NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Status Update (12A)

Opening without any previews and starring people you’ve probably never heard of, this is a teen be careful what you wish for romcom in which Kyle Moore (vanilla Disney Channel  regular Ross Lynch), uprooted after his parents split up, has a hard time fitting into his new hometown and school. But then, in getting his phone fixed, he’s given a magical app called The Universe that causes his social media updates to all come true and, from being the unpopular outsider he’s suddenly the centre of attention, able to do anything he wants (singing and dancing like Bruno Mars, hot shot ice hockey player), except, naturally, it’s not necessarily what he needs, especially when Charlotte (Courney Eden), the school’s resident queen bitch, decides she wants him and throws a spanner into his budding romance with nice girl Dani (Olivia Holt). Now, as mom says, he has to try and make it right. Directed by Scott Speer whose only previous big screen credit was the forgettable Step Up 4, this promises to ber every bit as bland and awful as the trailer suggests. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park)

 

Tad the Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas (U)

After the first film only got a DVD release in the UK, dubbed (by a mostly unknown cast) into English from the original Spanish, this animation sequel gets the full cinema treatment, although there’s nothing that particularly warrants the promotion to the big screen. Although it helps to have seen the original to know more about the characters, basically Tad Jones (Trevor White) is a construction worker and archaeology student with dreams of being an Indiana Jones-like adventurer (he has the hat) and is in love with famous explorer Sara (Alex Kelly) and is hoping she’ll become his girlfriend. She’s just discovered an ancient manuscript that gives a final clue to the existence of the necklace that gave King Midas the ability to turn things into gold and has invited him to its unveiling in Las Vegas. However, the dastardly Jack Rackham (Ramon Tikaram) is determined to find it too and, with his henchman, steals the papyrus and kidnaps Sara, but not before she can give Tad the map with the clues to the three parts of  the necklace. So, he sets off to rescue her, accompanied by his stupid dog, Jeff,  Sara’s intelligent but grouchy pet bird,  her assistant Melissa (Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan) and, the over-enthusiastic Mummy (Joseph Balderrama) from the last film, who’s sought him out after being exiled from the city of the Incas. On a quest that takes them from America to  Spain and Turkey and involves betrayal and making a sacrifice for love, it’s unambitious and has none of the spark or details of animations from the likes of Pixar, but it’s enjoyable enough with Balderrama providing the best and funniest moments as Mummy, whose limbs have a habit of falling off, who, at one point, disguises himself as a Spanish woman in a  red dress, attracting a besotted taxi driver.  It doesn’t have the golden touch, but younger audiences will find it fun.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Coco (PG)                                              

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

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

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar nominated ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Commuter (15)

Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time  for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old  ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work),  insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant.  Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.

Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions,  threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and  hook up with the FBI,   Is it the  black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or  the student  with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?

As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.

Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a  feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a  tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a  gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this  delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket.  (Cineworld NEC; Vue Star City)

 

Darkest Hour  (PG)

Oscar nominated for Best Picture, this is the third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, BAFTA and Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Den Of Thieves  (15) 

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

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

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

There’s an attempt to introduce some moral ambiguity to the characters, forcing audiences, as in Michael Mann’s classic, to question who they should be rooting for, but, failing to much humanise either of the opposing protagonists (Butler crying over being an estranged daddy is about as convincing as his generic tough cop bluster) the script never really pulls it off, just as a clumsily written Japanese restaurant, where Davis pretends to bump into Donnie as he’s eating with the gang and, as Merriman susses, is patently obviously a cop, makes no logical sense.  There’s a final unexpected twist, but that too is stolen from another crime classic, suggesting that while Gudegast may make a decent thief, he’s a pretty poor fence.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Downsizing  (15)

An awkwardly assembled environmental end of days Swiftian allegory, Alexander Payne’s latest is an interesting concept flawed by its telling. With over-population and climate change putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, a team of Norwegian scientists headed up by Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) come up with a means of miniaturising people to around six  inches, creating a colony and eventually announcing their discovery to the world. It’s not long before hundred are volunteering to downsize and moving to purpose built communities such as Leisureland where, apparently, going small means you can live a much grander life. Overstretched as they are, that certainly appeals to occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and, convinced by a friend (Jason Sudeikis) who’s opted for a Lilliputian life, and the fact that their $152,000 asserts are worth $12m in Leisureland, having had the sales spiel and seen the presentation (hosted by a cameoing Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) he and his wife Audrey (Kirstin Wiig) decide to follow suit.

However, waking up after the procedure (during which all body hair has to be  removed along with any dental fillings), while peering under the sheet and happily finding that certain things have shrunk in proportion, he’s then shocked to learn Audrey backed out at the last moment.

Now, he has to make a new life for himself alone. At which point the film introduces a couple of new narrative strands in the form of his playboy Eurotrash neighbour, Dusan (Christopher Waltz), who’s made a fortune on the black market by smuggling contraband from the ‘outside’ world, and his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), leg, the embittered sole only survivor of Vietnamese dissidents who were shrunk by her government as a punishment. Now with an ill-fitting artificial  leg, she lives in Leisureland’s equivalent of ghettoised housing projects with the other ‘undesirables’ and it is through her that Paul begins to  learn to see the world and his life in a different perspective,  helping her distribute leftover food to the  less fortunate.  Inevitably an unlikely romance sparks. Then comes news that the world is facing an extinction event.

Encased in a  glass-dome, Leisureland is clearly America in microcosm, with all the same racial and class inequalities still writ large, but the Faustian bargain screenplay never seems to quite find its focus or tone, veering between satirical comedy, mutual healing romance,  eco parable and commentary on the economic crisis. Not helped by a running gag about the mispronunciation of his character’s name, a rather bland Damon never feels quite comfortable in the role while Waltz and, as his equally hedonistic partner in crime, Udo Kier, turn up the dial on their performances to an almost camp degree.  Unexpectedly, initially appearing to be something of an ethnic stereotype with her broken English and rapid speaking patters, Chau hijacks the film, proving genuinely funny (her list of the different types of American fuck is hilarious) and giving  the film’s strongest  and most emotional performance as Ngoc emerges as the most interesting and complex character. Feeling like a film written to fit the title pun, it’s a big idea but it comes up short. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park;  MAC; Vue Star City)

Early Man  (PG)

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

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

It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway  football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocen/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Insidious: The Last Key  (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  game sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maze Runner: The Death Cure  (12A)

Delayed on account of the on-set accident suffered by Dylan O’Brien, this is the third and final chapter in the adaptation of James Dashner’s young adults novels, original director Wes Ball returning to provide the send-off.  Despite Enders Game and The 5th Wave both having failed to launch the anticipated franchise and the planned conclusion to the Divergent series demoted to a TV series  without its star, Shailene Woodley, the fact that this dislodged Jumanji from the box office throne shows there’s still a hefty audience for the dystopian genre if it’s done right.

Certainly, this makes no attempt to involve anyone not already familiar with the narrative, opening with Thomas (O’Brien) and resistance fighters Vince (Barry Pepper), Rosa (Brenda Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) staging a thrilling assault on a train to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Unfortunately, while freeing some of the other immunes (remember, a deadly virus, the Flare, is wiping out humans by turning them into zombie-like  ‘cranks’), Minho’s not among them, prompting Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to try and infiltrate the walled WKD city stronghold where he’s been taken for experimentation in search of a cure by scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s now assisted by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a former Glader and Thomas’s erstwhile love interest  who betrayed them in the last film in her belief that science was the only answer.

Here, they’re surprised to be reunited with someone from the first film they all thought dead  and, of course, are destined to be ruthlessly hunted down by the series chief villain, WKD’s head of security, Janson (Aiden Gillen, with his permanent smile cum sneer, the film gathering to top gear after a somewhat saggy mid-section for combination of jailbreak and  full-on storming of Last City by those outside its walls.

While it’s possible to see allusions to the Trump administration, this is less about scoring any political points and more about delivering explosions, shoot-outs and not one but two dramatic airlifts by attaching a hook to a vehicle filled with WKD captives. Plus, with one of the team showing signs of infection and Thomas’s reunion with Teresa, themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice  and assorted moral quandaries all percolate the screenplay.

Featuring some pretty spectacular action sequences and aerial shots, hugely impressive CGI effects and a welcome boost in screen time and involvement by Salazar, at 140 minutes it may drag out the climax longer than needed, but, with a sense of genuine chemistry among the central cast to go with the firefights, this brings the curtain down in impressive style.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Phantom Thread  (15)

Having already had one five-year period of semi-retirement, it seems that triple Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis has decided to finally quit acting for good. This, then, is his swansong, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, making his first British film affording him the opportunity to bow in style (and with another Oscar nomination) as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, dressmaker to the vulgar but rich high society women of British post-war society he despises but relies on, not to mention the occasional Belgian princess. He’s a cold fish, fastidious to the point of anal, crabby, humourless and preeningly self-important, still in thrall to his late mother who launched him on a  career as a couturier and unable to make emotional connections. Indeed, he’s first seen breakfasting with his latest live-in lover, making it abundantly clear he’s tired of her, her removal duly facilitated by his domineering, caustic and equally frosty business partner sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).

Taking a  brief seaside break, he encounters shy, clumsy German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately as smitten as his personality allows, seeing in her potential for beauty and poise, duly whisking her back to London where, much to Cyril’s initial displeasure,  she becomes both his assistant, muse, star model and occasional sexual gratification. Naturally, given Raymond’s controlling nature and lack of tolerance (there’s brilliant scene in which the sounds of Alma having breakfast are magnified to indicate his irritation at such ‘distraction’ from his work), the relationship seems set to collapse. However, Alma’s not about to lie down and be walked over, proving, with the help of a little poison mushroom omelette (another daringly nuanced scene) that she can be just as manipulative in making him emotionally rely upon her while he tries to keep her at a remove. It is, as she puts it at one point, something of a staring contest to see who blinks first.

Affecting a mannered speaking voice and sinuous body language, Day-Lewis is superb in his portrayal of toxic masculinity shot through with ineffable vulnerability and need, creating but never finding beauty, his composure also rattled by the threat from a new fashion trends that are seducing way his clients, giving rise to a riveting explosion of anger when Cyril dares to mention the term ‘chic’. He’s brilliant complemented though by both Kriebs and Manville, the former giving a complex and intricately textured performance while the latter feels as though she’s stepped out of the pages of a Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Working on themes of desire, ambition and control and enrobed in Jonny Greenwood score, Hitchcock, Bergman and Losey are all evident influences in Anderson’s claustrophobic design and fabric  while the relationship between Woodcock and his sister. An unusual and at times oblique love story, it has a definite refined art house quality that might prove testing for less patient audiences, but its narrative needlework is true craftsmanship. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman)

The Post  (12A)

Some 40 years after All The President’s Men told how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee  serves up this swiftly made prequel about the 1971  leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. These were a classified report into the role of the US in IndoChina commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that, initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst with the Rand Corporation (and whose story was told in a 2003 TV movie), revealed how the US administration, from Truman to Nixon, had been lying to the American public about policy towards Vietnam, prolonging a war  they knew could never be won – at the cost of American lives – to avoid humiliation.

With  the Times barred from publishing further details by the Attorney General, when The Washington Post, a regional daily under the managing editorship of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), the socialite who had inherited the company following her husband’s suicide,  acquired the rest of the papers, they prepared to take up the story.

Opening with the Post initially having a  run-in with the White House when Nixon refused to let it cover his daughter’s wedding, the  film focuses on the pressures and decisions around whether to publish or not; Graham was in the process of  taking the company public on the Stock Exchange and any “catastrophic occurrence”  could cause investors to pull out and potentially cause the paper to collapse. Equally, there was the possibility they could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for treason, again bringing the paper to its knees. As the film tells it, Graham was also under pressure from members of her Board of Directors who did not feel she had the experience and strength to handle matters, not least being a woman. This strand runs parallel with Bradlee’s race against the clock to obtain the papers and get the articles written in the event Graham, who was a close friend of McNamara, elected to give the go-ahead  to publish.

Unfolding a confrontation between the press and the government, it’s a taut, suspenseful thriller about the freedom of the press to hold those in power accountable, a throwback to the days of hot metal type when a regional newspaper actually meant something rather than filling its pages with lightweight ‘user generated’  dross.  Streep and Hanks (in rolled up shirt sleeves snapping out lines like “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”) are terrific, especially in the scenes they share, and are well supported by a  cast that also includes  Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie,  Bradley Whitford and, as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who tracked down Ellsberg to get hold of the papers, Bob Odenkirk. Spielberg drives things along at pace that captures the urgency of the situation as the deadline for going to print approaches and there’s much here to make veteran newshounds nostalgic, but, more to the point, it’s a potent reminder of the power of great journalism in the cause of the public interest at a time when the press is under increasing pressure from those who would prefer the truth of their deception and corruption remained unreported. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman;  Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Roman J. Israel Esq (12A)

This legal drama character study may boast an unexpected – though not undeserved – Best Actor Oscar nomination for  Denzel Washington, but it’s still being buried away as a limited release. That said, it’s not hard to see why. Saddled with a particularly attention-bypassing title, it feels much longer than its two hours and, in the midsection, the narrative seems to be idling along as if waiting for the screenwriter to return and release the pause button.

We first meet Israel (Washington) as he’s typing out a letter confessing his serious laps in moral integrity and demanding his own immediate disbarral, the reasons for which take forever to arrive. Somewhat on the spectrum, unmarried, lacking social skills and still sporting a 60s Afro, he’s a former activist and now L.A. criminal attorney with an encyclopaedic memory and knowledge of California legal code and a dream of filing a class action lawsuit to stop the rigged plea bargaining system whereby those accused (and possibly innocent or with mitigating circumstances) wind up accepting a deal to avoid going to trial and potentially risking a harsher sentence. He is, however, a backroom boy, providing the groundwork and advice for his (never actually seen) partner who handles the court proceedings, that is until he has an offscreen heart attack and ends up in a vegetative coma and he learns that the firm can’t afford to keep going or, indeed, pay him any redundancy.

He’s offered a job by corporate high flier George (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner who now heads up a swish legal firm and has been nominated to wind up the practice. Roman refuses until it becomes plain that, in his 6os and with no real experience of the “white man’s courtroom”, finding employment anywhere is going to be nigh impossible. But at least he gets to meet up with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a younger activist who runs a local voluntary organisation aimed at protesting injustice.

The narrative crux comes when he’s assigned by George to represent a young man (Niles Fitch) who was involved in a robbery where the storekeeper was shot dead by his accomplice. His client offers to turn evidence, as he knows where the killer’s hiding out, but, incensed at the terms, Roman (who seems to alienate most authority figures, his first appearance in decades winding up with a fine for contempt) ) botches the deal that’s offered and the kid winds up murdered in jail. However, he does have the confidential information he was given and there is a $100,000 reward, fairly tempting for someone with no savings who lives in a shabby apartment (decorated with images of Angela Davis and Marvin Gaye and packed with jazz albums), wears cheap suits and seemingly only eats peanut butter. Es;pecially given it seems likely he’s now going to get fired.

For a while,  he gets to enjoy the good life, emblemised by eating maple syrup turkey bagels on the beach, but, inevitably, his actions come back to haunt him as the film briefly slides into more of a tense thriller mode.  Some judicious editing of the flabby midsection would not have gone amiss, nor would more clarity regarding Roman’s relationship with Maya, but, writer-director David Gilroy has a good eye for detail and character with a script that pokes around in the moral ambiguities of a modern world rife with iniquities. Ultimately, it could have done with a stronger, perhaps more focused narrative core, but it’s certainly worth seeing for Washington’s brilliantly nuanced, complex and unmannered performance, disappearing into the character, an idealist out of time but still consumed by the passion for justice that drove him as a younger man. It ends on its weakest note, but Washington keep you with him throughout. (Vue Star City)

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Heavily represented in both the BAFTA and Oscar nominations,  Best Picture included, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Everyman; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Winchester (15)

History records that, back in the first decade of the 20th century, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the  company that created the Winchester repeating rifle, began extension work on the family mansion in San Jose, California, construction continuing for 38 years as more and more rooms, as well as stairs that led nowhere were added, allegedly under the belief that she was cursed on account of the deaths the rifles had caused and the house was meant as an atonement to the spirits. Legend also relates that the place as haunted and that Winchester was obsessed with the number 13. All of which provides the basis for this period horror, in which laudanum-addict doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the company to assess Winchester (Helen Mirren) as mentally incompetent so they can remove her from the board.

He duly fetches up at the eccentric mansion where Winchester, who always dresses in black widow weeds (she also lost her daughter shortly after her birth) and holds solo midnight seances, is living with her recently widowed niece, Marion (Sarah Snook in a mostly thankless role), and her young son, Henry, (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), as well as a couple of creepy butlers, Arthur (Tyler Coppin) and Ben (Eamon Farren), the place also populated by assorted housemaids and the workmen who continue the building day and night.

He’s barely been shown to his room that he’s seeing ghostly figures and is subsequently confirmed that the rooms are all recreations of where those who were killed died so that their spirits can come to terms and move on. Those nailed shut (with 13 nails), including the garden room, house spirits who remain too angry to do so. Naturally, there’s a tormented soul at large who’s regularly possessing young Henry and wants to kill Sarah and, equally naturally, Price refuses to believe what he’s seeing until events force him to do otherwise. There’s also a backstory involving his own wife, Ruby (Laura Brent) who committed suicide and how he himself was shot and died for three minutes, all of which, of course, proves to be bound to why he’s connected to the house, his search for redemption and the means to sort out the vengeful ghost of a dead Confederate soldier.

There’s a vague anti-gun commentary limping through the contrived screenplay (though, keeping the NRA on board, Marion duly points out it’s not the gun that kills but the people who pull the trigger), but it’s mostly buried in the generic jolts and shocks involving ghosts suddenly popping up, rattling cupboards and the like, there’s even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to bring down a  few walls too. What there isn’t is much tension or many actual scares, but at least Mirren seems to be having fun and Clarke delivers an unremarkable but sufficiently solid enough performance to at least prevent the film from firing complete blanks. (Cineworld  NEC;  Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

Rag’n’Bone Man, Birmingham Town Hall

Rag'n'Bone Man live at Town Hall Birmingham credit Gareth Griffiths

Rag’N’Bone delivers a performance at an intimate free show at Birmingham Town Hall that you can’t help but feel you really should have paid for.

2017 saw Rag’N’Bone Man – real name Rory Charles Graham – win the Critic’s Choice Award and Best Newcomer at The Brit Awards, fill venues across the world and sell over one million albums.

He’s an arena level artist, however, tonight he sings to just 600 lucky competition winners (and a few journalists), courtesy of Absolute Radio and Free Radio.

Walking onstage sporting a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, his band kicks into regular opener Reuben’s Train – originally by 60s American bluegrass band The Dillards. It’s a melodramatic interpretation which leads straight into ‘Wolves’ itself with bluesy dust bowl vibes.

The hour-long performance tonight is a real tour-de-force; the band are incredibly tight, dancing between funk, gospel, hip-hop and R’n’B with ease. The simple, backlit stage projected huge, skewed shadows of guitars and drumsticks onto the walls of the historic Town Hall.

The singer is in talkative form tonight, introducing many of the songs and the stories behind them. Before ‘Ego’, he explains: “This is about people with big heads, not in the physical sense. This is dedicated to Donald Trump.” followed by: “Sorry, I f**ked up a few times there because I’ve had a cold and I’ve burst my eardrum, but you guys don’t give a f**k, do ya?”

These quotes are fairly indicative of his stage banter this evening, as he sips on something that is “warm and full of alcohol”.

Modest, cheeky, uncensored, and perfectly willing to chat to hecklers, you get the feeling that Rag’N’Bone Man and Rory are one and the same – there’s no act. He may have a voice like a whiskey sippin’ angel, but he’s a true potty mouth and the editing team will have fun sorting this out for daytime airplay.

Highlights are ‘Grace’opening quieter than other tracks, the set breathes. It’s here that his voice – laid bare – envelopes the audience, like a warm blanket. This was followed by a piano and voice rendition of ‘Skin’ which was an exposed, emotional and stunning masterclass in performance.

These are hallowed ‘magic moments’ that are both achievable in the stadia he’s becoming used to but so much more intense in an intimate setting like the city’s Grade I listed concert hall.

‘As You Are’which is performed as a duet, gets a warm reception from the crowd, it fills the room with a feel-good vibe that has the audience grinning from ear to ear, and the odd tear or two.

From that the energy remains high – as the band rattles through ‘Guilty’, ‘Human’ – which flows into a slow funk, ‘Bitter End’ and ‘Hell Yeah!’

The Brits beckon once again for Rag’nBone Man – they’re just around the corner, and tonight affirms his chances.

Words and images: Gareth Griffiths

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 2-Thu Feb 8

NEW RELEASES

Phantom Thread  (15)

Having already had one five-year period of semi-retirement, it seems that triple Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis has decided to finally quit acting for good. This, then, is his swansong, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, making his first British film affording him the opportunity to bow in style (and with another Oscar nomination) as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, dressmaker to the vulgar but rich high society women of British post-war society he despises but relies on, not to mention the occasional Belgian princess. He’s a cold fish, fastidious to the point of anal, crabby, humourless and preeningly self-important, still in thrall to his late mother who launched him on a  career as a couturier and unable to make emotional connections. Indeed, he’s first seen breakfasting with his latest live-in lover, making it abundantly clear he’s tired of her, her removal duly facilitated by his domineering, caustic and equally frosty business partner sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).

Taking a  brief seaside break, he encounters shy, clumsy German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately as smitten as his personality allows, seeing in her potential for beauty and poise, duly whisking her back to London where, much to Cyril’s initial displeasure,  she becomes both his assistant, muse, star model and occasional sexual gratification. Naturally, given Raymond’s controlling nature and lack of tolerance (there’s brilliant scene in which the sounds of Alma having breakfast are magnified to indicate his irritation at such ‘distraction’ from his work), the relationship seems set to collapse. However, Alma’s not about to lie down and be walked over, proving, with the help of a little poison mushroom omelette (another daringly nuanced scene) that she can be just as manipulative in making him emotionally rely upon her while he tries to keep her at a remove. It is, as she puts it at one point, something of a staring contest to see who blinks first.

Affecting a mannered speaking voice and sinuous body language, Day-Lewis is superb in his portrayal of toxic masculinity shot through with ineffable vulnerability and need, creating but never finding beauty, his composure also rattled by the threat from a new fashion trends that are seducing way his clients, giving rise to a riveting explosion of anger when Cyril dares to mention the term ‘chic’. He’s brilliant complemented though by both Kriebs and Manville, the former giving a complex and intricately textured performance while the latter feels as though she’s stepped out of the pages of a Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Working on themes of desire, ambition and control and enrobed in Jonny Greenwood score, Hitchcock, Bergman and Losey are all evident influences in Anderson’s claustrophobic design and fabric  while the relationship between Woodcock and his sister. An unusual and at times oblique love story, it has a definite refined art house quality that might prove testing for less patient audiences, but its narrative needlework is true craftsmanship. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Den Of Thieves  (15) 

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

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

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

There’s an attempt to introduce some moral ambiguity to the characters, forcing audiences, as in Michael Mann’s classic, to question who they should be rooting for, but, failing to much humanise either of the opposing protagonists (Butler crying over being an estranged daddy is about as convincing as his generic tough cop bluster) the script never really pulls it off, just as a clumsily written Japanese restaurant, where Davis pretends to bump into Donnie as he’s eating with the gang and, as Merriman susses, is patently obviously a cop, makes no logical sense.  There’s a final unexpected twist, but that too is stolen from another crime classic, suggesting that while Gudegast may make a decent thief, he’s a pretty poor fence.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Roman J. Israel Esq (12A)

This legal drama character study may boast an unexpected – though not undeserved – Best Actor Oscar nomination for  Denzel Washington, but it’s still being buried away on three out of town screens. That said, it’s not hard to see why. Saddled with a particularly attention-bypassing title, it feels much longer than its two hours and, in the midsection, the narrative seems to be idling along as if waiting for the screenwriter to return and release the pause button.

We first meet Israel (Washington) as he’s typing out a letter confessing his serious laps in moral integrity and demanding his own immediate disbarral, the reasons for which take forever to arrive. Somewhat on the spectrum, unmarried, lacking social skills and still sporting a 60s Afro, he’s a former activist and now L.A. criminal attorney with an encyclopaedic memory and knowledge of California legal code and a dream of filing a class action lawsuit to stop the rigged plea bargaining system whereby those accused (and possibly innocent or with mitigating circumstances) wind up accepting a deal to avoid going to trial and potentially risking a harsher sentence. He is, however, a backroom boy, providing the groundwork and advice for his (never actually seen) partner who handles the court proceedings, that is until he has an offscreen heart attack and ends up in a vegetative coma and he learns that the firm can’t afford to keep going or, indeed, pay him any redundancy.

He’s offered a job by corporate high flier George (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner who now heads up a swish legal firm and has been nominated to wind up the practice. Roman refuses until it becomes plain that, in his 6os and with no real experience of the “white man’s courtroom”, finding employment anywhere is going to be nigh impossible. But at least he gets to meet up with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a younger activist who runs a local voluntary organisation aimed at protesting injustice.

The narrative crux comes when he’s assigned by George to represent a young man (Niles Fitch) who was involved in a robbery where the storekeeper was shot dead by his accomplice. His client offers to turn evidence, as he knows where the killer’s hiding out, but, incensed at the terms, Roman (who seems to alienate most authority figures, his first appearance in decades winding up with a fine for contempt) ) botches the deal that’s offered and the kid winds up murdered in jail. However, he does have the confidential information he was given and there is a $100,000 reward, fairly tempting for someone with no savings who lives in a shabby apartment (decorated with images of Angela Davis and Marvin Gaye and packed with jazz albums), wears cheap suits and seemingly only eats peanut butter. Es;pecially given it seems likely he’s now going to get fired.

For a while,  he gets to enjoy the good life, emblemised by eating maple syrup turkey bagels on the beach, but, inevitably, his actions come back to haunt him as the film briefly slides into more of a tense thriller mode.  Some judicious editing of the flabby midsection would not have gone amiss, nor would more clarity regarding Roman’s relationship with Maya, but, writer-director David Gilroy has a good eye for detail and character with a script that pokes around in the moral ambiguities of a modern world rife with iniquities. Ultimately, it could have done with a stronger, perhaps more focused narrative core, but it’s certainly worth seeing for Washington’s brilliantly nuanced, complex and unmannered performance, disappearing into the character, an idealist out of time but still consumed by the passion for justice that drove him as a younger man. It ends on its weakest note, but Washington keep you with him throughout. (Cineworld NEC;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Winchester (15)

History records that, back in the first decade of the 20th century, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the  company that created the Winchester repeating rifle, began extension work on the family mansion in San Jose, California, construction continuing for 38 years as more and more rooms, as well as stairs that led nowhere were added, allegedly under the belief that she was cursed on account of the deaths the rifles had caused and the house was meant as an atonement to the spirits. Legend also relates that the place as haunted and that Winchester was obsessed with the number 13. All of which provides the basis for this period horror, in which laudanum-addict doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the company to assess Winchester (Helen Mirren) as mentally incompetent so they can remove her from the board.

He duly fetches up at the eccentric mansion where Winchester, who always dresses in black widow weeds (she also lost her daughter shortly after her birth) and holds solo midnight seances, is living with her recently widowed niece, Marion (Sarah Snook in a mostly thankless role), and her young son, Henry, (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), as well as a couple of creepy butlers, Arthur (Tyler Coppin) and Ben (Eamon Farren), the place also populated by assorted housemaids and the workmen who continue the building day and night.

He’s barely been shown to his room that he’s seeing ghostly figures and is subsequently confirmed that the rooms are all recreations of where those who were killed died so that their spirits can come to terms and move on. Those nailed shut (with 13 nails), including the garden room, house spirits who remain too angry to do so. Naturally, there’s a tormented soul at large who’s regularly possessing young Henry and wants to kill Sarah and, equally naturally, Price refuses to believe what he’s seeing until events force him to do otherwise. There’s also a backstory involving his own wife, Ruby (Laura Brent) who committed suicide and how he himself was shot and died for three minutes, all of which, of course, proves to be bound to why he’s connected to the house, his search for redemption and the means to sort out the vengeful ghost of a dead Confederate soldier.

There’s a vague anti-gun commentary limping through the contrived screenplay (though, keeping the NRA on board, Marion duly points out it’s not the gun that kills but the people who pull the trigger), but it’s mostly buried in the generic jolts and shocks involving ghosts suddenly popping up, rattling cupboards and the like, there’s even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to bring down a  few walls too. What there isn’t is much tension or many actual scares, but at least Mirren seems to be having fun and Clarke delivers an unremarkable but sufficiently solid enough performance to at least prevent the film from firing complete blanks. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

12 Strong  (15)

Shortly after 9/11, Task Force Dagger, a twelve-strong team of  Green Berets, weren’t deployed in Afghanistan, the first American troops to serve in the country,  charged with linking forces with General Abdul Rashid Dustum, one of the most powerful – but also notoriously allegiance-shifting – warlords, in order to liberate Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban stronghold and stop the country being used as an Al Qaeda training ground. Although their initial purpose was to get close enough to the targets to call in bomb strikes, leaving the actual fighting to Dustum and his soldiers, the team, forced, much to their surprise, to ride horses to traverse the mountainous terrain, eventually found themselves in the thick of the battle. In a mission that lasted just three weeks (as opposed to the allotted six), they succeeded in liberating several villages and taking their target, one of the biggest – and very few – successes in a conflict that has now been going on for almost 17 years.

Based on Horse Soldiers, Doug Stanton’s non-fiction account of events, although only two of the soldiers depicted (Lt Colonel Bowers and Colonel Mulholland played by Rob Riggle and William Fichter, respectively) go by their real names and here, unlike in reality, one of them suffers a life-threatening injury, this is otherwise a generally faithful telling of what went down.

Chris Hemsworth is Mitch Nelson (in real life Mark Nutsch), the team’s captain who, after they’d returned from working with specials ops forces in special operations forces in Uzbekistan, had been promoted into a desk job and had to lobby his commanding officer to let him rejoin his men for the mission. Like his character, all but one of the team were family men, among them  Michael Shannon as his second-in-command, Hal Spencer, and Michael Peña as Sam Diller, although Elsa Pataky (Hemsworth’s actual  wife), Allison King and Lauren Myers get fairly short shrift as their respective wives back home. The task force also features Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes as Ben Milo.

Directed by Nicola Fuslig making his feature debut with a screenplay by Ted Tally and The Hunger Games’ Peter Craig, it’s workmanlike, but (if overlong at 130 minutes) nevertheless engaging and, as the battle for  Mazar-e- Sharif (under the command of Said Taghmaoui’s cruel Taliban leader), pitching men on horses against tanks and rocket launchers, often tensely exciting war drama. It’s also compounded by Nelson not only having to implement his orders but, given the fact that hostilities could kick off at any time between the rival Northern Alliance warlords, forge a bond with Dustum (a commanding turn by Homeland’s Navid Negahban), , who would go on to become the country’s Vice-President and, as the end credits reveal, maintain his friendship with Nutsch to the present day.  The scenes pitting  Nelson’s intellectual approach against the more pragmatic Dustum, the two men ultimately learning from each other, are among the film’s best.

Despite clearly resonating with the mood of Trump’s red state America, this is less gung ho than you’d expect, more interested in the men and a heroic battle against impossible odds than waving the flag and, if it lacks the political depth of something like 13 Hours or The Hurt Locker, its meditation on the difference between a soldier and a warrior, as espoused by Dustum, is ample compensation.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

Coco (PG)                                              

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

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

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar nominated ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Commuter (15)

Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time  for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old  ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work),  insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant.  Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.

Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions,  threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and  hook up with the FBI,   Is it the  black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or  the student  with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?

As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.

Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a  feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a  tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a  gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this  delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Darkest Hour  (PG)

Oscar nominated for Best Picture, this is the third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, BAFTA and Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Downsizing  (15)

An awkwardly assembled environmental end of days Swiftian allegory, Alexander Payne’s latest is an interesting concept flawed by its telling. With over-population and climate change putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, a team of Norwegian scientists headed up by Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) come up with a means of miniaturising people to around six  inches, creating a colony and eventually announcing their discovery to the world. It’s not long before hundred are volunteering to downsize and moving to purpose built communities such as Leisureland where, apparently, going small means you can live a much grander life. Overstretched as they are, that certainly appeals to occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and, convinced by a friend (Jason Sudeikis) who’s opted for a Lilliputian life, and the fact that their $152,000 asserts are worth $12m in Leisureland, having had the sales spiel and seen the presentation (hosted by a cameoing Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) he and his wife Audrey (Kirstin Wiig) decide to follow suit.

However, waking up after the procedure (during which all body hair has to be  removed along with any dental fillings), while peering under the sheet and happily finding that certain things have shrunk in proportion, he’s then shocked to learn Audrey backed out at the last moment.

Now, he has to make a new life for himself alone. At which point the film introduces a couple of new narrative strands in the form of his playboy Eurotrash neighbour, Dusan (Christopher Waltz), who’s made a fortune on the black market by smuggling contraband from the ‘outside’ world, and his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), leg, the embittered sole only survivor of Vietnamese dissidents who were shrunk by her government as a punishment. Now with an ill-fitting artificial  leg, she lives in Leisureland’s equivalent of ghettoised housing projects with the other ‘undesirables’ and it is through her that Paul begins to  learn to see the world and his life in a different perspective,  helping her distribute leftover food to the  less fortunate.  Inevitably an unlikely romance sparks. Then comes news that the world is facing an extinction event.

Encased in a  glass-dome, Leisureland is clearly America in microcosm, with all the same racial and class inequalities still writ large, but the Faustian bargain screenplay never seems to quite find its focus or tone, veering between satirical comedy, mutual healing romance,  eco parable and commentary on the economic crisis. Not helped by a running gag about the mispronunciation of his character’s name, a rather bland Damon never feels quite comfortable in the role while Waltz and, as his equally hedonistic partner in crime, Udo Kier, turn up the dial on their performances to an almost camp degree.  Unexpectedly, initially appearing to be something of an ethnic stereotype with her broken English and rapid speaking patters, Chau hijacks the film, proving genuinely funny (her list of the different types of American fuck is hilarious) and giving  the film’s strongest  and most emotional performance as Ngoc emerges as the most interesting and complex character. Feeling like a film written to fit the title pun, it’s a big idea but it comes up short. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Early Man  (PG)

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

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

It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway  football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocen/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Insidious: The Last Key  (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  game sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maze Runner: The Death Cure  (12A)

Delayed on account of the on-set accident suffered by Dylan O’Brien, this is the third and final chapter in the adaptation of James Dashner’s young adults novels, original director Wes Ball returning to provide the send-off.  Despite Enders Game and The 5th Wave both having failed to launch the anticipated franchise and the planned conclusion to the Divergent series demoted to a TV series  without its star, Shailene Woodley, the fact that this dislodged Jumanji from the box office throne shows there’s still a hefty audience for the dystopian genre if it’s done right.

Certainly, this makes no attempt to involve anyone not already familiar with the narrative, opening with Thomas (O’Brien) and resistance fighters Vince (Barry Pepper), Rosa (Brenda Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) staging a thrilling assault on a train to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Unfortunately, while freeing some of the other immunes (remember, a deadly virus, the Flare, is wiping out humans by turning them into zombie-like  ‘cranks’), Minho’s not among them, prompting Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to try and infiltrate the walled WKD city stronghold where he’s been taken for experimentation in search of a cure by scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s now assisted by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a former Glader and Thomas’s erstwhile love interest  who betrayed them in the last film in her belief that science was the only answer.

Here, they’re surprised to be reunited with someone from the first film they all thought dead  and, of course, are destined to be ruthlessly hunted down by the series chief villain, WKD’s head of security, Janson (Aiden Gillen, with his permanent smile cum sneer, the film gathering to top gear after a somewhat saggy mid-section for combination of jailbreak and  full-on storming of Last City by those outside its walls.

While it’s possible to see allusions to the Trump administration, this is less about scoring any political points and more about delivering explosions, shoot-outs and not one but two dramatic airlifts by attaching a hook to a vehicle filled with WKD captives. Plus, with one of the team showing signs of infection and Thomas’s reunion with Teresa, themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice  and assorted moral quandaries all percolate the screenplay.

Featuring some pretty spectacular action sequences and aerial shots, hugely impressive CGI effects and a welcome boost in screen time and involvement by Salazar, at 140 minutes it may drag out the climax longer than needed, but, with a sense of genuine chemistry among the central cast to go with the firefights, this brings the curtain down in impressive style.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Post  (12A)

Some 40 years after All The President’s Men told how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee  serves up this swiftly made prequel about the 1971  leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. These were a classified report into the role of the US in IndoChina commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that, initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst with the Rand Corporation (and whose story was told in a 2003 TV movie), revealed how the US administration, from Truman to Nixon, had been lying to the American public about policy towards Vietnam, prolonging a war  they knew could never be won – at the cost of American lives – to avoid humiliation.

With  the Times barred from publishing further details by the Attorney General, when The Washington Post, a regional daily under the managing editorship of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), the socialite who had inherited the company following her husband’s suicide,  acquired the rest of the papers, they prepared to take up the story.

Opening with the Post initially having a  run-in with the White House when Nixon refused to let it cover his daughter’s wedding, the  film focuses on the pressures and decisions around whether to publish or not; Graham was in the process of  taking the company public on the Stock Exchange and any “catastrophic occurrence”  could cause investors to pull out and potentially cause the paper to collapse. Equally, there was the possibility they could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for treason, again bringing the paper to its knees. As the film tells it, Graham was also under pressure from members of her Board of Directors who did not feel she had the experience and strength to handle matters, not least being a woman. This strand runs parallel with Bradlee’s race against the clock to obtain the papers and get the articles written in the event Graham, who was a close friend of McNamara, elected to give the go-ahead  to publish.

Unfolding a confrontation between the press and the government, it’s a taut, suspenseful thriller about the freedom of the press to hold those in power accountable, a throwback to the days of hot metal type when a regional newspaper actually meant something rather than filling its pages with lightweight ‘user generated’  dross.  Streep and Hanks (in rolled up shirt sleeves snapping out lines like “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”) are terrific, especially in the scenes they share, and are well supported by a  cast that also includes  Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie,  Bradley Whitford and, as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who tracked down Ellsberg to get hold of the papers, Bob Odenkirk. Spielberg drives things along at pace that captures the urgency of the situation as the deadline for going to print approaches and there’s much here to make veteran newshounds nostalgic, but, more to the point, it’s a potent reminder of the power of great journalism in the cause of the public interest at a time when the press is under increasing pressure from those who would prefer the truth of their deception and corruption remained unreported. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  MAC; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either. As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half-hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Empire Great Park;  Vue Star City)

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Heavily represented in both the BAFTA and Oscar nominations,  Best Picture included, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 26-Thu Feb 2

 

 NEW RELEASES

Early Man  (PG)

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

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

It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway  football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocen/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

12 Strong  (15)

Shortly after 9/11,Task Force Dagger, a twelve-strong team of  Green Berets, weren’t deployed in Afghanistan, the first American troops to serve in the country,  charged with linking forces with General Abdul Rashid Dustum, one of the most powerful – but also notoriously allegiance-shifting – warlords, in order to liberate Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban stronghold and stop the country being used as an Al Qaeda training ground. Although their initial purpose was to get close enough to the targets to call in bomb strikes, leaving the actual fighting to Dustum and his soldiers, the team, forced, much to their surprise, to ride horses to traverse the mountainous terrain, eventually found themselves in the thick of the battle. In a mission that lasted just three weeks (as opposed to the allotted six), they succeeded in liberating several villages and taking their target, one of the biggest – and very few – successes in a conflict that has now been going on for almost 17 years.

Based on Horse Soldiers, Doug Stanton’s non-fiction account of events, although only two of the soldiers depicted (Lt Colonel Bowers and Colonel Mulholland played by Rob Riggle and William Fichter, respectively) go by their real names and here, unlike in reality, one of them suffers a life-threatening injury, this is otherwise a generally faithful telling of what went down.

Chris Hemsworth is Mitch Nelson (in real life Mark Nutsch), the team’s captain who, after they’d returned from working with specials ops forces in special operations forces in Uzbekistan, had been promoted into a desk job and had to lobby his commanding officer to let him rejoin his men for the mission. Like his character, all but one of the team were family men, among them  Michael Shannon as his second-in-command, Hal Spencer, and Michael Peña as Sam Diller, although Elsa Pataky (Hemsworth’s actual  wife), Allison King and Lauren Myers get fairly short shrift as their respective wives back home. The task force also features Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes as Ben Milo.

Directed by Nicola Fuslig making his feature debut with a screenplay by Ted Tally and The Hunger Games’ Peter Craig, it’s workmanlike, but (if overlong at 130 minutes) nevertheless engaging and, as the battle for  Mazar-e- Sharif (under the command of Said Taghmaoui’s cruel Taliban leader), pitching men on horses against tanks and rocket launchers, often tensely exciting war drama. It’s also compounded by Nelson not only having to implement his orders but, given the fact that hostilities could kick off at any time between the rival Northern Alliance warlords, forge a bond with Dustum (a commanding turn by Homeland’s Navid Negahban), , who would go on to become the country’s Vice-President and, as the end credits reveal, maintain his friendship with Nutsch to the present day.  The scenes pitting  Nelson’s intellectual approach against the more pragmatic Dustum, the two men ultimately learning from each other, are among the film’s best.

Despite clearly resonating with the mood of Trump’s red state America, this is less gung ho than you’d expect, more interested in the men and a heroic battle against impossible odds than waving the flag and, if it lacks the political depth of something like 13 Hours or The Hurt Locker, its meditation on the difference between a soldier and a warrior, as espoused by Dustum, is ample compensation.

(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maze Runner: The Death Cure  (12A)

Delayed on account of the on-set accident suffered by Dylan O’Brien, this is the third and final chapter in the adaptation of James Dashner’s young adults novels, original director Wes Ball returning to provide the send-off. Given that the underperforming  Enders Game and The 5th Wave both failed to launch the anticipated franchise and Ascendent, the planned conclusion to the Divergent series, was scrapped and will now be a TV series, but without its star, Shailene Woodley, it seems audience smay have lost their taste for the dystopian genre launched by The Hunger Games.

Certainly, this makes no attempt to involve anyone not already familiar with the narrative, opening with Thomas (O’Brien) and resistance fighters Vince (Barry Pepper), Rosa (Brenda Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) staging a thrilling assault on a train to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Unfortunately, while freeing some of the other immunes (remember, a deadly virus, the Flare, is wiping out humans by turning them into zombie-like  ‘cranks’), Minho’s not among them, prompting Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to try and infiltrate the walled WKD city stronghold where he’s been taken for experimentation in search of a cure by scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s now assisted by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a former Glader and Thomas’s erstwhile love interest  who betrayed them in the last film in her belief that science was the only answer.

Here, they’re surprised to be reunited with someone from the first film they all thought dead  and, of course, are destined to be ruthlessly hunted down by the series chief villain, WKD’s head of security, Janson (Aiden Gillen, with his permanent smile cum sneer, the film gathering to top gear after a somewhat saggy mid-section for combination of jailbreak and  full-on storming of Last City by those outside its walls.

While it’s possible to see allusions to the Trump administration, this is less about scoring any political points and more about delivering explosions, shoot-outs and not one but two dramatic airlifts by attaching a hook to a vehicle filled with WKD captives. Plus, with one of the team showing signs of infection and Thomas’s reunion with Teresa, themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice  and assorted moral quandaries all percolate the screenplay.

Featuring some pretty spectacular action sequences and aerial shots, hugely impressive CGI effects and a welcome boost in screen time and involvement by Salazar, at 140 minutes it may drag out the climax longer than needed, but, with a sense of genuine chemistry among the central cast to go with the firefights, this brings the curtain down in impressive style.  Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story in a  year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (Mockingbird)

Coco (PG)                                              

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

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

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring Oscar nominated ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Commuter (15)

Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time  for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old  ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work),  insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant.  Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.

Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions,  threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and  hook up with the FBI,   Is it the  black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or  the student  with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?

As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.

Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a  feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a  tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a  gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this  delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Darkest Hour  (PG)

Oscar nominated for Best Picture,, this is the third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, BAFTA and Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Downsizing  (15)

An awkwardly assembled environmental end of days Swiftian allegory, Alexander Payne’s latest is an interesting concept flawed by its telling. With over-population and climate change putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, a team of Norwegian scientists headed up by Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) come up with a means of miniaturising people to around six  inches, creating a colony and eventually announcing their discovery to the world. It’s not long before hundred are volunteering to downsize and moving to purpose built communities such as Leisureland where, apparently, going small means you can live a much grander life. Overstretched as they are, that certainly appeals to occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and, convinced by a friend (Jason Sudeikis) who’s opted for a Lilliputian life, and the fact that their $152,000 asserts are worth $12m in Leisureland, having had the sales spiel and seen the presentation (hosted by a cameoing Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) he and his wife Audrey (Kirstin Wiig) decide to follow suit.

However, waking up after the procedure (during which all body hair has to be  removed along with any dental fillings), while peering under the sheet and happily finding that certain things have shrunk in proportion, he’s then shocked to learn Audrey backed out at the last moment.

Now, he has to make a new life for himself alone. At which point the film introduces a couple of new narrative strands in the form of his playboy Eurotrash neighbour, Dusan (Christopher Waltz), who’s made a fortune on the black market by smuggling contraband from the ‘outside’ world, and his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), leg, the embittered sole only survivor of Vietnamese dissidents who were shrunk by her government as a punishment. Now with an ill-fitting artificial  leg, she lives in Leisureland’s equivalent of ghettoised housing projects with the other ‘undesirables’ and it is through her that Paul begins to  learn to see the world and his life in a different perspective,  helping her distribute leftover food to the  less fortunate.  Inevitably an unlikely romance sparks. Then comes news that the world is facing an extinction event.

Encased in a  glass-dome, Leisureland is clearly America in microcosm, with all the same racial and class inequalities still writ large, but the Faustian bargain screenplay never seems to quite find its focus or tone, veering between satirical comedy, mutual healing romance,  eco parable and commentary on the economic crisis. Not helped by a running gag about the mispronunciation of his character’s name, a rather bland Damon never feels quite comfortable in the role while Waltz and, as his equally hedonistic partner in crime, Udo Kier, turn up the dial on their performances to an almost camp degree.  Unexpectedly, initially appearing to be something of an ethnic stereotype with her broken English and rapid speaking patters, Chau hijacks the film, proving genuinely funny (her list of the different types of American fuck is hilarious) and giving  the film’s strongest  and most emotional performance as Ngoc emerges as the most interesting and complex character. Feeling like a film written to fit the title pun, it’s a big idea but it comes up short. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Florida Project (15)

Working with a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment than his previous offering, Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, director  and co-writer Sean Baker offers a bleak and bittersweet portrait of dysfunctional life below the poverty line on Orlando’s fringes, events set around  The Magic Castle, a cheap motel in a run-down suburb within almost spitting distance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Florida resort, the helicopters ferrying guests landing and taking off within view of the motel, some, as in the amusing opening sequence with a couple of honeymooners, accidentally booking in here by mistake.

A  last resort doss house for any number of life’s losers,  it’s managed by Bobby (a superbly understated Oscar nominated Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast), a gruff but good-hearted reluctant father figure  to its motley residents, among them heavily tattooed, combative  young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who, a former stripper and now currently unemployed, is struggling to raise the weekly rent, reselling knock off perfumes to the tourists and relying on waffle  hand outs from a  friend down the local diner to  feed her feisty six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We first encounter her with her friend from upstairs, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting  from the balcony on to one of the cars below. The confrontation with its naturally irate owner leads to Moonee striking up a friendship with new resident Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and the film then follows the mischievous but essentially innocent escapades of these street urchins, interspersed with Halley’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise the cash she needs, eventually resorting to advertising sexual favours. Inevitably, at some point social services arrive on the scene.

There’s no plot as such, rather a series of anecdotal incidents variously involving Halley scamming a tourist with stolen Disneyland wristbands, the burning down of a building on an abandoned housing development.

In many ways echoing Mark Twain and the Our Gang movies of the 30s, with its improvisational, documentary-like feel and abrupt unresolved ending, it’s not going to be for anyone, but for those prepared to let it wash through them, it presents a sobering and depressing vision of the scrap heap of the American Dream as well as an emotionally challenging observation on parenting in a world where hope has long packed its bags and left. Halley is at once incredibly  selfishly irresponsible and yet passionately committed in her relationship with Moonee who, for all her rudeness and impertinence carries no malice, merely mirrored behaviour and the scenes of childhood friendship between her and Jancey (the two young stars giving terrific, scene-stealing but natural performances) are bursting with both joy and heartbreak. As is the film. (Mockingbird)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Insidious: The Last Key  (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  game sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

  

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Empire Great Park;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Post  (12A)

Some 40 years after All The President’s Men told how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee  serves up this swiftly made prequel about the 1971  leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. These were a classified report into the role of the US in IndoChina commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that, initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst with the Rand Corporation (and whose story was told in a 2003 TV movie), revealed how the US administration, from Truman to Nixon, had been lying to the American public about policy towards Vietnam, prolonging a war  they knew could never be won – at the cost of American lives – to avoid humiliation.

With  the Times barred from publishing further details by the Attorney General, when The Washington Post, a regional daily under the managing editorship of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), the socialite who had inherited the company following her husband’s suicide,  acquired the rest of the papers, they prepared to take up the story.

Opening with the Post initially having a  run-in with the White House when Nixon refused to let it cover his daughter’s wedding, the  film focuses on the pressures and decisions around whether to publish or not; Graham was in the process of  taking the company public on the Stock Exchange and any “catastrophic occurrence”  could cause investors to pull out and potentially cause the paper to collapse. Equally, there was the possibility they could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for treason, again bringing the paper to its knees. As the film tells it, Graham was also under pressure from members of her Board of Directors who did not feel she had the experience and strength to handle matters, not least being a woman. This strand runs parallel with Bradlee’s race against the clock to obtain the papers and get the articles written in the event Graham, who was a close friend of McNamara, elected to give the go-ahead  to publish.

Unfolding a confrontation between the press and the government, it’s a taut, suspenseful thriller about the freedom of the press to hold those in power accountable, a throwback to the days of hot metal type when a regional newspaper actually meant something rather than filling its pages with lightweight ‘user generated’  dross.  Streep and Hanks (in rolled up shirt sleeves snapping out lines like “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”) are terrific, especially in the scenes they share, and are well supported by a  cast that also includes  Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie,  Bradley Whitford and, as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who tracked down Ellsberg to get hold of the papers, Bob Odenkirk.

Spielberg drives things along at pace that captures the urgency of the situation as the deadline for going to print approaches and there’s much here to make veteran newshounds nostalgic, but, more to the point, it’s a potent reminder of the power of great journalism in the cause of the public interest at a time when the press is under increasing pressure from those who would prefer the truth of their deception and corruption remained unreported. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Heavily represented in both the BAFTA and Oscar nominations,  Best Picture included, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

  

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

Editors unveil sixth album

Editors

Editors have announced details of their forthcoming new album, entitled Violence.

Violence is the former Brum-based band’s sixth album, and follows 2015’s top 5 In Dream. It is produced by Leo Abrahams (Wild Beasts, Florence & The Machine, Frightened Rabbit) and Editors with additional production from Benjamin John Power (Blanck Mass, F*** Buttons) and mixed by Cenzo Townshend, except Hallelujah (So Low) mixed by Alan Moulder.

The first track to be unveiled from the collection is Magazine, with a video shot in Amsterdam by renowned photographer, director and long-term Editors collaborator Rahi Rezvani. Magazine is the band’s first single in three years.

Editors frontman Tom Smith says: ‘‘Magazine is a pointed finger aimed at those in power… some corrupt politician or businessman… a character, and a tongue in cheek poke at the empty posturing and playing to the masses of the power hungry.”

Violence tracklisting:
1. Cold
2. Hallelujah (So Low)
3. Violence
4. Darkness At The Door
5. Nothingness
6. Magazine
7. No Sound But the Wind
8. Counting Spooks
9. Belong

Violence is released on 9 March 2018 via Play It Again Sam on the following formats:

  • Standard CD
  • Ltd edition deluxe CD featuring two bonus tracks, housed inside a rigid box, which also contains 2 fridge magnets, 12 inserts and a fold out poster
  • Standard LP, pressed on 180g vinyl including download code
  • Ltd edition deluxe LP, pressed on 180g red vinyl and containing a download code including two bonus tracks. The vinyl sits inside a triple gatefold sleeve, containing 12 inserts

To mark the release of the album, the band play an ‘intimate’ show at Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday 4 March 2018.

For tickets, see: www.thsh.co.uk

www.editorsofficial.com

Magnum get lost

Magnum

West Mids’ melodic hard rock heroes Magnum have released their 20th studio album.

Entitled Lost On The Road To Eternity, the band describe the collection as part of a new creative zenith.

Discussing the creative process, guitarist / songwriter Tony Clarkin states: “As I had started to write the songs even before we embarked on our most recent tour, I subsequently had time to let my initial ideas sink in for a few weeks, which helped me realise that I was on the right path.

“That was a good feeling which inspired me to write more powerful numbers. Apart from that, the usual Magnum formula applied: I go to the studio, try out ideas on the guitar or on the keyboards and do my damnedest to write the best Magnum song of all time.”

Alongside original band members Tony Clarkin and Bob Catley, Lost On The Road To Eternity features bassist Al Barrow (who has been in the group since 2001), along with new keyboardist Rick Benton and drummer Lee Morris. Benton joined the Magnum camp in December 2016 to replace long-standing member Mark Stanway, while Morris took over from Harry James in the summer of 2017.

“Harry has two other bands, Thunder and Snakecharmer, and it became more and more difficult to coordinate our schedules,” Clarkin explains, and confesses; “I must admit that I was reluctant to let him go, but after Lee had drummed for us for the first time and we realised that he adds even more rhythmic complexity to our songs, I’m more than happy with the line-up change.”

Clarkin feels just as positive about his new keyboardist Rick Benton: “Rick has brought a breath of fresh air and interesting ideas into the band. His style is carefully considered and he seems to know intuitively what enhances our material. You just have to give him a rough idea of the arrangement and he immediately comes up with a perfect solution. All you have to do is listen to and enjoy the atmospheric middle part of [album track] Welcome To The Cosmic Cabaret to appreciate what a positive addition Benton is to the Magnum fold.”

Lost On The Road To Eternity is the follow-up to 2016’s Sacred Blood Divine Lies, which hit No.31 in the UK Top 40 on release – Magnum’s highest chart placing since 1990!

Formed by Clarkin and Catley, Magnum were key players in the Birmingham music scene of the early/mid-70s, appearing at such venues as The Rum Runner (later made famous by Duran Duran) and supporting fellow West Mids rock heroes Judas Priest – and later Ozzy Osbourne. They released their debut album, Kingdom of Madness, in 1978, with their 1988 album Wings of Heaven going Top 5. The band were part of a rich rock/ metal scene in the region during the 1970s that also spawned Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Diamond Head and more.

To coincide with the new album the band play Birmingham’s Town Hall on Friday 2 March 2018. For tickets/ info see: thsh.co.uk

Lost On The Road to Eternity (Steamhammer/ SPV – out now) tracklisting
1. Peaches and Cream 4:54
2. Show Me Your Hands 5:45
3. Storm Baby 6:13
4. Welcome to the Cosmic Cabaret 8:08
5. Lost on the Road to Eternity 5:54
6. Without Love 5:55
7. Tell Me What You’ve Got to Say 6:27
8. Ya Wanna Be Someone 5:56
9. Forbidden Masquerade 5:02
10.Glory to Ashes 5:35
11. King of the World 7:04

CD 2 (Bonus Live Disc)

1. Sacred Blood – Divine Lies 6:48
2. Crazy Old Mothers 5:35
3. Your Dreams Won’t Die 5:56
4. Twelve Men Wise And Just 6:21

For more more about Magnum see:

www.facebook.com/magnumbandpage

www.facebook.com/groups/MagnumOfficial/

Table Scraps set to release new album

Table Scraps

Birmingham trio Table Scraps have announced their new album, Autonomy – to be released via Zen Ten on 23 February 2018.

Table Scraps create black-hearted garage punk which fully embraces the good, the bad and the ugly of rock’n’roll’s twisted lineage and various mutations. The band’s entire output is produced by themselves in-house and their no-compromise approach, having spawned a string of well-received 7” singles and an LP, extends to perfecting their chaotic and reverb-drenched live shows.

The trio – Scott Vincent Abbott (Guitar & Vox), Poppy Twist (Drums & Vox – ex-Poppy & The Jezebels) and TJ (Bass & Vox) – have more than held their own alongside Fat White Family, IDLES and Yak, as well as being hand-picked to open for The Stranglers, Buzzcocks and The Gories. Joe Talbot, frontman of IDLES was so impressed by the band that he span My Obsession whilst sitting in for Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6 Music Recommends show. Huw Stephens followed suit and also played the track a week later on Radio 1. Recent single Sick Of Me picked up play from both Tom Ravenscroft on BBC 6 Music as well as John Kennedy on Radio X.

Their single Electricity has also been selected for an upcoming campaign with Adidas.

Table Scraps mark the release of the album with a hometown appearance at Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, on 2 March 2018.

Jazzlines announce Winter/ Spring 2018 programme

The Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet

A celebration concert in memory of one of Birmingham’s greatest musicians, David Bowie’s drummer, and a series of concerts featuring some of the best contemporary female bandleaders are among the highlights of Jazzlines’ city-wide Winter/ Spring 2018 programme.

The Andy Hamilton Centenary Celebration (25 Mar 2018, Town Hall, B’ham) celebrates the life of the legendary jazz musician Andy Hamilton MBE. Born in Jamaica on 26 March 1918, the tenor saxophonist formed his first band in 1928 before moving to the UK in 1949. Settling in Birmingham, he eventually became a major figure in the city’s vibrant music scene. Much missed, Andy passed away in 2012, though his influence continues. Headlining the special concert is The Notebenders Big Band, formed by Andy in the local community of Ladywood, who’ll perform alongside invited guests and past members.

Multi-award winning vocalist Zara McFarlane (7 Feb 2018, Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, B’ham) explores British-Jamaican identity with her heady combination of jazz, reggae, calypso and more. Signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, her recent album, Arise, was produced by drummer/ producer Moses Boyd (of Binker and Moses fame). A lyrically conscious songwriter, Zara has earned a string of awards including a MOBO, Urban Music Award and JazzFM Award, and was featured singer in the RSC’s recent production of Anthony and Cleopatra, performing music written by Laura Mvula.

My Iris is the latest ensemble project from saxophonist, BASCA British Composer Award winner and former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Trish Clowes. Well-known for her orchestral arrangements, My Iris sees Clowes explores smaller scale arrangements with equal confidence (25 Jan 2018, Eastside Jazz Club, B’ham). Joining her on saxophone at Birmingham’s newest jazz venue are Chris Montague (guitar), Ross Stanley (piano and Hammond organ) and James Maddren (drums).

Two piano/ saxophone duos take to the Symphony Hall stage for an intimate performance on 28 March 2018. After working together on the London jazz scene in various large ensembles, including the London Jazz Orchestra, Tori Freestone (Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra, UK All Star Big Band) and Alcyona Mick (Natacha Atlas, Jerry Dammers Spatial Orchestra, Zoe Rahman) have fused their different approaches to present a set of original material and contemporary standards with a twist. They’re joined by the Stan Sulzmann / Nikki Iles Duo, who’ve been working together, on and off, for some 20 years.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading drummers, Mark Guiliana has worked with such artists as Brad Mehldau (as duo Mehliana), Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam) and neo-soul singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello. But it’s his contribution to David Bowie’s breath-taking final album, Blackstar, for which he is arguably best known. The Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet (27 Apr 2018, CBSO Centre, Bham) sees him perform selections from his acclaimed album, Jersey, an infectious collection of boundary-pushing acoustic tracks that includes an instrumental reading of Bowie’s poignant Where Are We Now?

Other season highlights include Christine Tobin’s Pelt (10 Feb 2018, CBSO Centre, Bham), a musical setting for the poems and lyrics of Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Paul Muldoon; Mercury Prize nominated Dinosaur pianist Elliot Galvin (14 Mar 2018, Hare and Hounds, B’ham), whose solo album, The Influencing Machine, is released on 26 January; and a return for Snowpoet (19 Apr 2018, Hare and Hounds), aka Jazz FM Vocalist of the Year 2016 Lauren Kinsella and composer / multi-instrumentalist Chris Hyson, whose second album, Thought You Knew, is due in February.

For more information, including tickets and full programme, see: www.thsh.co.uk/jazzlines

Legendary Afrobeat drummer set for rare West Mids show

Tony Allen @Bernard Benant

Described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”, the legendary Tony Allen returns to his jazz roots for a very special performance at Coventry’s Warwick Arts Centre (8 Feb 2018).

One of the founding fathers of Afrobeat, Allen’s drumming style has influenced generations of musicians over the past 50 years.

Born in Nigeria, he was an original member of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 and the inventor of the distinctive Afrobeat drum rhythm.

Since leaving Africa 70, Tony has gone on to collaborate with such artists as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jimi Tenor, Sébastien Tellier, guitarist Ernest Ranglin, King Sunny Adé, Ginger Baker and notably Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur).

His creative collaboration with Albarn began when the singer namechecked Allen on Blur’s 2000 single Music Is My Radar. Since then, Albarn has worked on several of Allen’s albums (including 2017’s The Source), while Allen was a core member of Albarn’s ‘supergroups’ The Good, The Bad and The Queen (with members of The Verve and The Clash), and Rocket Juice and The Moon (with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea).

Now signed to Blue Note (arguably the greatest jazz label of all time), Allen has followed his four-track A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers EP with The Source – a set of original instrumentals co-written with saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz and inspired by Allen’s early jazz influences (Lester Bowie, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Gil Evans).

Thursday 8 February 2018
Tony Allen
Plus support: Nubiyan Twist
Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL
7.30pm. Tickets: £29.50, £24.50
www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

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