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

 

 

NEW RELEASES

Little Women (U)

Louis May Allcott’s evergreen 19th century novel gets another rework as a coming of age dramady at the hands of  Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig. Set during and after the American Civil War, it tells of the four March sisters, the eldest, family beauty Meg (Emma Watson), independent-minded aspiring writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), petulant Amy (Florence Pugh) and  piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they search to find their identities. Here, Jo is already tutoring in New York and working on becoming an author, hot-headed Amy is in Paris studying painting and acting as companion to her cantankerous, imperious spinster aunt (Meryl Streep) who’s attempting to steer her into  the marriage market, Meg has given up acting ambitions and is married to impoverished schoolteacher John Brooke (James Norton) with two kids, and Beth, the youngest, well, she’s the sickly tragic one. Laura Dern is quietly excellent as their mother, Marmie,  trying to cope in reduced circumstances with her abolitionist husband (Bob Odenkirk) away at war serving as a chaplain, and Timothee Chalamet (who starred with Ronan in Lady Bird) is puckish, childhood friend Laurie who, living a dissolute life having fled to Europe heartbroken  when Jo rejected his proposal, may well still be a flame in Amy’s heart, except, of course, she’s resentful of being second best to Jo.  Meanwhile,  Friedrich Bhaer, the German academic and Jo’s fatherly mentor in  has been reinvented as a considerably younger French language professor romantic interest (Louis Garrel), although his forthright opinions on her work don’t get things off to a promising start,  while Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as the family neighbour,  Laurie’s grandfather, who takes a fatherly interest in Beth.

Its feminist note is struck early one as Jo negotiates the anonymous publication of one of her – or rather’ ‘a friend’s’ stories with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), editor of the Weekly Volcano, who advises that, if she has a heroine then she has to be married at the end, or dead, opting to retain her own copyright and haggling over the fee. The film’s title, of course, refers to the quasi autobiographical novel about her and her family’s life, one of sibling rivalry (including a particularly vindictive act by Amy) and romantic and health crises, and the scene of Jo watching it being assembled and printed is a wonderful reminder of  an almost lost art.

It’s all a bit overly busy early on and the constant switching between past and present can prove confusing, but it eventually settles down, it looks terrific, the performances are uniformly excellent, with Ronan and Pugh especially brilliant, and staying true to the book’s knowing  compromise of a happy ending while simultaneously celebrating female empowerment this is destined to become a modern classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Playing With Fire (PG)

An inane knockabout comedy in which a bunch of machismo California smoke jumpers – firefighters who parachute into wildfires – headed up by no-nonsense Station Superintendent Jake (John Cena), whoe legendary dad died in the line of duty, find themselves saddled with three kids, sarcastic  teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), hyperactive Will (Christian Convery) and  annoying poppet Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), for the weekend when they rescue them from a blazing cabin where they’re home alone with their parents they say, off celebrating an anniversary. The two youngsters are, naturally, uncontrollable and cause all sorts of mayhem  at the woodland firehouse, which is a bit of a problem since, not only has half of his crew just quit, but  Jake needs to impress the retiring Commander (Dennis Haysbert) so he can take over, but, equally naturally, the crew (which includes Keegan-Michael Kay, John Leguizamo and Tyler Mane as a character called Axe because he’s always carrying a, well, axe and who never speaks until he bursts into song) end up bonding with them. Which, of course, is when  Child Services come along.  With Judy Greer in the thankless role of the romantic interest biologist studying toads by the lake, it’s essentially an excruciatingly unfunny excuse to cover its shamlessly mugging stars in assorted substances and fluids, have Cena fall over a lot and for him and Kay to be subjected to a gross fart gag. It never fizzles let alone catches fire. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Spies In Disguise (PG)

Very loosely inspired by the animated short Pigeon:Impossible, the latest from Blue Sky studios is a sort of mismatched buddy Bond parody (Life And Let Fly perhaps) featuring the voice of Will Smith as suave but preeningly egocentric, tuxedo sporting superspy Lance Sterling who, when he’s framed for the theft of some atomic weapon, turns to Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), the agency’s nerdy gadget guy he recently fired, to help him literally disappear for a while using his newly developed “biodynamic concealment”. Unfortunately, he accidentally drinks the trial potion (created using a  feather from Walter’s pet, Lovie)  and is, to his ever-complaining horror, transformed into a blue pigeon, albeit still capable of human speech. So, with  Marcy (Rashida Jones) and her  Internal Affairs agents looking to bring him in, he’s forced to reluctantly team up with  Walter (who favours using kindness and peaceful means, like silly string and serotonin inducing Kitty Glitter rather than explosives to defeat the bad guys) to go after Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) who has a robot hand and hundreds of  weaponised drones which, once he’s stolen a top secret database, he intends to use to wipe out Sterling’s fellow spies.

The tired and thin world domination one joke plot rattles relentlessly along in hyperactive, noisy and repetitive manner as it romps from Japan and Washington to Mexico, the North Sea and Venice, devoid of much by way of more than  formulaic physical comedy and tired wisecracks, but adding a few extra birds along the way as Lance gets to learn about teamwork rather than flying solo and  Walter realises being weird is okay.

Any film that relies on gluten free breadcrumbs to help overpower the villain can’t be all bad, and there are some fun moments, but it feels like it was rushed before the screenplay was  ready and wastes the likes of DJ Khaled and Karen Gillan in the undeveloped roles of Marcy’s assistants Ears and Eyes. And, as Lance discovers numbers one and two involve the same orifice, I don’t envy parents having to explain to curious tots what a cloaca is. At one point Lance lays an egg. The film pretty much does the same. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING 

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Cats (PG)

Pussywhipped by the critics, while not purrfect, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s  stage musical is far better than reviews would suggest and has now been given some emergency surgery to improve the CGI effects so the cats look less weird. Drawing on TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it centres around a tribe of cats (the Jellicles, a breed of felines though the terms is never explained here) as they gather for the annual Jellicle Ball, the night one will be chosen by the aged Old Deutronomy (gender spin casting with Judi Dench, who appeared in the original stage musical as Grizabella, giving the finale here an extra resonance) to  ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. However, in this reworked narrative, Macavity (Idris Elba), the disreputable master criminal with magical powers, is determined to be the chosen one and proceeds to remove other contenders and those who might thwart his plans from the scene. These include aged theatre cat Gus (Ian McKellan), railway cat fat cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae giving a  tap dance showcase),  fat cat Bustaphor Jones (James Cordon) and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, Dench again doubling up roles in the original production) aka the Old Gumbie Cat who rules the mice and cockroaches (some of which she eats in the middle of their Busby Berkeley-style dance routine).

Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesa Hwayard stars as Victoria, the abandoned cat taken in by the Jellicles who proves instrumental in the final choice, while the cast also features Jason Derulo as glam tomcat Rum Tum Tugger, Laurie Davidson as tuxedo-sporting magician Mister Mistoffelees, Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, Old Deuteronomy’s second in command who serves as the narrator, Ray Winstone as Macavity’s accomplice Growltiger holding his captives on a barge on the Thames and Naoimh Morgan and Danny Collins as mischief makers Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie. Plus, of course, Taylor Swift as the red queen Bombalurina and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, the former glamour cat who has fallen on hard times and been ostracised by the Jellicles.   Pretty much all of the above get their own spotlight moments amid the ensemble production numbers, Swift’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat and Dench’s finale of The Ad-Dressing of Cats both strong, although the standouts are unquestionably Hayward’s Beautiful Ghosts, the sole new song,  and Hudson’s two emotionally shattering renditions of Memories, the show’s best known number.

The often balletic choreography is top notch throughout and both the leads and the ensemble cast, given digital fur and whiskers, are terrific, while there’s some playful notes in the background such as a cinema playing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and the theatre with The Mousetrap.  On the downside, however, Hayward sports a wide-eyed innocence look for the entire film and the scale is haphazard to say the least with the cats sometimes framed as human size and at others far too diminutive against the props. The melancholic Memories aside, what it lacks, of course, are the sort of crowd pleasing songs that fuelled The Greatest Showman, and, as such, it sometimes lacks the necessary propulsive energy to move things along, but, while clearly aimed at fans of the stage phenomenon and musicals in general, while you may not come away beaming like the cat who got the cream, you’ll likely still be feline fine. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jumanji: The Next Level (12A)

The gang’s all back when, set some time after the last film, they get together to celebrate Bethany’s (Madison Iseman’s) return from her study abroad and Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Going to his uncle’s house, they discover he’s gone back into Jumanji and decide to follow and rescue him. The drums start pounding, but this time their avatars get all mixed up. Insecure Martha (Morgan Turner), whose relationship with Spencer has hit a speed bump, is still Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but high school sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now zoologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and, instead of Spencer, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is now his infirm cranky uncle Eddie (Danny DeVito) whose estranged best friend and former restauirant partner Milo (Danny Glover) is backpack man Mouse (Kevin Hart). And Bethany’s not there at all.

Greeted as before by game host Nigel (Rhys Darby), they learn that this time they have to save Jumanji from Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McGann), a warlord who killed Bravestone’s parents and has stolen a precious stone, and unless it is again exposed to the sun, Jumanji and its people are doomed.

In many ways this serves up much the same as before with the cast  sending themselves up (such as Bravestone’s habit of breaking out into smouldering intensity), but now Johnson and Hart also get to channel DeVito and Glover who are delighted at the new lease of life (and, for the former, sexy lover) their avatars have given them.

Again directed by Jake Kasden, it romps along through a series of  set pieces, including a floating rope bridges encounter with a horde of angry mandrills and a desert chase pursued by a flock of ostriches before they arrive at Jurgen’s fortress, all down to their last life, during which further amusing avatar swaps occur (notably between Ruby and Sheldon), including the introduction of lockpicking Ming (Awkafeena), a whole new character,  and Bethany finally puts in a  very unexpected appearance along with Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time round.

It takes a while to find its feet and it can be a bit shouty (Black, naturally), but once in the swing it romps along in hugely entertaining fashion and make sure you hang around for when, having all declared they’ll never go back, a mid-credits scene suggests that, for the next sequel, they won’t have to.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)

Forty-two years after the saga began,  JJ Abrams finally brings it to a close (that is save for the assorted spin-offs) with a finale that is both exhilarating and, at times, nigh incoherent in a sprawling narrative basically themed around questions of identity.  Luke having been absorbed into the force in The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley, finally finding some charisma) is still doing her Jedi training while, having offed his dad in The Force Awakens, conflicted First Order commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has forged a new alliance with the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who, despite being killed off in Episode III, is back and planning to wipe out all resistance and launch the Final Order, he just needs  Ren to dispose of Rey. For a good two-thirds of the two hour plus running time, the overly busy plot races from one episode to the next and, while it looks visually stunning and the action sequences are thrilling, it’s not until the final stretch that the narrative coheres with some sort of clear purpose as they planet hop in search of some crystal that will lead them to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths, and  attempt to translate vital clue inscribed in Sith runes on a dagger which C-3PO is programmed not to translate.

Along the way, not only does Palpatine return from the dead, but there’s a couple of other significant cameos from hitherto deceased characters, along with the return to the saga for the first time since Return of the Jedi by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), not to mention voice cameos from the likes of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader while the late Carrie Fisher appears as Leia courtesy of some clever archive footage manipulation. And, in keeping with past revelations about family blood lines, there’s another biggie of Luke/Vader proportions thrown in here too with flashbacks to the fate of Rey’s parents. Redemption, sacrifice, embracing/becoming one with the Force and a variety of character twists all pile up to give fanboys a massive Christmas present while also finding room to throw in new characters such as Richard E. Grant’s First Order general and  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) as another First Order deserter, a conscript who refused to carry out a massacre, alongside the return of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Finn (John Boyega), who never does seem to get to tell Rey what he wanted to when he thought they were about to die.

The set pieces are awesome, most notably the final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire’s fleet and a light sabre duel  between Rey and Ren atop the remnants of a rusting, corroded hulk surrounded by towering waves while the  last scene between the two of them and the coda manage to elicit an emotion that always eluded George Lucas, the final two words likely to have those who’ve taken the same journey erupt into floods of tears.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)

Forty-two years after the saga began,  JJ Abrams finally brings it to a close (that is save for the assorted spin-offs) with a finale that is both exhilarating and, at times, nigh incoherent in a sprawling narrative basically themed around questions of identity.  Luke having been absorbed into the force in The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley, finally finding some charisma) is still doing her Jedi training while, having offed his dad in The Force Awakens, conflicted First Order commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has forged a new alliance with the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who, despite being killed off in Episode III, is back and planning to wipe out all resistance and launch the Final Order, he just needs  Ren to dispose of Rey. For a good two-thirds of the two hour plus running time, the overly busy plot races from one episode to the next and, while it looks visually stunning and the action sequences are thrilling, it’s not until the final stretch that the narrative coheres with some sort of clear purpose as they planet hop in search of some crystal that will lead them to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths, and  attempt to translate vital clue inscribed in Sith runes on a dagger which C-3PO is programmed not to translate.

Along the way, not only does Palpatine return from the dead, but there’s a couple of other significant cameos from hitherto deceased characters, along with the return to the saga for the first time since Return of the Jedi by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), not to mention voice cameos from the likes of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader while the late Carrie Fisher appears as Leia courtesy of some clever archive footage manipulation. And, in keeping with past revelations about family blood lines, there’s another biggie of Luke/Vader proportions thrown in here too with flashbacks to the fate of Rey’s parents. Redemption, sacrifice, embracing/becoming one with the Force and a variety of character twists all pile up to give fanboys a massive Christmas present while also finding room to throw in new characters such as Richard E. Grant’s First Order general and  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) as another First Order deserter, a conscript who refused to carry out a massacre, alongside the return of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Finn (John Boyega), who never does seem to get to tell Rey what he wanted to when he thought they were about to die.

The set pieces are awesome, most notably the final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire’s fleet and a light sabre duel  between Rey and Ren atop the remnants of a rusting, corroded hulk surrounded by towering waves while the  last scene between the two of them and the coda manage to elicit an emotion that always eluded George Lucas, the final two words likely to have those who’ve taken the same journey erupt into floods of tears.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Cats (PG)

Pussywhipped by the critics, while not purrfect, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s  stage musical is far better than reviews would suggest. Drawing on TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it centres around a tribe of cats (the Jellicles, a breed of felines though the terms is never explained here) as they gather for the annual Jellicle Ball, the night one will be chosen by the aged Old Deutronomy (gender spin casting with Judi Dench, who appeared in the original stage musical as Grizabella, giving the finale here an extra resonance) to  ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. However, in this reworked narrative, Macavity (Idris Elba), the disreputable master criminal with magical powers, is determined to be the chosen one and proceeds to remove other contenders and those who might thwart his plans from the scene. These include aged theatre cat Gus (Ian McKellan), railway cat fat cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae giving a  tap dance showcase),  fat cat Bustaphor Jones (James Cordon) and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, Dench again doubling up roles in the original production) aka the Old Gumbie Cat who rules the mice and cockroaches (some of which she eats in the middle of their Busby Berkeley-style dance routine).

Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesa Hwayard stars as Victoria, the abandoned cat taken in by the Jellicles who proves instrumental in the final choice, while the cast also features Jason Derulo as glam tomcat Rum Tum Tugger, Laurie Davidson as tuxedo-sporting magician Mister Mistoffelees, Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, Old Deuteronomy’s second in command who serves as the narrator, Ray Winstone as Macavity’s accomplice Growltiger holding his captives on a barge on the Thames and Naoimh Morgan and Danny Collins as mischief makers Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie. Plus, of course, Taylor Swift as the red queen Bombalurina and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, the former glamour cat who has fallen on hard times and been ostracised by the Jellicles.   Pretty much all of the above get their own spotlight moments amid the ensemble production numbers, Swift’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat and Dench’s finale of The Ad-Dressing of Cats both strong, although the standouts are unquestionably Hayward’s Beautiful Ghosts, the sole new song,  and Hudson’s two emotionally shattering renditions of Memories, the show’s best known number.

The often balletic choreography is top notch throughout and both the leads and the ensemble cast, given digital fur and whiskers, are terrific, while there’s some playful notes in the background such as a cinema playing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and the theatre with The Mousetrap.  On the downside, however, Hayward sports a wide-eyed innocence look for the entire film and the scale is haphazard to say the least with the cats sometimes framed as human size and at others far too diminutive against the props. The melancholic Memories aside, what it lacks, of course, are the sort of crowd pleasing songs that fuelled The Greatest Showman, and, as such, it sometimes lacks the necessary propulsive energy to move things along, but, while clearly aimed at fans of the stage phenomenon and musicals in general, while you may not come away beaming like the cat who got the cream, you’ll likely still be feline fine. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Christmas Films

Die Hard (15) (Mon: Empire Great Park)

Elf (PG) (Cineworld 5 Ways/NEC/Solihull)

Home Alone  (PG) (Sat/Sun: MAC)

It’s A Wonderful Life (U) (Until Tue:MAC; Sat/Sun, Tue:Electric)

The Grinch (U) (Sat/Sun: Empire Great Park)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) (Sun:MAC)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG) (Sat:MAC)

The Polar Express (U) (MAC)

White Christmas (U) (Tue/Thu: Electric; Wed: Showcase Walsall)

NOW SHOWING

Black Christmas (15)

A remake of the cult 1974 slasher movie starring Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder which proved  a seminal influence on the genre, most notably Halloween, it was previously remade in 2006  with Michelle Trachtenberg and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. That was truly dismal and this revival, given a  #MeToo treatment by writer-director Sophia Takal, is even worse. The basics remain the same, someone’s murdering a bunch of sorority as they prepare for their Christmas break, except this time the plot takes a ludicrous twist that involves the Delta Kappa Omega frat house, led by former president Brian (Ryan McIntyre), back for a visit,  turning new pledgers into possessed psychopaths through some never halfway adequately explained occult hocus pocus            involving Hawthorne College’s founder and sending them out in hooded robes and masks to murder assorted sorority sisters who’ve pissed them off by, basically, dissing men.  Prime among these is Riley (Imogen Poots), the den mother of Mu Kappa Epsilon who had the audacity to kick up a fuss when he drugged and raped her, though, naturally, she was never believed. And then there’s Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the resident activist who campaigned to have the founder’s bust removed from display and is getting a petition together to sack creepy Professor Gordon (Cary Elwes) whose curriculum reflects his chauvinist tendencies. Both of them were part of a satirical song and dance number at the frat house that explicitly accused them all of being date rapists.

Learning some of her friends haven’t made it home, Riley gets concerned but, naturally, campus security don’t take her seriously, naturally leading to the body counting, including a couple from her close circle, continues to mount as hooded figures with bows turn up and the whole thing becomes increasingly ludicrous, dispensing with whatever shreds of logic and plausibility it might have ever possessed as characters wander around shouting at the top  of their heads to blindly alert would be killers to their presence.

There’s a couple of token good guys, including shy romantic interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), but, not prepared to be hapless victims to male power, ultimately the sisters are getting their Jamie Lee Curtis on and doing it for themselves, the cast gamely going through all the staple genre clichés as it ticks the toxic masculinity and female empowerment boxes in the most unsubtle ways without ever summoning an ounce of tension. I can’t wait to see the sequel set up by the end as the next set of sisters are stalked by a possessed psycho cat. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Empire Great Park)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Judy & Punch (15)

Once a staple of British seaside children’s entertainment and still frequently performed, despite its politically incorrect scenes of domestic violence as Mr Punch takes his stick to wife Judy and other assorted characters, including a policeman and the devil, as well as possibly putting the baby into the sausage machine, this Australian made feature debut by writer-director Mirrah Foulkes offers the origin story behind the puppet characters.

Set in the inland 17th century British town of Seaside, where one of the popular entertainments is the public stoning to death of heretics, womanising, heavy drinking puppeteer Punch (a charismatically unpleasant Damon Herriman) has returned home to lick his wounds and, with the help of his gifted wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, excellent), resurrect their act in the hope of being spotted by talent scouts from the Big Smoke. Despite protestations that he’s off the drink, Punch is easily persuaded to partake of a bottle or two, and on one fateful occasion, invited to take a glass with Scaramouche (Terry Norris) the senile husband of their elderly housekeeper (Virginia Gay), drink and some sausages stolen by the old man’s dog, Toby, unfortunately send the baby flying through the window. On hearing his drunken confession and the suggestion that they get on with things, Judy is understandably a bit miffed, resulting in his taking his stick to her, beating her senseless and burying her in the woods.

Reporting her and the baby missing, he enlists the bumbling new constable, Derrick (Benedict Hardie), to investigate, swiftly accessing Scaramouche and his wife of roasting the baby and murdering Judy, the zealot Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) quickly eliciting a ‘confession’ and arranging a double hanging.

However, Judy’s not dead and, found under leaves by children from the secret heretics camp, is nursed back to health by Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones), a healer forced to feel the puritan persecutions, and, while they try and persuade her otherwise, here given top billing, sets out to take revenge on her husband for his crimes who, in the meanwhile, has enlisted the local prostitute and her two kids as his new helpers.

Cleverly entwining all the well-known ingredients from the traditional show and giving them an even darker edge (sometimes provocatively played for laughs) with its portrayal of toxic masculinity, there’s a definite touch of Gilliam, Rabelais and the Grimms about its allegorical storyline which also affords Judy a showcase speech about intolerance of the ‘other’ that patently has a contemporary resonance to its grotesque fable. Given a stylised carnivalesque look, a soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire and end credits with archive black and white footage recording children’s shocked, horrified but fascinated reactions to watching a traditional puppet performance, this is mesmerising viewing. That’s the way to do it, indeed.  (MAC)

Jumanji: The Next Level (12A)

The gang’s all back when, set some time after the last film, they get together to celebrate Bethany’s (Madison Iseman’s) return from her study abroad and Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Going to his uncle’s house, they discover he’s gone back into Jumanji and decide to follow and rescue him. The drums start pounding, but this time their avatars get all mixed up. Insecure Martha (Morgan Turner), whose relationship with Spencer has hit a speed bump, is still Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but high school sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now zoologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and, instead of Spencer, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is now his infirm cranky uncle Eddie (Danny DeVito) whose estranged best friend and former restauirant partner Milo (Danny Glover) is backpack man Mouse (Kevin Hart). And Bethany’s not there at all.

Greeted as before by game host Nigel (Rhys Darby), they learn that this time they have to save Jumanji from Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McGann), a warlord who killed Bravestone’s parents and has stolen a precious stone, and unless it is again exposed to the sun, Jumanji and its people are doomed.

In many ways this serves up much the same as before with the cast  sending themselves up (such as Bravestone’s habit of breaking out into smouldering intensity), but now Johnson and Hart also get to channel DeVito and Glover who are delighted at the new lease of life (and, for the former, sexy lover) their avatars have given them.

Again directed by Jake Kasden, it romps along through a series of  set pieces, including a floating rope bridges encounter with a horde of angry mandrills and a desert chase pursued by a flock of ostriches before they arrive at Jurgen’s fortress, all down to their last life, during which further amusing avatar swaps occur (notably between Ruby and Sheldon), including the introduction of lockpicking Ming (Awkafeena), a whole new character,  and Bethany finally puts in a  very unexpected appearance along with Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time round.

It takes a while to find its feet and it can be a bit shouty (Black, naturally), but once in the swing it romps along in hugely entertaining fashion and make sure you hang around for when, having all declared they’ll never go back, a mid-credits scene suggests that, for the next sequel, they won’t have to.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Jumanji: The Next Level (12A)

The gang’s all back when, set some time after the last film, they get together to celebrate Bethany’s (Madison Iseman’s) return from her study abroad and Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Going to his uncle’s house, they discover he’s gone back into Jumanji and decide to follow and rescue him. The drums start pounding, but this time their avatars get all mixed up. Insecure Martha (Morgan Turner), whose relationship with Spencer has hit a speed bump, is still Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but high school sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now zoologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and, instead of Spencer, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is now his infirm cranky uncle Eddie (Danny DeVito) whose estranged best friend and former restauirant partner Milo (Danny Glover) is backpack man Mouse (Kevin Hart). And Bethany’s not there at all.

Greeted as before by game host Nigel (Rhys Darby), they learn that this time they have to save Jumanji from Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McGann), a warlord who killed Bravestone’s parents and has stolen a precious stone, and unless it is again exposed to the sun, Jumanji and its people are doomed.

In many ways this serves up much the same as before with the cast  sending themselves up (such as Bravestone’s habit of breaking out into smouldering intensity), but now Johnson and Hart also get to channel DeVito and Glover who are delighted at the new lease of life (and, for the former, sexy lover) their avatars have given them.

Again directed by Jake Kasden, it romps along through a series of  set pieces, including a floating rope bridges encounter with a horde of angry mandrills and a desert chase pursued by a flock of ostriches before they arrive at Jurgen’s fortress, all down to their last life, during which further amusing avatar swaps occur (notably between Ruby and Sheldon), including the introduction of lockpicking Ming (Awkafeena), a whole new character,  and Bethany finally puts in a  very unexpected appearance along with Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time round.

It takes a while to find its feet and it can be a bit shouty (Black, naturally), but once in the swing it romps along in hugely entertaining fashion and make sure you hang around for when, having all declared they’ll never go back, a mid-credits scene suggests that, for the next sequel, they won’t have to.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Black Christmas (15)

A remake of the cult 1974 slasher movie starring Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder which proved  a seminal influence on the genre, most notably Halloween, it was previously remade in 2006  with Michelle Trachtenberg and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. That was truly dismal and this revival, given a  #MeToo treatment by writer-director Sophia Takal, is even worse. The basics remain the same, someone’s murdering a bunch of sorority as they prepare for their Christmas break, except this time the plot takes a ludicrous twist that involves the Delta Kappa Omega frat house, led by former president Brian (Ryan McIntyre), back for a visit,  turning new pledgers into possessed psychopaths through some never halfway adequately explained occult hocus pocus involving Hawthorne College’s founder and sending them out in hooded robes and masks to murder assorted sorority sisters who’ve pissed them off by, basically, dissing men.  Prime among these is Riley (Imogen Poots), the den mother of Mu Kappa Epsilon who had the audacity to kick up a fuss when he drugged and raped her, though, naturally, she was never believed. And then there’s Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the resident activist who campaigned to have the founder’s bust removed from display and is getting a petition together to sack creepy Professor Gordon (Cary Elwes) whose curriculum reflects his chauvinist tendencies. Both of them were part of a satirical song and dance number at the frat house that explicitly accused them all of being date rapists.

Learning some of her friends haven’t made it home, Riley gets concerned but, naturally, campus security don’t take her seriously, inevitably leading to the body count, including a couple from her close circle, continuing to mount as hooded figures with bows turn up and the whole thing becomes increasingly ludicrous, dispensing with whatever shreds of logic and plausibility it might have ever possessed as characters wander around shouting at the top  of their heads to blindly alert would be killers to their presence.

There’s a couple of token good guys, including shy romantic interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), but, not prepared to be hapless victims to male power, ultimately the sisters are getting their Jamie Lee Curtis on and doing it for themselves, the cast gamely going through all the staple genre clichés as it ticks the toxic masculinity and female empowerment boxes in the most unsubtle ways without ever summoning an ounce of tension. I can’t wait to see the sequel set up by the end as the next set of sisters are stalked by a possessed psycho cat. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nightingale (18)

The second feature by The Babbadook writer-director Jennifer Kent unfolds in her native Australia, a penal colony in 1825 Tasmania, then known as of Van Diemen’s Land, to be precise where transported convicts are indentured into service until completing their sentence. After serving seven years for petty theft, Irish twentysomething Clare (Aisling Franciosi) expects to be set free to lead her life with husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), himself a former convict, and their baby. However, she’s tied to Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an arrogant and sadistic English Lieutenant enraged at his posting, who, in the first few minutes, after forcing her to sing to the drunken soldiers, among them his  loathsome sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), brutally rapes her. Confronted over her release papers, he declares he has no intention of letting her go and both he and Ruse rape her; when Aidan attempts to stop them he’s shot dead and, ordered to stop the baby crying, Private Jago (Harry Greenwood) slams it against the wall and knocks Clare unconscious.

Declared unsuitable for promotion, Hawks, Ruse, Jago and three convicts, one a young boy, take off into the bush with their Aboriginal tracker heading for Launceston where he intends to demand what he sees as his due. Unable to get justice (“do you want me to take the word of an ex-convict over that of an officer?”), Clare resolves to follow and get revenge, to which ends she teams with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), another tracker who has endured his own horrors at the hands of white colonisers during the so-called Black War that litters the path with aboriginal corpses hanging from trees.

Punctuated by some truly horrific and vividly visceral violence and address themes of  racism and sexism, the quest for vengeance is, of course, integrated with another journey as Clare, and Billy, who she initially insultingly calls boy like the other whites, gradually – but never easily – bond over shared injustices.

As such there’s long stretches when not a great deal happens other than pointed dialogue, or Billy using his ‘hocus pocus’ the heal Clare when she’s injured, but when the violence arrives it is both sudden, ugly and graphic. Hawkins is, perhaps, a touch too much the utterly obnoxious, one-dimensional villain with a vicious sense of privilege and killing those who annoy him without blinking, and Claflin indulges the part, but both Clare and Billy are complex characters, with Franciosi and Ganambarr giving them rich depth, the latter stunning in a scene where he breaks down over the kindness shown him by a white settler.

The issues at its heart no less resonant today, it’s an often difficult, but, from the opening scenes to the bittersweet closing moments, it is utterly compelling and deserving of far wider audiences. (Until Wed: MAC)

Sons of Denmark  (15)         

Chiming with the disturbing rise of nationalism and Islamophobia, making his feature debut writer-director Ulaa Salim sets his narrative in an alternative but unsettlingly familiar version of Denmark, opening with a terrorist bombing in Copenhagen that, a year later, has given rise to a surge in right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment embodied in the neo-Nazi group of the title with its public face represented and fuelled by Martin Nordahl (Rasmus Bjerg), a fascist running for president on a policy of forced repatriation of all non-Danes.

Sickened by thing like severed pigs’ heads being left in his Muslim neighbourhood and racist messages daubed on the walls in blood, living with his loving mother and younger brother, 19-year old Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), whose girlfriend was killed in the opening blast, wants to do something and is soon recruited by local activist Hassan (Imad Abul-Foul), into a militant Islamic group where, trained by Ali (Zaki Youssef), he’s eventually given the job of assassinating Nordahl.

However, as he sneaks into the house, ready to shoot, the film suddenly switches tack and the focus switches from Zakaria to Ali, or rather Malik, an undercover officer for the Danish Security and Intelligence Service. Who, while assured by Nordahl that he’ll be okay after the election because he’s “one of the good ones”, becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the political situation. And, while relocated with his family out of the hot zone, is pulled back in to handle another agent, this time one embedded with the Sons of Denmark.

A incendiary, compelling political thriller that, like The Nightingale, addresses the racism dividing two cultures, the tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels as Salim drives the film to a slightly predictable but nevertheless dramatic climax, Youssef delivering a carefully nuanced performance as a man torn between his duty and his growing concerns as violence spawns violence and idealism becomes a torch to set the world aflame. Essential viewing. (Electric)

Christmas Films

Die Hard (15) (Thu: Electric)

Elf (PG) (Mon: Everyman; Showcase Walsall; Until Mon: Mockingbird; Sat/Thu:Electric)

Gremlins (12A) (Mon: Electric)

Home Alone  (PG) (MAC; Sun/Wed: Electric; Sat/SunTue: Mockingbird)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (12A) (Sat/Wed; Electric)

It’s A Wonderful Life (U) (Mon-Wed: Electric; From Wed:MAC)

Love Actually (15) (Sat: Electric; Mockingbird)

Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel) (12A) (Sun: Electric)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) (Sat/Tue:Electric)

The Polar Express (U) (MAC)

Scrooge (U) 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. (Sun:MAC)

White Christmas (U) (Tue/Thu: Electric; Wed: Showcase Walsall)

NOW SHOWING

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Until Sun: MAC)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (MAC)

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (MAC)

 

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

Motherless Brooklyn (15)

Making his first appearance behind the camera since his directorial debut in 2000, working from his own adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Edward Norton has crafted a gumshoe film noir that can readily stand comparisons to Chinatown. Set in 50s New York as opposed to 1999 in the book, Norton plays Lionel Essrog, an orphaned  private eye with a photographic memory, nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss, mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but also referred to as  “Freakshow” on account of being an obsessive-compulsive afflicted with Tourette syndrome and given to spontaneous tics (such as having to touch people) and often inappropriate or off-colour  verbal outbursts (“It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny”, he regularly explains).

He’s first encountered with fellow snoop Gil (Ethan Suplee), shadowing Minna on some dodgy meeting about which he’s given them no details. Things turn sour and Frank winds up dead, but not before he orders them to grab his hat and whispers something about a coloured girl and what sounds like the word Formosa to Lionel.  While Tony (Bobby Cannavale), who takes over the agency (not to mention Frank’s wife, Leslie Mann), just wants to get on with things, Lionel, believing their boss was on to something big involving city hall, is determined to track down Frank’s killers, pretty much ending up doing it on his own, and, posing as a reporter, his pulling on the loose threads (a visual metaphor introduced at the start) leading him to a black jazz nightclub owned by the father (Robert Wisdom) of Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist who lives upstairs  and who may well hold the answer to the case, and an unnamed musician (Michael K Williams) whose trumpet gets to play a crucial note. Also part of the jigsaw is Paul (Willem Dafoe), an engineer with a grudge, who has his own connection to Laura and Moses, as well as information that could topple empires.

Filmed in shadowy brows and greys, punctuated by assorted beatings and shooting, Norton’s film is steeped in classic hard boiled film noir tropes, even down to the matchbook that provides a vital clue, and, while the tangled and twisted plot is crammed with themes and messages, it never once loses its grip. Norton is terrific, at once witty, dogged, vulnerable, loyal and apologetically eccentric, making Lionel’s affliction a part of his character rather than merely a gimmick, and he also elicits strong performances from his fellow actors, Mbatha-Raw and Baldwin especially, confidently guiding his two hour plus narrative to a hugely satisfying finale, even if not everyone gets the comeuppance they should. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC)

Ordinary Love (12A)

This low key release sees Liam Neeson take a break from tracking own bad guys for an intimate drama about a health-conscious retired couple   Tom (Neeson) and Joan  (Lesley Manville) who’s happy life is upended when she  finds a lump in her breast and each looks to deal with what lies ahead in their own way, insisting that they’re both going through it, she responding that they’re not. Built around small details and keeping other characters to a minimum, it charts their relationship, bickering but affectionate, as each faces illness and the inevitable in their own manner and with their own frustrations. (Electric)

The Report (15)

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who wrote The Bourne Ultimatum), this political thriller  tells the true story of Daniel J. Jones (a terrific turn by Adam Driver), a staff member of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who, in 2009, while working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, superbly low key), was charged with heading up a Senate investigative report into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT aka torture, as redacted from the opening title) on the key Middle Eastern figures captured and detained in the aftermath of 9/11.  It was sparked by the discovery that the agency had destroyed hundreds of hours of recordings of the interrogations, Jones spending five years and reading 6.3 million pages of documents to find out why.

In many ways  an American companion piece to Official Secrets, although Jones never took on an Edward Snowden role, (though the film suggests he may well have had publication of the report been blocked), while the brutal acts carried out by the CIA are condemnable, it’s the underpinning absurdity that is the most disturbing and frightening. The pain-inflicting EITs, specifically waterboarding, used to obtain information were basically the invention of two smugly self-satisfied psychologists, but primarily Jim Mitchell (Douglas Hodge), neither of whom had any experience of interrogation, but the truly damning things is that they were implemented despite the CIA knowing full well that were totally ineffective. So, since it would be illegal to use them if they did not produce information, they basically invented it from things they already knew or based on lies told by the prisoners to stop the pain.  President Bush was deliberately kept out of the loop (making for an embarrassing moment when his denials of torture coincided with film of the same), but Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice knew exactly what was going on.

The film details the lengths to which the CIA and its supporters went to suppress or discredit Jones’ findings and the risks he took to bring matters into the public and media eye and the final senate hearings hit like a real life version of the moment in conspiracy and cover-up thrillers of the 70s when the humiliated bad guys find they’ve been totally rumbled, except, of course, these bad guys were never brought to task and, indeed, many were promoted, one to become the head of the CIA.  Although there’s several hard to watch flashbacks to show EITs in action, it largely involves people in a room talking, along with a brief ‘deep throat’ car park moment involving Tim Blake Nelson as a medical officer who can no longer stomach what he sees, but, nevertheless, echoing All The President’s Men, it is as grippingly entertaining as it is important. (MAC)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Motherless Brooklyn (15)

Making his first appearance behind the camera since his directorial debut in 2000, working from his own adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Edward Norton has crafted a gumshoe film noir that can readily stand comparisons to Chinatown. Set in 50s New York as opposed to 1999 in the book, Norton plays Lionel Essrog, an orphaned  private eye with a photographic memory, nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss, mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but also referred to as  “Freakshow” on account of being an obsessive-compulsive afflicted with Tourette syndrome and given to spontaneous tics (such as having to touch people) and often inappropriate or off-colour  verbal outbursts (“It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny”, he regularly explains).

He’s first encountered with fellow snoop Gil (Ethan Suplee), shadowing Minna on some dodgy meeting about which he’s given them no details. Things turn sour and Frank winds up dead, but not before he orders them to grab his hat and whispers something about a coloured girl and what sounds like the word Formosa to Lionel.  While Tony (Bobby Cannavale), who takes over the agency (not to mention Frank’s wife, Leslie Mann), just wants to get on with things, Lionel, believing their boss was on to something big involving city hall, is determined to track down Frank’s killers, pretty much ending up doing it on his own, and, posing as a reporter, his pulling on the loose threads (a visual metaphor introduced at the start) leading him to a black jazz nightclub owned by the father (Robert Wisdom) of Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist who lives upstairs  and who may well hold the answer to the case, and an unnamed musician (Michael K Williams) whose trumpet gets to play a crucial note. Also part of the jigsaw is Paul (Willem Dafoe), an engineer with a grudge, who has his own connection to Laura and Moses, as well as information that could topple empires.

Filmed in shadowy brows and greys, punctuated by assorted beatings and shooting, Norton’s film is steeped in classic hard boiled film noir tropes, even down to the matchbook that provides a vital clue, and, while the tangled and twisted plot is crammed with themes and messages, it never once loses its grip. Norton is terrific, at once witty, dogged, vulnerable, loyal and apologetically eccentric, making Lionel’s affliction a part of his character rather than merely a gimmick, and he also elicits strong performances from his fellow actors, Mbatha-Raw and Baldwin especially, confidently guiding his two hour plus narrative to a hugely satisfying finale, even if not everyone gets the comeuppance they should. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

2040 (PG)

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau follows up his award-winning That Sugar Film, with another documentary that seeks to inform, enlighten and hopefully change habits. This time, his subject is climate change and the premise involves him setting out to find solutions – using only things that already exist – so that when his young daughter Velvet is 25 in 29040, there’ll still be a world she can live in.

Globetrotting, he visits various schools (and gets to camera comments from youngsters who are clearly well-sussed and concerned about the environment) and also meets visionaries who are already working on alternate energy sources to battle climate change and global warming, among them a young engineer who has  created a decentralised solar electricity grid in Bangladesh that allows home owners to store, trade and sell energy, an Australian farmer who has pioneered something called ‘pasture cropping’ and scientist Brian Von Herzen who talks about  a marine permaculture off  America’s East Coast that uses seaweed to counter ocean acidification while capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Other experts include ‘technology disruption’ proponent Tony Seba and Dr. Kate Raworth, the Doughnut Economics theorist.

At times, he plays it a little cute such as in simulations of life in the future with a grown Velvet and himself and his wife digitally aged, and, in a determination to provide a positive approach countering the doom and gloom merchants, it often avoids addressing such barriers as corporate reality and, for example those with vested interests in fossil fuel who would simply have to roll over and throw in the towel to achieve what Gameau envisions. But, the point is that what he’s talking about isn’t just speculation, much is already happening and needs awareness raised so that people can see just what is possible. It’s a film you really need to see. (Wed: MAC)

Judy & Punch (15)

Once a staple of British seaside children’s entertainment and still frequently performed, despite its politically incorrect scenes of domestic violence as Mr Punch takes his stick to wife Judy and other assorted characters, including a policeman and the devil, as well as possibly putting the baby into the sausage machine, this Australian made feature debut by writer-director Mirrah Foulkes offers the origin story behind the puppet characters.

Set in the inland 17th century British town of Seaside, where one of the popular entertainments is the public stoning to death of heretics, womanising, heavy drinking puppeteer Punch (a charismatically unpleasant Damon Herriman) has returned home to lick his wounds and, with the help of his gifted wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, excellent), resurrect their act in the hope of being spotted by talent scouts from the Big Smoke. Despite protestations that he’s off the drink, Punch is easily persuaded to partake of a bottle or two, and on one fateful occasion, invited to take a glass with Scaramouche (Terry Norris) the senile husband of their elderly housekeeper (Virginia Gay), drink and some sausages stolen by the old man’s dog, Toby, unfortunately send the baby flying through the window. On hearing his drunken confession and the suggestion that they get on with things, Judy is understandably a bit miffed, resulting in his taking his stick to her, beating her senseless and burying her in the woods.

Reporting her and the baby missing, he enlists the bumbling new constable, Derrick (Benedict Hardie), to investigate, swiftly accessing Scaramouche and his wife of roasting the baby and murdering Judy, the zealot Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) quickly eliciting a ‘confession’ and arranging a double hanging.

However, Judy’s not dead and, found under leaves by children from the secret heretics camp, is nursed back to health by Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones), a healer forced to feel the puritan persecutions, and, while they try and persuade her otherwise, here given top billing, sets out to take revenge on her husband for his crimes who, in the meanwhile, has enlisted the local prostitute and her two kids as his new helpers.

Cleverly entwining all the well-known ingredients from the traditional show and giving them an even darker edge (sometimes provocatively played for laughs) with its portrayal of toxic masculinity, there’s a definite touch of Gilliam, Rabelais and the Grimms about its allegorical storyline which also affords Judy a showcase speech about intolerance of the ‘other’ that patently has a contemporary resonance to its grotesque fable. Given a stylised carnivalesque look, a soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire and end credits with archive black and white footage recording children’s shocked, horrified but fascinated reactions to watching a traditional puppet performance, this is mesmerising viewing. That’s the way to do it, indeed.  (Electric)

StarDog And TurboCat (U)

An inoffensive but painfully overextended and repetitive British animation by a  Sheffield company specialising in short animations for them park rides, it feels like a 30 minute TV episode stretched to a 90 minute film. It opens in 1969 as Buddy (voiced by Nick Frost), is chosen by his master, Dave, to be launched into space to test a rocket. However, there’s a glitch after take off and, when Buddy finally returns to Earth, he’s time-travelled 50 years into the future and finds himself in Glenfield, an American town where everyone hates animals and the sinister Officer Peck is obsessed with rounding up strays and taking them to the pound, never to be seen again.

However, the animals do have their own self-appointed superhero, Felix (Luke Evans), who, dressed in a Batman-like cape and mask, calls himself TurboCat, lives in a kind of Catcave and has a sort of robot Alfred called Sinclair (Bill Nighy), although his crusade against the humans seems largely limited to spraying graffiti. After several laboured scenes, he and Buddy do finally join forces to try and find his missing space capsule, the film now introducing Cassidy (Gemma Arterton), the rabbit of Felix’s affections who heads up another anti-human organisation, G.U.A.R.D., where her head of security is a goldfish (Ben Bailey-Smith) in a bowl and her scientist colleague is building some kind of defence contraption for which he needs the glowing crystal in the capsule which, it transpires, has given Buddy super powers. Oh, yes, and there’s a double cross waiting in the wings.

Rather like a dog chasing its own tail, the film runs around in circles without really going anywhere, Buddy largely falling over a lot and protesting how Dave was a good guy and is surely out there still looking for him, while Peck naturally has a young daughter who doesn’t share her dad’s anti-animal feelings.  The slapstick and some of the jokes (one of which rips off Puss’s pleading look from Shrek) will keep undemanding six year olds entertained and there’s a half-hearted lesson about personal growth, but, low on charm and wit, with unambitious animation and pedestrian telling, the longer it goes on the less interested they are likely to become. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO PLAYING

The Dirty War on the NHS (15)

A timely new documentary from film-maker and journalist John Pilger in the wake of reports that Boris Johnson plans to provide open access to the NHS to American company. Pilger investigates the dismantling ‘by stealth’ of the National Health Service, journeying from the founding of the NHS in 1948, through to the Thatcherite 70s, the Blair government which allowed hospitals to be built with private capital, but saddled them with crippling repayments; and the Cameron/Clegg 2012 Health and Social Care Act which opened the door to private healthcare companies. It unfortunately misses the opportunity to address the current controversy about the post-Brexit scenario, but it remains a compelling report, with perhaps the most worrying moment being when a spokesperson for Babylon, a smartphone self-diagnosis app, assures Pilger that its diagnoses are “100% safe, but not all of the time”.  (Sun: MAC)

 

Meeting Gorbachev (12A)

Though punctuated with comments from other world figures, Werner Herzog’s documentary is basically a series of interviews with the former leader of the Soviet Union, now 87, as he reflects on his legacy and regrets. Opening with a quick resume of earlier Russian leaders and their assorted fates Gorbachev was named General Secretary in 1985, it details his reforms, the ending of the Cold War and, in its wake, the reunification of Germany. Lesser known facts include how he, in cooperation with Regan, reduced the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, largely prompted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. On a personal rather than political note, he also talks of his late wife Raisa, who died in 1999, poignantly still affected by her loss. (MAC)

Ordinary Love (12A)

This low key release sees Liam Neeson take a break from tracking own bad guys for an intimate drama about a health-conscious retired couple   Tom (Neeson) and Joan  (Lesley Manville) who’s happy life is upended when she  finds a lump in her breast and each looks to deal with what lies ahead in their own way, insisting that they’re both going through it, she responding that they’re not. Built around small details and keeping other characters to a minimum, it charts their relationship, bickering but affectionate, as each faces illness and the inevitable in their own manner and with their own frustrations. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Showcase Walsall; Until Sun: MAC)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (MAC)

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall;

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Odeon Birmingham)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (Vue Star City)

 

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

On a basic level, it’s all of an overly busy, overlong and often incoherent if visually dazzling mess in search of a story and complete with  final scene of a maternal Maleficent that should never have left the editing room, but  there’s no denying there are still copious pleasures here. And those cheekbones. (Odeon Birmingham)

Monos (15)

Even were it not for a pig’s head on a spike, it would be hard not to think of Lord of the Flies in director Alejandro Landes’s Colombian thriller about a dysfunctional group of child soldiers in some unnamed South American country as their lives and makeshift family turn to shit.

These are the monos, a small band of teenage guerrilla fighters for the vaguely titled Organisation and known only by nicknames such as Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura),   Smurf (Deibi Rueda), Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Swede (Laura Castrillón) and Dog (Paul Cubides) – who, when the film starts, are first seen playing blindfolded football against just one of the many visually breathtaking landscapes captured by cinematographer Jasper Wolf. There’s an innocence about them and the way they interact, idling away the days on the mountain guarding an abducted American  (Julianne Nicholson) they refer to as Doctora and who, while captive, is still invited to join in their games, such as the rather more vicious version of the bumps meted out to one on his birthday. Occasionally, they’re visited by their short, stocky and demanding commanding officer, known only as The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) who puts them through their paces and even gives permission for two of them, Wolf (Julián Giraldo) and Lady (Karen Quinter), to partner up.  He also brings them a cow, Shakira, to provide milk, with the strict reminder that it’s only on loan and has to be returned intact and unharmed.

Needless to say, an enthusiasm for strong drink, partying and shooting off their semi-automatics unfortunately puts paid to that and also leads to Wolf, who as leader is responsible, shooting himself  and the amoral Bigfoot (Moises Arias) taking over. It’s the start of the disintegration, gathering pace as the group are forced to move to a new location, during which time, trekking through the rainforest, Doctora attempts to escape, resulting in severe punishment or those in charge of her, the unit winding up cut off from the chain of command and gone rogue as civilisation slips further away and chaos gathers to a head.

Driven by Mica Levi’s score (which incorporates the sound of birds and insects), it builds with often unbearable tension and a sense of unpredictability caught up in the hallucinatory delirium of Apocalypse Now, an underwater sequence in a raging river and a terrifying mosquito attack among the several nerve-shredding moments in a film that laces its cruel absurdity with the kids getting high on mushrooms growing in cowshit and TV footage of workers in a German Gummy Bears factory. (Mon-Thu: MAC)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 29-Thu Dec 6

NEW RELEASES

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 Invasion Planet Earth (15)

Written and directed by Nuneaton’s Simon Cox and extensively filmed in Birmingham and Kenilworth with some 900 extras, it’s taken almost seven years to bring this ambitious  UK answer to Independence Day to the screen, receiving a one-off theatrical showing before going to download and DVD, but it’s been worth the effort and time.

It opens back in the 80s (spot that Duran Duran album cover) where young Thomas Dunn, son of a garage mechanic, is a big fan of sci fi TV show Kaleidescope Man. Fast forward twenty odd years and he’s now a doctor (Simon Haycock)  in a mental health care centre (run by Toyah Willcox), but, consumed by grief over the death of his young daughter two years earlier (and, we later discover another family tragedy), he’s lost his faith. Things look up, however, when his primary teacher wife, Mandy (Lucy Drive), tells him she’s pregnant. Unfortunately, that same day, he and many others, including some of his patients, share a vision about the planet’s armaggedon. And then a spaceship appears in the sky and Thomas and three patients, schizophrenic Floyd (Danny Steele), man-hating Harriet (Julie Hoult) and manic depressive user Samantha (Sophie Anderson), are abducted by harvester ships and find themselves in pods where they share further hallucinatory visions (allowing Cox to also make a zombie movie).

Escaping, they seek to find answers to the alien invasion, meanwhile, back on Earth, international tension between the superpowers, the Middle East and terrorist factions has the planet on the verge of a nuclear apocalypse.

It gets a little confusing at times, with a section where all four get to face their demons and are ‘cured’ that seems a touch extraneous to the narrative, and, given the aliens abduct rather than kill anyone, audiences are more likely to suss the twist (Mandy’s lesson about Noah, God cleansing the Earth and second chances is an early clue) before Tom does. However, given the low budget,  while it often looks like an 80s TV show itself with assorted optical effects that suggest Doctor Who as a frame of visual reference and the dialogue can be a tad clichéd and clunky,  decent CGI, a thread of religious undertones and uniformly solid performances elevate it engagingly beyond its B-movie pay grade. (Thu: Electric + director Q&A; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO PLAYING

Jay & Silent Bob Reboot (15)

Other than a handful of stoners, it’s hard see the demand or need for Kevin Smith to revisit his Jay and Silent Bob saga, 13 years after Clerks II. Here the pair of them head to ChronicCon to stop Bluntman V, a reboot of the Bluntman & Chronic movie (based on the comic book based on themselves) in which Chronic has been given a gender makeover,  after the company takes out an injunction to prevent them  using their own names. En route, Jay (Jason Mewes) bumps into former girlfriend, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth) and learns he has a daughter, Millennium Falcon (Smith’s own daughter Harley Quinn Smith) who forces them to take her and her deaf sidekick Soapy to Hollywood so they can be extras in the film, picking up a podcaster and a Syrian immigrant named Jihad along the way. Essentially a remake of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back serving as a coathanger for bad puns, embrassing self-referencing and cameos from the likes of Affleck, Damon and Chris Hemsworth (as a hologram of himself), it’s neither funny nor clever, hell it’s not even worth calling stupid.  (Electric; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird)

Marriage Story (15)

Another Netflix film, so again no preview available, this sees writer-director Noah Baumbach return to the family falling apart territory of his critically acclaimed, autobiographically inspired The Squid and The Whale seen from a  child’s-eye view.This time round, it’s an imploding marriage told from the perspective of the couple for whom custody of their child becomes an increasingly touchy issue and stars Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern alongside appearances by Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Julie Hagerty. (Electric)

 

The Report (15)

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who wrote The Bourne Ultimatum), this political thriller  tells the true story of Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a staff member of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who, in 2009, while working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), was charged with heading up a Senate investigative report into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture, as redacted from the opening title) on the key Middle Eastern figures captured and detained in the aftermath of 9/11.  It was sparked by the discovery that the agency had destroyed hundreds of hours of recordings of the interrogations, Jones spending five years and 6.3 million pages of documents to find out why.

Douglas Hodge plays Jim Mitchell, the psychologist in charge of the interrogations, something he’d never done before and who assumed that inflicting pain who bring answers, which  proved to be not the case at all.  It’s not just the horrific torture that Jones uncovers, but how ineffective it proved, the ‘revelations’ claimed by the CIA to justify their actions pieced together from information they already had, ultimately incentivising rather than curtailing terrorism.  Understandably, the CIA wants to bury the report, and much of the later stages of the film focuses on Jones’ determination to not let that happen, inevitably putting himself in the firing line in the process. Gripping. (Electric)

French Film Festival @ MAC

Fri 29

A Faithful Man (15)

Louis Garrel both directs and stars  in a Paris-set romantic comedy, playing a journalist whose girlfriend has got pregnant by his best friend and intends to marry him.  Set across the years, the plot also sees him getting involved with the impetuous younger sister of the man he was abandoned for.

 

Sat 30

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15)

Set in 18th-century Brittany, an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golino) commissions Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint a portrait of her soon to be wed reclusive daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the only condition being that she can’t tell her subject that’s why she’s there. Instead, she has to pose as a hired companion, studying her while they spent time together, However, when she finally confesses what’s going on,a passionate lesbian love affair ensues.

 

Sun 1

Lullaby (15)

Lucie Borleteau directs an adaptation of Leila Slimani’s novel, The Perfect Nanny, in which mother of two Myriam decides to return to work despite her husband’s reservations. Nowshe needs a babysitter, finally settling on Louise, but while she quickly wins over the kids, the ensuing co-dependent relationship leads to tragedy.

 

Wed 4

When Margaux Meets Margaux (15)

Writer-director Sophie Fillières delivers a quirky dramedy in which Sandrine Kiberlain and Agathe Bonitzer both play the titular Margaux, one  as she enters adulthood, the other as she reaches middle age, the pair somehow managing to run into one another at a party, the older laid back version offering the younger impetuous one the benefit of her/their experience and both of them resurrecting an affair with ex-boyfriend Melvil Poupaud.

NOW SHOWING

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Doctor Sleep (15)

It’s almost 40 years since Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel saw the phrase ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ enter pop culture legend and launched any number of films involving floods of blood as, possessed by the spirits inhabiting The Overlook Hotel,  Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic father tried to take an axe to his wife and son. Six years ago, King published a sequel that had very little to do with the Kubrick film and now  writer-director Mike Flanagan combines the two following the story of the now grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a PTSD-wreck who has attempted to drown his paranormal gifts, the hearing of voices in his head that he calls the shining, in booze and anger, keeping them compartmentalised in mental ‘lockboxes’ as taught to him by spirit mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly replacing the late Scatman Crowthers). However, after a night worse than most when he wakes up next to a cokehead woman, he hits the road and ends up in New Hampshire where reformed alcoholic Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) stakes him a room in a boarding house and takes him to the town’s AA meeting hosted by Dr. John (Bruce Greenwood) who fixes him up with the job as an orderly in the local hospice, a place where the resident cat can sense when patients re about to shuffle off and he eases their passage with his psychic powers; hence, Doctor Sleep

He also starts to get messages chalked on the wall of his room leading him to become mentally linked with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a sassy tweenage African-American whose own power to shine is positively luminescent. What brings them together is a group of psychic vampire predators calling themselves the True Knot, who, as seen at the start of the film, are led by Rose the Hat (a mesmerising Rebecca Ferguson looking like some sensual 70s outlaw voodoo gypsy queen) who keep themselves semi-immortal by stealing the life essences, the steam, of psychically gifted children as they die in agonising pain which is then stored in metal thermos flasks, giving rise to the particularly disturbing scene as they murder a young baseball prodigy (a cameo by Jacob Tremblay), an act that brings the super-shiner Abra into both their and Danny’s lives.

From hereon in, the film because a game of supernatural cat and mouse between Rose and her followers and Danny and Abra, as each seeks to destroy the other, all of which, rather inevitably climaxes back in the Colorado Rockies at The Overlook, Danny finally having unlocked the powers he’s sought to repress.

At two and a half hours, it takes a while to find the flow, the early going coming across like a series of unconnected sequences (the whole turning of paedophile stalker Snakebite Andi could have been cut), but as the narrative slowly gels, while not scary horror as such, it casts a decidedly creepy spell as it plays out its predictable good vs evil drama even if having eight years pass before anything really happens seems pointless. While Ferguson steals every scene she’s in (you almost find yourself wanting a spin-off), McGregor is on good form while newcomer Curran is a quietly determined sensation calling to mind Elle from Stranger Things. There are, of course, several direct allusions to the Kubrick film, not least Danny peering through the hole in the hotel room door made by his father, but it was perhaps not the best idea to use not even vague lookalikes for flashbacks to mad Jack (ET.s Henry Thomas plays the bartender Danny speaks to as his father’s ghost) and terrified wife Wendy. That aside, this shines brighter than some reviews would have you expect. (Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gemini Man (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; MAC)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terminator: Dark Fate (15)

Ok, forget Genisys, Rise of the Machines and Salvation, consign them to another timeline, this reboot, the sixth in the series, directed by Tim Miller,  comes more or less as a follow-up to T2, although, in terms of plot elements, it’s also essentially a rerun of the first film, and even some of its classic lines. It wastes no time in getting down to the action as a naked, crop-haired woman, Grace (Mackenzie Davis from Blade Runner 2049), a bad ass female empowerment bionically-enhanced human, arrives in Mexico City from the future with a mission to search out Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, conjuring Michelle Rodriguez), a young woman working with on a car factory assembly line with her brother, who’s ironically about to be replaced by a machine. Grace is soon followed by another figure, a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), an all-new, creepily smiling state of the art Terminator, who’s on the same mission. Except the former is there to protect her and the latter to kill her. And, having already dispatched her father and brother, it looks like he’s about to succeed when, bang, enter the now much older, but equally bad ass Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), all shades, fuck off guns and terse dialogue, who, since her son John was killed by the original T-800 in the post-Judgment Day prologue, has, thanks to receiving anonymous texts,  spent her life living, as she puts it, off  drink and vengeance while tracking down and destroying other machines sent back from the future.

So, now we have her and Grace both out to keep Dani alive, although no one thinks to ask why she’s so important or offer any explanation until well into the film, but, suffice to say, her role in the great scheme is as basically the surrogate Sarah from the first film. Well, kind of. The problem is that the new Terminator, a robotic cocktail of T-1000 and T-800, seems pretty much unstoppable; blow it up and it turns into black lava and reassembles and also has the twofer ability to separate its human form from its endoskeleton with both of them functioning independently.

So, they’re going to need some help and, therefore, welcome the much anticipated reappearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as, with Skynet destroyed (to be supplanted by an AI called Legion with the same destroy humanity agenda), the now reformed T-800 who’s not only got himself a family (who don’t know what he is) but calls himself Carl and (giving rise to some particularly amusing lines) runs a drapery business. But still has a shedful of guns.

As anyone familiar with the franchise will expect, there’s any number of timeline twists regarding Grace and Dani, their connection and the real reasons she’s so important to the fight in the future, but that ultimately just dressing on the constant stream of action as the foursome and the Rev-9 go at it hammer and tongs, things blowing up or being sliced and diced left, right and centre, and including a hairy zero-gravity mid-air assault and escape on a parachuted Humvee that then plunges into a reservoir before the power plant showdown.

There’s a welcome vein of humour as well as some charged socio-political commentary  with the scenes set around the Mexican border and the core cast all deliver strong performances and, while Arnie is, well Arnie (“I’m very funny”, he quips), there’s a soulfulness between him and Hamilton who, returning to the franchise after 30 years, is sensational. Which is a good thing since, with this ending with a Logan moment, and hinting at a new beginning rather than a conclusion, it seems those Sarah Connor Chronicles might be in for at least one more chapter. She’ll be back. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s Film Reviews, Fri Nov 22-Thu Nov 28

 

NEW RELEASES

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blue Story (15)

 

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Them That Follow (15)

The feature debut by writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, this is a respectable but overly earnest melodrama about the choice facing  Mara (Alice Englert), a young woman whose widowed father, Reverend Lemuel (Walton Goggins), is the fire and brimstone preacher for a close-knit, patriarchal Pentecostal congregation in the Appalachian Mountains which, drawing on a reference to taking up serpents in Mark,  involves the handling of poisonous snakes as an act of faith and cleansing.

Maria has been promised to Garret (Lewis Pullman), an eager acolyte who gets off on the idea of marrying a pure virgin, so, it’s all a bit inconvenient that she’s actually been having an affair with Augie (Thomas Mann), a young man who does not share the same zealous faith as his fanatical parents  Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) and gas station owner mother Hope (Olivia Colman), who also goes by the forbidding name of Sister Slaughter, and is now pregnant, something no one, not even  best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) can know.

It’s all a bit slow to get going, but things move up a  gear when, during a service in which Augie is supposedly returning to the fold, he’s bitten by the snake and, according to religious practice, is refused hospital treatment, his parents and Lemuel saying that it’s a matter of faith and God as to whether he lives or dies. All of which, naturally, throws Mara into something of a quandary in having to choose between faith and family and the person she truly loves.

Slowly building to a dramatic confrontation (not to mention grisly home surgery), the script doesn’t handle the shifts in character as well as it might, there’s little backdrop to the community and it all gets a bit delirious towards the end, compounded by the fact that Mara is rather patience-testingly insubstantial, Englert’s performance constantly shrinking to nothing whenever Colman or Goggins are on screen. It’s an interesting glimpse into little seen world and has its moments, but, unlike the rattlesnakes, it never sinks the fangs in deep. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)

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

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

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

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

Making up for inspired silent-movie styled physical comedy for what it lacks in dialogue, while subtle claymation facial features impart a wide range of emotional responses, this is glorious and very British fun. Shear enjoyment.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

Abominable (U)

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

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

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Showcase Walsall)

After The Wedding (12A)

An English language remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated 2006 film of the same title, director Bart Freundlich has rewritten it with a gender flip, making it a drama centred around two women, one of whom happens to be his wife, Julianne Moore. The other is Michelle Williams,   who all cropped hair, plays Isabel, an idealistic young American whose found peace and purpose working at an Indian orphanage, particularly bonding with Jai (Vir Pachisia), the eight-year-old she’s raised since he was abandoned as an infant. However, orphanages don’t run on good intentions alone so, when she receives a proposal of a $2million donation from Theresa Young (Moore), a self-made wealthy New York City-based businesswoman and philanthropist, she’s thrilled. There’s just one condition, she has to fly to America and meet Young personally.

To this she reluctantly agrees, but, on arrival, put up in a luxury hotel suite, she find Young in no hurry to settle matters, instead she insists Isabel attend her daughter’s upcoming wedding before they finalise arrangements, and offers to up the donation considerably. However, at a pre-wedding party, Isabel’s shaken when she meets Theresa’s sculptor husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup), and it’s soon made clear the two of them have a past about which his wife knows nothing. Or perhaps not, as, during the wedding speech the bride, Grace (Abby Quinn), talks about how she was adopted and subsequent developments reveal Theresa’s own secret and agenda.

It’s all highly contrived and melodramatic (including Grace quickly deciding she’s made a big mistake), but, where Blier and her cast underplayed things, here Moore’s encouraged to go big while Williams delivers intense soulful gazes that almost border on parody while Crudup is so muted as to be almost comatose. And yet for all this, the emotional heft seems to have disappeared beneath the sumptuous packaging and unsubtle symbolism (a bird’s nest fallen from the branches with shattered eggs) and any opportunity to comment on white privilege feels cursory at best, defused in a line about not being judgemental about those with wealth, while, for all the talk of poverty, the scenes back in India feel wholly sanitised. There’s no denying the two female leads deliver first class performances, but the sound of the narrative gears grinding away are likely to drown out any stray sobs that might otherwise have snuffled round the cinema. (Electric)

By the Grace of God (15)

Directed by François Ozon, this grippingly powerful film tells the true story of how a  group of men from  Lyon, all of whom had been abused by the same Roman Catholic priest, Father Preynat  (Bernard Verley), as young scouts,  came together as adults to form an organisation, Lift the Burden, seeking to bring him to justice and, perhaps more importantly, bring to account the Church hierarchy, here in figure of   Cardinal  Barbarin (François Marthouret), the Archbishop of Lyon, which, while fully aware of what was happening,   professed ignorance, covered things up and even allowed him to continue working with young boys.

It begins in 2014 with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a well-to-do family man and still-devout Catholic who’s disturbed to discover the priest’s continued activity and who, after a meeting is arranged with Preynat at which he admits his guilt but never asks forgiveness,  pressed ahead by filing charges, and the ranks gradually swell with other equally semi-fictionalised, victims, among them François (Denis Ménochet) an atheist who initially refuses to get involved but then becomes the activist group founder, surgeon Gilles (Éric Caravaca) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a vulnerable near-genius whose abuse has left him emotionally and physically damaged.

As well as fuelling frustration and anger in the confrontations with Church figures who seek to mollify and prevaricate, the film also features no less unsettling scenes when the abuse victims ask their parents who, knowing what was happening, didn’t do anything either (““We all have our problems” says one victim’s father), underscoring the power the Roman Catholic church held over its followers. Often uncomfortable in its revelations of the abuse the men endured, but always proceeding in a restrained manner as justice is pursued, the film holds you in its grip throughout, culminating in a press conference scene where Barbarin is confronted with the extent of his awareness, his self-protecting contradictory assertions and his failure to act, ending with a title card about the then forthcoming trial and verdict. He was found guilty in March of failing to report the abuse, which extended from 1986 to 1999, involving scores of victims,  and received a suspended six-month prison sentence, which he’s appealing and, who, though no longer leader of the Archdiocese of Lyon, remains an Archbishop, while Preynat was finally defrocked in July. A long and often difficult film to watch, but, with the issue still alarmingly prevalent, essential. (Until Wed: MAC)

Countdown (15)

It seems even ancient demons are going techno these days. At a party, a bunch of teenagers download an app called Countdown which tells you how long you’ve got until you die. One of them (Anne Winters) learns she has three hours left. Well, it’s just  prank, anyway. Even so, she decides to walk home rather than risk a lift with her drunk boyfriend. He crashes right on schedule and  branch goes through the seat where she would have been sitting.  However, at the same exact moment, she’s killed by a mysterious force in her bathroom. But, rather than follow the others at the party, they’re forgotten about as the film focuses on newly qualified nurse  Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) who also has the app but doesn’t take it seriously until the aforementioned boyfriend dies in an apparent hospital accident and she checks his phone.  With just over two days to go, she cancels a gathering at her mother’s grave with dad and her kid sister (cue guilt issues over  mom’s death) and gets a message saying she’s violated the contract. So, since the app won’t delete, it becomes a literal race against the clock to save herself and, naturally, her sister (Talitha Bateman), one which involves Matt (Jordan Calloway), a handsome stranger in the same predicament (and also plagued by guilt over a family member’s death), a phone shop owner (Tom Segura) who hacks the app and, for  a moment, seems to have sorted things, and a geeky comic relief demon-enthusiast priest (P.J. Byrne) who obligingly just happens to have an old book explaining the curse’s origin and a means to solve it, either by someone surviving  the countdown by one second or dying before their allotted time is up.  Oh yes, and there’s also a hospital doctor (Peter Facinelli) with a thing for sexually harassing nurses.

Making his big screen debut, writer-director Justin Dec does a workmanlike job serving up the obligatory flickering lights, sudden appearances by ghostly figures and the usual rote ho hum jump scares, but fails to provide anything resembling backstory or internal logic (why do the good guys get to die young and the creeps and racists live to a ripe old age?) and, while he moves things along at reasonable clip, there’s never any real thrills, sense of atmosphere or much by way of involvement with the half-formed characters. Ending with an overly optimistic promise of an upgrade, although you might take away a message about always reading the terms and conditions small print, the only countdown you’ll be thinking about is the seconds ticking away to the end credits. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Day Shall Come (15)

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

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

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

Stuffed with barbed lines and ridiculous scenarios, nonetheless it makes some earnestly serious observations about the post 9/11 world and the bureaucratic need to invent enemies to  citizenry, wisely never overstretching the plot and reeling it all in at a succinct 87 minutes and final what happened after ironic credits punch that goes a long way to explaining the mentality that put Trump in the White House. (Wed:MAC plus exclusive interview with Chris Morris)

Doctor Sleep (15)

It’s almost 40 years since Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel saw the phrase ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ enter pop culture legend and launched any number of films involving floods of blood as, possessed by the spirits inhabiting The Overlook Hotel,  Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic father tried to take an axe to his wife and son. Six years ago, King published a sequel that had very little to do with the Kubrick film and now  writer-director Mike Flanagan combines the two following the story of the now grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a PTSD-wreck who has attempted to drown his paranormal gifts, the hearing of voices in his head that he calls the shining, in booze and anger, keeping them compartmentalised in mental ‘lockboxes’ as taught to him by spirit mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly replacing the late Scatman Crowthers). However, after a night worse than most when he wakes up next to a cokehead woman, he hits the road and ends up in New Hampshire where reformed alcoholic Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) stakes him a room in a boarding house and takes him to the town’s AA meeting hosted by Dr. John (Bruce Greenwood) who fixes him up with the job as an orderly in the local hospice, a place where the resident cat can sense when patients re about to shuffle off and he eases their passage with his psychic powers; hence, Doctor Sleep

He also starts to get messages chalked on the wall of his room leading him to become mentally linked with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a sassy tweenage African-American whose own power to shine is positively luminescent. What brings them together is a group of psychic vampire predators calling themselves the True Knot, who, as seen at the start of the film, are led by Rose the Hat (a mesmerising Rebecca Ferguson looking like some sensual 70s outlaw voodoo gypsy queen) who keep themselves semi-immortal by stealing the life essences, the steam, of psychically gifted children as they die in agonising pain which is then stored in metal thermos flasks, giving rise to the particularly disturbing scene as they murder a young baseball prodigy (a cameo by Jacob Tremblay), an act that brings the super-shiner Abra into both their and Danny’s lives.

From hereon in, the film because a game of supernatural cat and mouse between Rose and her followers and Danny and Abra, as each seeks to destroy the other, all of which, rather inevitably climaxes back in the Colorado Rockies at The Overlook, Danny finally having unlocked the powers he’s sought to repress.

At two and a half hours, it takes a while to find the flow, the early going coming across like a series of unconnected sequences (the whole turning of paedophile stalker Snakebite Andi could have been cut), but as the narrative slowly gels, while not scary horror as such, it casts a decidedly creepy spell as it plays out its predictable good vs evil drama even if having eight years pass before anything really happens seems pointless. While Ferguson steals every scene she’s in (you almost find yourself wanting a spin-off), McGregor is on good form while newcomer Curran is a quietly determined sensation calling to mind Elle from Stranger Things. There are, of course, several direct allusions to the Kubrick film, not least Danny peering through the hole in the hotel room door made by his father, but it was perhaps not the best idea to use not even vague lookalikes for flashbacks to mad Jack (ET.s Henry Thomas plays the bartender Danny speaks to as his father’s ghost) and terrified wife Wendy. That aside, this shines brighter than some reviews would have you expect. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

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

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

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

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

Gemini Man (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midway (12A)

The story of the June   1942 naval battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific was previously told back in 1976 with a  cast featuring such stellar names as Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda,  Robert Mitchum and James Coburn. Spectacular as it was at the time, it’s not a patch on  this retelling by director Roland Emmerich who, taking his cue from 40s war movies, opens up with a stupendous recreation of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour  and then proceeds to deliver even bigger set pieces as the Americans take the war to the Japanese fleet with pilot eye views of dive bombers dropping their payload on enemy carriers while surrounded by anti-aircraft flak that takes the lives of many of them. Unfolding at just over two hours, the pace never flags as the film hews to historical authenticity, such as how the Japanese carrier Akagi was crippled when bombs hit a  closed hangar full of armaments was ; it even shows how director John Ford was at Midway filming things. While there are inevitable composites in the rank and file, it’s primarily centred around real life figures such as fearless/reckless pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), Admiral Halsey  (Dennis Quaid), commander of the USS Enterprise, Edwin Layton (PatrickWilson), the Naval attaché intelligence officer whose warnings were dismissed), Charles Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), fleet admiral who led the U.S. Naval forces, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) who led the symbolically crucial attack on Tokyo, and navy fighter pilot Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). In a welcome objective presentation of events from the side of the no less courageous and strategically daring Japanese, in the same manner as Tora! Tora! Tora!, there’s also  Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).

Unusually for Emmerich, better known for disaster blockbusters, while undeniably big popcorn bucket entertainment with a side order of patriotic gung ho, there’s also a gravity to the film and characterisation that goes beyond heroic stereotypes.  Sure, as did the earlier film, the dialogue can come across as the sort of war movie clichés that riddled John Wayne movies, and, inevitably, the navy wives (such as Mandy Moore) are very much in the background, but, while we’ve had the likes of the revisionist Inglourious Basterds and Fury, there’s not been a WWII movie on such a scale in years. Critics said the 1976 film marked the end of American WWII epics. This may just be the rebirth. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mrs. Lowry And Son (PG)

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

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

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

Sorry We Missed You (15)

Where their previous film, I, Daniel Blake, ultimately found a note of hope among its portrayal of a broken Britain,  this latest from Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty is pretty much relentlessly bleak in its angry portrayal of a zero hours nation. A Newcastle construction worker who lost his job and with it any hope of a mortgage in the crash of 2008, now struggling to meet the rent but proud of never having been on the dole, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) signs up for what looks like a nice little earner as a ‘quasi-freelance’ parcel firm delivery driver for PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast!), run by the pragmatic, empathy-challenged Maloney (Ross Brewster), the self-styled Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards. Meanwhile his devoted and selfless wife,  Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), is a contract nurse and in-home carer, on constant call. Because Ricky needs to buy a white van for the job, rather than rent one from  the company at exorbitant rates, she has to sell her car and use public transport, paying her own travel costs, to visit her disabled, vulnerable and sometime very demanding old folk clients.

Working impossible hours, neither of them have much time for their two kids, artistic but stroppy  Seb (Rhys Stone), who hangs out with a graffiti  gang and falls foul of the law and sparks tension with his dad, and his smart kid sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) who eventually takes it upon herself to bear the family’s burdens. But they struggle along, a brief sunny moment being when Ricky takes his daughter out on the round with him.

But, as the pressures mount, Ricky soon comes to learn the pitfalls of being his so called own man. There’s no conventional employment benefits, if he missed  deadline, recorded on the scanner ‘gun’, he’s penalised, if he loses the hugely costly gun he has to replace it, if he can’t work he has to arrange another driver and loses his money. He doesn’t even have time for a toilet break, he has to carry a plastic bottle with him. A plot point that  sets up the film’s big dramatic turning point as Ricky become subject to more and more of the firm’s ‘sanctions; and the debts pile up and the family begins to fall apart.

A damning indictment of the gig economy where you’re always running just to stand still, even with its flashes of humour, it can feel a little relentless and there’s times when the dialogue seems awkwardly improvised, but the naturalness of the central performances and the warmth of the family connections, even when under duress, draw you in. There is, thankfully, a moment of catharsis courtesy of Debbie, but ultimately, the all too depressingly real message is that there is no new dawn, just the start of another day.  (Electric; MAC)

Terminator: Dark Fate (15)

Ok, forget Genisys, Rise of the Machines and Salvation, consign them to another timeline, this reboot, the sixth in the series, directed by Tim Miller,  comes more or less as a follow-up to T2, although, in terms of plot elements, it’s also essentially a rerun of the first film, and even some of its classic lines. It wastes no time in getting down to the action as a naked, crop-haired woman, Grace (Mackenzie Davis from Blade Runner 2049), a bad ass female empowerment bionically-enhanced human, arrives in Mexico City from the future with a mission to search out Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, conjuring Michelle Rodriguez), a young woman working with on a car factory assembly line with her brother, who’s ironically about to be replaced by a machine. Grace is soon followed by another figure, a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), an all-new, creepily smiling state of the art Terminator, who’s on the same mission. Except the former is there to protect her and the latter to kill her. And, having already dispatched her father and brother, it looks like he’s about to succeed when, bang, enter the now much older, but equally bad ass Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), all shades, fuck off guns and terse dialogue, who, since her son John was killed by the original T-800 in the post-Judgment Day prologue, has, thanks to receiving anonymous texts,  spent her life living, as she puts it, off  drink and vengeance while tracking down and destroying other machines sent back from the future.

So, now we have her and Grace both out to keep Dani alive, although no one thinks to ask why she’s so important or offer any explanation until well into the film, but, suffice to say, her role in the great scheme is as basically the surrogate Sarah from the first film. Well, kind of. The problem is that the new Terminator, a robotic cocktail of T-1000 and T-800, seems pretty much unstoppable; blow it up and it turns into black lava and reassembles and also has the twofer ability to separate its human form from its endoskeleton with both of them functioning independently.

So, they’re going to need some help and, therefore, welcome the much anticipated reappearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as, with Skynet destroyed (to be supplanted by an AI called Legion with the same destroy humanity agenda), the now reformed T-800 who’s not only got himself a family (who don’t know what he is) but calls himself Carl and (giving rise to some particularly amusing lines) runs a drapery business. But still has a shedful of guns.

As anyone familiar with the franchise will expect, there’s any number of timeline twists regarding Grace and Dani, their connection and the real reasons she’s so important to the fight in the future, but that ultimately just dressing on the constant stream of action as the foursome and the Rev-9 go at it hammer and tongs, things blowing up or being sliced and diced left, right and centre, and including a hairy zero-gravity mid-air assault and escape on a parachuted Humvee that then plunges into a reservoir before the power plant showdown.

There’s a welcome vein of humour as well as some charged socio-political commentary  with the scenes set around the Mexican border and the core cast all deliver strong performances and, while Arnie is, well Arnie (“I’m very funny”, he quips), there’s a soulfulness between him and Hamilton who, returning to the franchise after 30 years, is sensational. Which is a good thing since, with this ending with a Logan moment, and hinting at a new beginning rather than a conclusion, it seems those Sarah Connor Chronicles might be in for at least one more chapter. She’ll be back. (Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Nov 15-Thu Nov 21

 

NEW RELEASES

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963,  Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed  to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966 Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of  a heart condition and had become an  auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising  Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite  senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with  a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale,  all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported  in more intimate scenes by  Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, lectrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

By the Grace of God (15)

Directed by François Ozon, this grippingly powerful film tells the true story of how a  group of men from  Lyon, all of whom had been abused by the same Roman Catholic priest, Father Preynat  (Bernard Verley), as young scouts,  came together as adults to form an organisation, Lift the Burden, seeking to bring him to justice and, perhaps more importantly, bring to account the Church hierarchy, here in figure of   Cardinal  Barbarin (François Marthouret), the Archbishop of Lyon, which, while fully aware of what was happening,   professed ignorance, covered things up and even allowed him to continue working with young boys.

It begins in 2014 with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a well-to-do family man and still-devout Catholic who’s disturbed to discover the priest’s continued activity and who, after a meeting is arranged with Preynat at which he admits his guilt but never asks forgiveness,  pressed ahead by filing charges, and the ranks gradually swell with other equally semi-fictionalised, victims, among them François (Denis Ménochet) an atheist who initially refuses to get involved but then becomes the activist group founder, surgeon Gilles (Éric Caravaca) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a vulnerable near-genius whose abuse has left him emotionally and physically damaged.

As well as fuelling frustration and anger in the confrontations with Church figures who seek to mollify and prevaricate, the film also features no less unsettling scenes when the abuse victims ask their parents who, knowing what was happening, didn’t do anything either (““We all have our problems” says one victim’s father), underscoring the power the Roman Catholic church held over its followers. Often uncomfortable in its revelations of the abuse the men endured, but always proceeding in a restrained manner as justice is pursued, the film holds you in its grip throughout, culminating in a press conference scene where Barbarin is confronted with the extent of his awareness, his self-protecting contradictory assertions and his failure to act, ending with a title card about the then forthcoming trial and verdict. He was found guilty in March of failing to report the abuse, which extended from 1986 to 1999, involving scores of victims,  and received a suspended six-month prison sentence, which he’s appealing and, who, though no longer leader of the Archdiocese of Lyon, remains an Archbishop, while Preynat was finally defrocked in July. A long and often difficult film to watch, but, with the issue still alarmingly prevalent, essential. (Electric)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little Monsters (15)

A playful and suitably bloody zombie virus comedy from Australia, this takes a while to get going, spending rather too long in introducing Dave (Alexander England), a shiftless, 30 something who once led long defunct heavy metal band, God’s Sledgehammer, always blames others for his problems and has commitment issues, he and his girlfriend constantly hurling constant abuse at each other (watch out for a very funny throwaway birthday cake sight gag in the restaurant scene). When they inevitably break up, he crashes with his single mom sister (Kat Stewart) and his bullied, allergic young nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) where his inappropriate language and irresponsibility (such as explaining to the kid what a douche bag is) don’t go down well. Not to mention having him dress as Darth Vader in an attempt to win back his girlfriend, that ends with Felix getting an early lesson in the facts of life.

Prologue out of the way, the pace picks up when, helping with the school run (where he bangs the door against one of the class bullies behind), he lays eyes on the kids’ primary school teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) and, smitten, claiming God’s Sledgehammer is a Christian Rock outfit, volunteers to help in the upcoming school visit to a  petting  zoo cum mini-golf course which just also happens to be the location for the filming of show by kiddie TV favourite Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) in his green polka-dot suit with his puppet co-star Frogzy. However, Teddy turns out to be  a sociopathic, misogynistic drunk sex addict resentful that, mentored under Pacino,  he never got to be a real actor, while  Pleasant Valley Farm happens to be next to a U.S. Military base experimenting with regeneration and from which the zombie outbreak occurs,leading to assorted farm stock, staff and kiddiwinks being either turned or chewed up. Next thing you know, the place is overrun, or perhaps overlurched,  with them and Dave, McGiggle, Miss Caroline and her class are holed up in the gift shop surrounded by hungry flesh eaters while the army are planning to contain things by dropping a bomb. On the gift shop.

In a film that includes a slow getaway on a tractor and trailer, pursued by an army of zombies singing along with the kids to If You’re Happy and You Know It, Gad and England (whose growing up is the film’s arc) are great fun, but, showing a real gift for comedy, sporting a yellow (and soon to be blood spattered) dress, it’s Black Panther/Us star Nyong’o who is the undeniable main attraction, relentlessly upbeat as she determines to keep the kids safe, pretending it’s all a game and singing Taylor Swift’s Shake It Up while accompanying herself on ukulele and proving far tougher than she might seem. Sheila of the Dead of the dead then. (Electric; Fri/Sat: Reel)

Non-Fiction (15)

A relationships comedy of manners directed by Olivier Assayas, set in contemporary Paris this is quintessentially French, the dialogue  awash with cerebral discussions (frequently round a dinner table) about politics, art, entertainment and, more pertinently, the future of publishing in the era of digitisation yet where print is enjoying revival, while unfolding the story of two couples (the French title translates as Double Lives) who are cheating on each other.

Alain (Guillaume Canet) heads a publishing house and is looking to keep up with technological changes like e-books and has brought in techsavvy upwardly mobile Laure (Christa Théret) as his new head of digital operations and with whom he is also sleeping. He’s married to Selena (Juliette Binoche, wonderful), an actress fed up of playing a  cop (though she prefers “crisis management expert”) on a French TV crime drama. She’s been having an affair for the past six years with Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a grumpy ageing hipster author still living off the success of an early novel and who is one of Alain’s clients, albeit with increasingly shrinking sales. Alain, however, declines to publish his latest, a thinly veiled ‘autofiction’ about the affair, but which he says is based on a fling with a TV presenter. Meanwhile, Leonard, who asks Selena to champion the manuscript, is living with his longtime girlfriend Valérie (Nora Hamzawi, wonderfully non-verbal), a political aide to a Socialist politician too focused on an upcoming election to massage his wounded ego.

In many ways a French farce for intellectuals, it unfolds with a wry sense of humour amid its many conversations before reaching some sort of epiphany and resolution for at least one of the characters, Assayas including a very cheeky allusion to Leonard describing he and Serena having oral sex during a screening of Michael Haneke’s Holocaust drama The White Ribbon, whereas it was actually while watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and, in talk of turning the new novel into a movie, an in-joke about casting Juliette Binoche. At the end of the day, this is a somewhat self-indulgent and slight outing by Assayas, but it’s also an undeniably amusing – and if you read books – thoughtful trifle. (Until Tue; MAC)

ALSO SHOWING

The Irishman (15)

On Netflix from next week, understandably the major cinema chains have opted not to show this, that and the fact that at over three hours it bites into the number of screenings and ticket sales. As such, it’s been impossible to preview Martin Scorsese’s highly acclaimed mobster epic, working from a script by Steven Zaillian and based on the assumed murder of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa and starring the heavyweight cast of Al Pacino (Hoffa), Robert De Niro (Hoffa enforcer and alleged killer Frank Sheeran), and Joe Pesci (mob boss Russell Bufalino) alongside Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin and Stephen Graham.

Described by many as Scorsese atoning for supposedly glorifying violence in films such as Good Fellas and set over a 30 year period (albeit mostly in the 50s) and taking in the JFK assassination as an underworld conspiracy, it is clearly a must see; whether that’s a three and a half hours in an indie cinema auditorium or in front of a TV screen is your choice.  (Everyman; Mockingbird; Reel)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abominable (U)

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

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

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Countdown (15)

It seems even ancient demons are going techno these days. At a party, a bunch of teenagers download an app called Countdown which tells you how long you’ve got until you die. One of them (Anne Winters) learns she has three hours left. Well, it’s just  prank, anyway. Even so, she decides to walk home rather than risk a lift with her drunk boyfriend. He crashes right on schedule and  branch goes through the seat where she would have been sitting.  However, at the same exact moment, she’s killed by a mysterious force in her bathroom. But, rather than follow the others at the party, they’re forgotten about as the film focuses on newly qualified nurse  Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) who also has the app but doesn’t take it seriously until the aforementioned boyfriend dies in an apparent hospital accident and she checks his phone.  With just over two days to go, she cancels a gathering at her mother’s grave with dad and her kid sister (cue guilt issues over  mom’s death) and gets a message saying she’s violated the contract. So, since the app won’t delete, it becomes a literal race against the clock to save herself and, naturally, her sister (Talitha Bateman), one which involves Matt (Jordan Calloway), a handsome stranger in the same predicament (and also plagued by guilt over a family member’s death), a phone shop owner (Tom Segura) who hacks the app and, for  a moment, seems to have sorted things, and a geeky comic relief demon-enthusiast priest (P.J. Byrne) who obligingly just happens to have an old book explaining the curse’s origin and a means to solve it, either by someone surviving  the countdown by one second or dying before their allotted time is up.  Oh yes, and there’s also a hospital doctor (Peter Facinelli) with a thing for sexually harassing nurses.

Making his big screen debut, writer-director Justin Dec does a workmanlike job serving up the obligatory flickering lights, sudden appearances by ghostly figures and the usual rote ho hum jump scares, but fails to provide anything resembling backstory or internal logic (why do the good guys get to die young and the creeps and racists live to a ripe old age?) and, while he moves things along at reasonable clip, there’s never any real thrills, sense of atmosphere or much by way of involvement with the half-formed characters. Ending with an overly optimistic promise of an upgrade, although you might take away a message about always reading the terms and conditions small print, the only countdown you’ll be thinking about is the seconds ticking away to the end credits. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Doctor Sleep (15)

It’s almost 40 years since Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel saw the phrase ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ enter pop culture legend and launched any number of films involving floods of blood as, possessed by the spirits inhabiting The Overlook Hotel,  Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic father tried to take an axe to his wife and son. Six years ago, King published a sequel that had very little to do with the Kubrick film and now  writer-director Mike Flanagan combines the two following the story of the now grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a PTSD-wreck who has attempted to drown his paranormal gifts, the hearing of voices in his head that he calls the shining, in booze and anger, keeping them compartmentalised in mental ‘lockboxes’ as taught to him by spirit mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly replacing the late Scatman Crowthers). However, after a night worse than most when he wakes up next to a cokehead woman, he hits the road and ends up in New Hampshire where reformed alcoholic Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) stakes him a room in a boarding house and takes him to the town’s AA meeting hosted by Dr. John (Bruce Greenwood) who fixes him up with the job as an orderly in the local hospice, a place where the resident cat can sense when patients re about to shuffle off and he eases their passage with his psychic powers; hence, Doctor Sleep

He also starts to get messages chalked on the wall of his room leading him to become mentally linked with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a sassy tweenage African-American whose own power to shine is positively luminescent. What brings them together is a group of psychic vampire predators calling themselves the True Knot, who, as seen at the start of the film, are led by Rose the Hat (a mesmerising Rebecca Ferguson looking like some sensual 70s outlaw voodoo gypsy queen) who keep themselves semi-immortal by stealing the life essences, the steam, of psychically gifted children as they die in agonising pain which is then stored in metal thermos flasks, giving rise to the particularly disturbing scene as they murder a young baseball prodigy (a cameo by Jacob Tremblay), an act that brings the super-shiner Abra into both their and Danny’s lives.

From hereon in, the film because a game of supernatural cat and mouse between Rose and her followers and Danny and Abra, as each seeks to destroy the other, all of which, rather inevitably climaxes back in the Colorado Rockies at The Overlook, Danny finally having unlocked the powers he’s sought to repress.

At two and a half hours, it takes a while to find the flow, the early going coming across like a series of unconnected sequences (the whole turning of paedophile stalker Snakebite Andi could have been cut), but as the narrative slowly gels, while not scary horror as such, it casts a decidedly creepy spell as it plays out its predictable good vs evil drama even if having eight years pass before anything really happens seems pointless. While Ferguson steals every scene she’s in (you almost find yourself wanting a spin-off), McGregor is on good form while newcomer Curran is a quietly determined sensation calling to mind Elle from Stranger Things. There are, of course, several direct allusions to the Kubrick film, not least Danny peering through the hole in the hotel room door made by his father, but it was perhaps not the best idea to use not even vague lookalikes for flashbacks to mad Jack (ET.s Henry Thomas plays the bartender Danny speaks to as his father’s ghost) and terrified wife Wendy. That aside, this shines brighter than some reviews would have you expect. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

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

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

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

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

Gemini Man (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Judy (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midway (12A)

The story of the June   1942 naval battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific was previously told back in 1976 with a  cast featuring such stellar names as Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda,  Robert Mitchum and James Coburn. Spectacular as it was at the time, it’s not a patch on  this retelling by director Roland Emmerich who, taking his cue from 40s war movies, opens up with a stupendous recreation of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour  and then proceeds to deliver even bigger set pieces as the Americans take the war to the Japanese fleet with pilot eye views of dive bombers dropping their payload on enemy carriers while surrounded by anti-aircraft flak that takes the lives of many of them. Unfolding at just over two hours, the pace never flags as the film hews to historical authenticity, such as how the Japanese carrier Akagi was crippled when bombs hit a  closed hangar full of armaments was ; it even shows how director John Ford was at Midway filming things. While there are inevitable composites in the rank and file, it’s primarily centred around real life figures such as fearless/reckless pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), Admiral Halsey  (Dennis Quaid), commander of the USS Enterprise, Edwin Layton (PatrickWilson), the Naval attaché intelligence officer whose warnings were dismissed), Charles Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), fleet admiral who led the U.S. Naval forces, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) who led the symbolically crucial attack on Tokyo, and navy fighter pilot Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). In a welcome objective presentation of events from the side of the no less courageous and strategically daring Japanese, in the same manner as Tora! Tora! Tora!, there’s also  Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).

Unusually for Emmerich, better known for disaster blockbusters, while undeniably big popcorn bucket entertainment with a side order of patriotic gung ho, there’s also a gravity to the film and characterisation that goes beyond heroic stereotypes.  Sure, as did the earlier film, the dialogue can come across as the sort of war movie clichés that riddled John Wayne movies, and, inevitably, the navy wives (such as Mandy Moore) are very much in the background, but, while we’ve had the likes of the revisionist Inglourious Basterds and Fury, there’s not been a WWII movie on such a scale in years. Critics said the 1976 film marked the end of American WWII epics. This may just be the rebirth. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Official Secrets (15)

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

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

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

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

The Peanut Butter Falcon (12A)

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

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

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

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

Sorry We Missed You (15)

Where their previous film, I, Daniel Blake, ultimately found a note of hope among its portrayal of a broken Britain,  this latest from Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty is pretty much relentlessly bleak in its angry portrayal of a zero hours nation. A Newcastle construction worker who lost his job and with it any hope of a mortgage in the crash of 2008, now struggling to meet the rent but proud of never having been on the dole, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) signs up for what looks like a nice little earner as a ‘quasi-freelance’ parcel firm delivery driver for PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast!), run by the pragmatic, empathy-challenged Maloney (Ross Brewster), the self-styled Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards. Meanwhile his devoted and selfless wife,  Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), is a contract nurse and in-home carer, on constant call. Because Ricky needs to buy a white van for the job, rather than rent one from  the company at exorbitant rates, she has to sell her car and use public transport, paying her own travel costs, to visit her disabled, vulnerable and sometime very demanding old folk clients.

Working impossible hours, neither of them have much time for their two kids, artistic but stroppy  Seb (Rhys Stone), who hangs out with a graffiti  gang and falls foul of the law and sparks tension with his dad, and his smart kid sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) who eventually takes it upon herself to bear the family’s burdens. But they struggle along, a brief sunny moment being when Ricky takes his daughter out on the round with him.

But, as the pressures mount, Ricky soon comes to learn the pitfalls of being his so called own man. There’s no conventional employment benefits, if he missed  deadline, recorded on the scanner ‘gun’, he’s penalised, if he loses the hugely costly gun he has to replace it, if he can’t work he has to arrange another driver and loses his money. He doesn’t even have time for a toilet break, he has to carry a plastic bottle with him. A plot point that  sets up the film’s big dramatic turning point as Ricky become subject to more and more of the firm’s ‘sanctions; and the debts pile up and the family begins to fall apart.

A damning indictment of the gig economy where you’re always running just to stand still, even with its flashes of humour, it can feel a little relentless and there’s times when the dialogue seems awkwardly improvised, but the naturalness of the central performances and the warmth of the family connections, even when under duress, draw you in. There is, thankfully, a moment of catharsis courtesy of Debbie, but ultimately, the all too depressingly real message is that there is no new dawn, just the start of another day.  (Electric; MAC)

Terminator: Dark Fate (15)

Ok, forget Genisys, Rise of the Machines and Salvation, consign them to another timeline, this reboot, the sixth in the series, directed by Tim Miller,  comes more or less as a follow-up to T2, although, in terms of plot elements, it’s also essentially a rerun of the first film, and even some of its classic lines. It wastes no time in getting down to the action as a naked, crop-haired woman, Grace (Mackenzie Davis from Blade Runner 2049), a bad ass female empowerment bionically-enhanced human, arrives in Mexico City from the future with a mission to search out Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, conjuring Michelle Rodriguez), a young woman working with on a car factory assembly line with her brother, who’s ironically about to be replaced by a machine. Grace is soon followed by another figure, a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), an all-new, creepily smiling state of the art Terminator, who’s on the same mission. Except the former is there to protect her and the latter to kill her. And, having already dispatched her father and brother, it looks like he’s about to succeed when, bang, enter the now much older, but equally bad ass Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), all shades, fuck off guns and terse dialogue, who, since her son John was killed by the original T-800 in the post-Judgment Day prologue, has, thanks to receiving anonymous texts,  spent her life living, as she puts it, off  drink and vengeance while tracking down and destroying other machines sent back from the future.

So, now we have her and Grace both out to keep Dani alive, although no one thinks to ask why she’s so important or offer any explanation until well into the film, but, suffice to say, her role in the great scheme is as basically the surrogate Sarah from the first film. Well, kind of. The problem is that the new Terminator, a robotic cocktail of T-1000 and T-800, seems pretty much unstoppable; blow it up and it turns into black lava and reassembles and also has the twofer ability to separate its human form from its endoskeleton with both of them functioning independently.

So, they’re going to need some help and, therefore, welcome the much anticipated reappearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as, with Skynet destroyed (to be supplanted by an AI called Legion with the same destroy humanity agenda), the now reformed T-800 who’s not only got himself a family (who don’t know what he is) but calls himself Carl and (giving rise to some particularly amusing lines) runs a drapery business. But still has a shedful of guns.

As anyone familiar with the franchise will expect, there’s any number of timeline twists regarding Grace and Dani, their connection and the real reasons she’s so important to the fight in the future, but that ultimately just dressing on the constant stream of action as the foursome and the Rev-9 go at it hammer and tongs, things blowing up or being sliced and diced left, right and centre, and including a hairy zero-gravity mid-air assault and escape on a parachuted Humvee that then plunges into a reservoir before the power plant showdown.

There’s a welcome vein of humour as well as some charged socio-political commentary  with the scenes set around the Mexican border and the core cast all deliver strong performances and, while Arnie is, well Arnie (“I’m very funny”, he quips), there’s a soulfulness between him and Hamilton who, returning to the franchise after 30 years, is sensational. Which is a good thing since, with this ending with a Logan moment, and hinting at a new beginning rather than a conclusion, it seems those Sarah Connor Chronicles might be in for at least one more chapter. She’ll be back. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Zombieland: Double Tap (15)

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 8-Thu Nov 14

 

NEW RELEASES

 

Midway (12A)

The story of the June   1942 naval battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific was previously told back in 1976 with a  cast featuring such stellar names as Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda,  Robert Mitchum and James Coburn. Spectacular as it was at the time, it’s not a patch on  this retelling by director Roland Emmerich who, taking his cue from 40s war movies, opens up with a stupendous recreation of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour  and then proceeds to deliver even bigger set pieces as the Americans take the war to the Japanese fleet with pilot eye views of dive bombers dropping their payload on enemy carriers while surrounded by anti-aircraft flak that takes the lives of many of them. Unfolding at just over two hours, the pace never flags as the film hews to historical authenticity, such as how the Japanese carrier Akagi was crippled when bombs hit a  closed hangar full of armaments was ; it even shows how director John Ford was at Midway filming things. While there are inevitable composites in the rank and file, it’s primarily centred around real life figures such as fearless/reckless pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), Admiral Halsey  (Dennis Quaid), commander of the USS Enterprise, Edwin Layton (PatrickWilson), the Naval attaché intelligence officer whose warnings were dismissed), Charles Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), fleet admiral who led the U.S. Naval forces, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) who led the symbolically crucial attack on Tokyo, and navy fighter pilot Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). In a welcome objective presentation of events from the side of the no less courageous and strategically daring Japanese, in the same manner as Tora! Tora! Tora!, there’s also  Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).

Unusually for Emmerich, better known for disaster blockbusters, while undeniably big popcorn bucket entertainment with a side order of patriotic gung ho, there’s also a gravity to the film and characterisation that goes beyond heroic stereotypes.  Sure, as did the earlier film, the dialogue can come across as the sort of war movie clichés that riddled John Wayne movies, and, inevitably, the navy wives (such as Mandy Moore) are very much in the background, but, while we’ve had the likes of the revisionist Inglourious Basterds and Fury, there’s not been a WWII movie on such a scale in years. Critics said the 1976 film marked the end of American WWII epics. This may just be the rebirth. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Dead Centre (18)

A one-off screening for Billy Senese’s compelling horror in which a suicide (Jeremy Childs) comes back to life in a hospital morgue and, subsequently found curled up in a psychiatric ward bed, his wounds having vanished, is assumed to be some catatonic John Doe. He’s treated by maverick, rules-bending  doctor Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth), whose past tragedies lead  supervisor Dr. Sarah Grey (Poorna Jagannathan) to cut  him some slack,  as, in a  parallel plot, medical examiner Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) is trying to find out what’s happened to the missing corpse. He turns out to be someone called Michael Clark who, back in the hospital, awakes with no recollection of who he is or how get got there.  However, as a series of  deaths starts to occur, the victims’ faces contorted, Forrester begins to suspect his patient (whose suicide note included a phrase about being the mouth of death) is somehow responsible.

Although this ultimately becomes a familiar case of demonic possession, climaxing in a bloodbath rampage, for the most it adopts a slow burning restraint to explore ideas about death, immortality and the rage that simmers from things we repress inside, effectively dressed in an atmosphere of paranoia and mental instability compounded by the use of strobe lighting and unsettling sound design. (Wed:MAC)

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it looks”, you know you’ve been conned too.  Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Good Posture (15)

Having just broken up with her boyfriend   (Gary Richardson)  and her wealthy but unreliable father away in Paris with his new girlfriend, it’s arranged for film school graduate Lilian (Grace Van Patten) to move in with family friends, just a  few doors down, but, following a tense dinner with a side order of caustic comments and an argument over him smoking, the musician husband (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) storms out, leaving her with just her begrudging landlady,  Julia Price (Emily Mortimer), was a friend of her late mother  and the successful but fiercely reclusive writer of the titular cult novel.  Her and Julia’s socially awkward dog walker, George (Timm Sharp), who lives in the basement and whose prickles rise Lilian’s lackadaisacal manner, their developing tentative friendship forming an amiable but  underdeveloped subplot.

Sharp but spoiled with a sense of entitlement, the aimless Lilian is used to some sort of male support system, even in sorting out her recycling,  but now finds herself adrift, her father, who’s promised to return to New York and set up an apartment, never returning her constant video messages and she and Julia, who is ensconced in her private rooms and demanding to have her meals prepared in lieu of rent,  only communicating via snarky (Julia refers to her as The Entitled Oaf while she likens her to Miss Haversham) but increasingly more affectionate comments in Lilian’s private  journal.

Meeting her ex in the street with his new filmmaker girlfriend, in an attempt to score points Lilian impulsively declares she’s making  a documentary about the aggressively private Julia, and then has to go about putting her rash assertion into practice, albeit without mentioning anything to her proposed subject. Following a montage of amusing interviews with highly inappropriate wannabe cameramen, she settles on the self-named, floridly enthusiastic but  utterly inexperienced pretentious hipster Sol (John Early). Then she gets news her dad’s back in town, but hasn’t bothered to let her know.

Recently seen as the bookshop owner in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Dolly Wells makes her debut as writer-director with this somewhat rough round the edges indie New York comedy about self-discovery even enlisting droll cameos by real life novelists Zadie Smith, Jonathan Ames and Martin Amis as Lilian’s interviewees proffering their opinions on Julia’s work (none of which Lilian or Sol has actually read), although its exploration of inter-generational friendship suffers from the fact that Mortimer is mostly just an offscreen  voiceover until the final act. Even so, largely thanks to Van Patten managing to be infuriating and appealing, vulnerable behind her, ahem, posturing,  at the same time, this deports itself well enough.  (Sat-Thu:MAC)

 

Luce (15)

A former child soldier from Eritrea, adopted an raised by a liberal white middle class “woke” couple, doctor Amy and financier  Peter (Naomi Watts,Tim Roth),  in Virginia, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is his school’s poster boy for black excellence, excelling in both his studies and on the sports field, chosen to be the valedictorian of his senior class, especially in the eyes of his history teacher, Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer). A friend jokingly calls him the “new Obama”. But then Amy’s called in to discuss her son’s recent essay, one which, adopting the persona of   revolutionary African writer Frantz Fanon, appearing to advocate violent resistance to colonisation, she finds worrying given “the climate around school shooting being what it is”. She also reveals that she searched Luce’s locker and found a bag of illegal fireworks.

Amy refuses to countenance what Wilson might be implying, Peter seems more inclined to take things at face value, inevitably creating friction and tensions in the family dynamic. Luce is angry at his teacher’s invasion of his privacy, pointing out that the basketball team share the lockers, so there’s no proof the fireworks are his. He’s also angry about an earlier incident in which Wilson found weed in a locker belonging to his friend DeShaun (Astro) and got him kicked off the team as well as how, going on rumours about events at a drunken party, she has singled out Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) as stereotypical silent victim. It emerges that she was Luce’s girlfriend and, in a, emotionally intense meeting between her and Amy, she reveals how she was sexually abused by his teammates. The question is whether Luce  rescued her, as she says, or whether he was one of the abusers.

It’s a question that underlies the whole film (adapted by writer-director Julius Onah from JC lee’s play and evoking thoughts of David Mamet) and its hypothetical assumptions, about preconceptions and expectations, about people being what we want to believe them to be, something of which Wilson (who admits she factors in her students’ background in assessing their potential), the school principal and Luce’s parents are all guilty. Is Luce wrongfully accused, or does he  have a darker side he keeps hidden?  Is he confined in a prison of expectations that won’t let him be who he is? Does racism work both ways? Although the reveal involving Luce, Stephanie and Miss Wilson feels contrived, these are very much  questions the film, with its exploration of tokenism,  invites the audience to answer.

The central performances are strong throughout, Roth showing frustration at the resolutely ‘woke’ Watts’ refusal to contemplate possibilities, Harrison Jr and Spencer subtly and masterfully cloaking the ambiguity of  their actions and motivations,   particularly striking scenes being where, under the pretence of asking for help with his speech, the former subtly interrogates the latter in the presence of other teachers, and Luce’s solitary rehearsal of that speech as, tears welling, he speaks of what America has given him. There are hints in the final moments, but there are no answers, leaving you to examine your own assumptions, expectations and stereotyping long after you leave the cinema. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Vue Star City)

 

Skin (15)

Based on the true story of Bryon Widner (the subject of the documentary Erasing Hate), a Ohio-based white neo-Nazi supremacist who broke away and (as seen in brief flashes) underwent months of agonising surgery to remove the tattoos covering his face and body, this can’t help but recall Tony Kaye’s similarly themed 1999 redemption drama American History X starring Ed Norton.  However, while less dramatic, its real life background and an electrifying intense performance from Jamie Bell, capturing rage and hate alongside an unexpected tenderness and vulnerability, as Widner ensures it’s not diminished in comparison .

Set in 2005, abandoned by his real parents, ‘Babs’ has been ‘adopted’  and groomed by Viking” skinhead group headed by Fred “Hammer” Krager (a quietly terrifying Bill Camp) and his sexually creepy wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga) and, brutal in his violence, has become the gang’s golden boy, a position some of the others resent.  During a rally in which Krager announces he’s going to run for office, Bryon comes to the rescue, pummelling one of the crowd casting abuse and cans at the three young girls singing on the stage.  They’re the children of Julie (Patti Cake$ star Danielle Macdonald), a tough mother who has removed herself from her former  violently racist environment and refuses to let them be exposed to it. He falls for her and determines not to be another bad man in their lives, thereby setting up having to make a choice between the family he wants and the family he has, not that his controlling ‘parents’ intend to let him go.

The sparks of a conscience flickering in Babs flare up when Krager takes them and a new recruit on a mosque burning initiation, leading to him quitting the tribe and, inevitably, their subsequent pursuit of him, entwined with his involvement with Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter,  a real life black activist dedicated to “turning” hate-group members into government witnesses with new identities and values.

Despite only sketchy backgrounds, it emerges as firmly character-driven,   an often tough, but inspirational, story about the path to redemption and atonement that asks you to look beyond the ugly surface and see both the formative influences and the potential for change. (Mon-Thu:MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abominable (U)

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

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

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Countdown (15)

It seems even ancient demons are going techno these days. At a party, a bunch of teenagers download an app called Countdown which tells you how long you’ve got until you die. One of them (Anne Winters) learns she has three hours left. Well, it’s just  prank, anyway. Even so, she decides to walk home rather than risk a lift with her drunk boyfriend. He crashes right on schedule and  branch goes through the seat where she would have been sitting.  However, at the same exact moment, she’s killed by a mysterious force in her bathroom. But, rather than follow the others at the party, they’re forgotten about as the film focuses on newly qualified nurse  Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) who also has the app but doesn’t take it seriously until the aforementioned boyfriend dies in an apparent hospital accident and she checks his phone.  With just over two days to go, she cancels a gathering at her mother’s grave with dad and her kid sister (cue guilt issues over  mom’s death) and gets a message saying she’s violated the contract. So, since the app won’t delete, it becomes a literal race against the clock to save herself and, naturally, her sister (Talitha Bateman), one which involves Matt (Jordan Calloway), a handsome stranger in the same predicament (and also plagued by guilt over a family member’s death), a phone shop owner (Tom Segura) who hacks the app and, for  a moment, seems to have sorted things, and a geeky comic relief demon-enthusiast priest (P.J. Byrne) who obligingly just happens to have an old book explaining the curse’s origin and a means to solve it, either by someone surviving  the countdown by one second or dying before their allotted time is up.  Oh yes, and there’s also a hospital doctor (Peter Facinelli) with a thing for sexually harassing nurses.

Making his big screen debut, writer-director Justin Dec does a workmanlike job serving up the obligatory flickering lights, sudden appearances by ghostly figures and the usual rote ho hum jump scares, but fails to provide anything resembling backstory or internal logic (why do the good guys get to die young and the creeps and racists live to a ripe old age?) and, while he moves things along at reasonable clip, there’s never any real thrills, sense of atmosphere or much by way of involvement with the half-formed characters. Ending with an overly optimistic promise of an upgrade, although you might take away a message about always reading the terms and conditions small print, the only countdown you’ll be thinking about is the seconds ticking away to the end credits. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Doctor Sleep (15)

It’s almost 40 years since Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel saw the phrase ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ enter pop culture legend and launched any number of films involving floods of blood as, possessed by the spirits inhabiting The Overlook Hotel,  Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic father tried to take an axe to his wife and son. Six years ago, King published a sequel that had very little to do with the Kubrick film and now  writer-director Mike Flanagan combines the two following the story of the now grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a PTSD-wreck who has attempted to drown his paranormal gifts, the hearing of voices in his head that he calls the shining, in booze and anger, keeping them compartmentalised in mental ‘lockboxes’ as taught to him by spirit mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly replacing the late Scatman Crowthers). However, after a night worse than most when he wakes up next to a cokehead woman, he hits the road and ends up in New Hampshire where reformed alcoholic Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) stakes him a room in a boarding house and takes him to the town’s AA meeting hosted by Dr. John (Bruce Greenwood) who fixes him up with the job as an orderly in the local hospice, a place where the resident cat can sense when patients re about to shuffle off and he eases their passage with his psychic powers; hence, Doctor Sleep

He also starts to get messages chalked on the wall of his room leading him to become mentally linked with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a sassy tweenage African-American whose own power to shine is positively luminescent. What brings them together is a group of psychic vampire predators calling themselves the True Knot, who, as seen at the start of the film, are led by Rose the Hat (a mesmerising Rebecca Ferguson looking like some sensual 70s outlaw voodoo gypsy queen) who keep themselves semi-immortal by stealing the life essences, the steam, of psychically gifted children as they die in agonising pain which is then stored in metal thermos flasks, giving rise to the particularly disturbing scene as they murder a young baseball prodigy (a cameo by Jacob Tremblay), an act that brings the super-shiner Abra into both their and Danny’s lives.

From hereon in, the film because a game of supernatural cat and mouse between Rose and her followers and Danny and Abra, as each seeks to destroy the other, all of which, rather inevitably climaxes back in the Colorado Rockies at The Overlook, Danny finally having unlocked the powers he’s sought to repress.

At two and a half hours, it takes a while to find the flow, the early going coming across like a series of unconnected sequences (the whole turning of paedophile stalker Snakebite Andi could have been cut), but as the narrative slowly gels, while not scary horror as such, it casts a decidedly creepy spell as it plays out its predictable good vs evil drama even if having eight years pass before anything really happens seems pointless. While Ferguson steals every scene she’s in (you almost find yourself wanting a spin-off), McGregor is on good form while newcomer Curran is a quietly determined sensation calling to mind Elle from Stranger Things. There are, of course, several direct allusions to the Kubrick film, not least Danny peering through the hole in the hotel room door made by his father, but it was perhaps not the best idea to use not even vague lookalikes for flashbacks to mad Jack (ET.s Henry Thomas plays the bartender Danny speaks to as his father’s ghost) and terrified wife Wendy. That aside, this shines brighter than some reviews would have you expect. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

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

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

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

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

Gemini Man (12A)

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

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

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

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

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Judy (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Secrets (15)

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

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

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

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

Sorry We Missed You (15)

Where their previous film, I, Daniel Blake, ultimately found a note of hope among its portrayal of a broken Britain,  this latest from Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty is pretty much relentlessly bleak in its angry portrayal of a zero hours nation. A Newcastle construction worker who lost his job and with it any hope of a mortgage in the crash of 2008, now struggling to meet the rent but proud of never having been on the dole, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) signs up for what looks like a nice little earner as a ‘quasi-freelance’ parcel firm delivery driver for PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast!), run by the pragmatic, empathy-challenged Maloney (Ross Brewster), the self-styled Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards. Meanwhile his devoted and selfless wife,  Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), is a contract nurse and in-home carer, on constant call. Because Ricky needs to buy a white van for the job, rather than rent one from  the company at exorbitant rates, she has to sell her car and use public transport, paying her own travel costs, to visit her disabled, vulnerable and sometime very demanding old folk clients.

Working impossible hours, neither of them have much time for their two kids, artistic but stroppy  Seb (Rhys Stone), who hangs out with a graffiti  gang and falls foul of the law and sparks tension with his dad, and his smart kid sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) who eventually takes it upon herself to bear the family’s burdens. But they struggle along, a brief sunny moment being when Ricky takes his daughter out on the round with him.

But, as the pressures mount, Ricky soon comes to learn the pitfalls of being his so called own man. There’s no conventional employment benefits, if he missed  deadline, recorded on the scanner ‘gun’, he’s penalised, if he loses the hugely costly gun he has to replace it, if he can’t work he has to arrange another driver and loses his money. He doesn’t even have time for a toilet break, he has to carry a plastic bottle with him. A plot point that  sets up the film’s big dramatic turning point as Ricky become subject to more and more of the firm’s ‘sanctions; and the debts pile up and the family begins to fall apart.

A damning indictment of the gig economy where you’re always running just to stand still, even with its flashes of humour, it can feel a little relentless and there’s times when the dialogue seems awkwardly improvised, but the naturalness of the central performances and the warmth of the family connections, even when under duress, draw you in. There is, thankfully, a moment of catharsis courtesy of Debbie, but ultimately, the all too depressingly real message is that there is no new dawn, just the start of another day.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric)

Terminator: Dark Fate (15)

Ok, forget Genisys, Rise of the Machines and Salvation, consign them to another timeline, this reboot, the sixth in the series, directed by Tim Miller,  comes more or less as a follow-up to T2, although, in terms of plot elements, it’s also essentially a rerun of the first film, and even some of its classic lines. It wastes no time in getting down to the action as a naked, crop-haired woman, Grace (Mackenzie Davis from Blade Runner 2049), a bad ass female empowerment bionically-enhanced human, arrives in Mexico City from the future with a mission to search out Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, conjuring Michelle Rodriguez), a young woman working with on a car factory assembly line with her brother, who’s ironically about to be replaced by a machine. Grace is soon followed by another figure, a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), an all-new, creepily smiling state of the art Terminator, who’s on the same mission. Except the former is there to protect her and the latter to kill her. And, having already dispatched her father and brother, it looks like he’s about to succeed when, bang, enter the now much older, but equally bad ass Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), all shades, fuck off guns and terse dialogue, who, since her son John was killed by the original T-800 in the post-Judgment Day prologue, has, thanks to receiving anonymous texts,  spent her life living, as she puts it, off  drink and vengeance while tracking down and destroying other machines sent back from the future.

So, now we have her and Grace both out to keep Dani alive, although no one thinks to ask why she’s so important or offer any explanation until well into the film, but, suffice to say, her role in the great scheme is as basically the surrogate Sarah from the first film. Well, kind of. The problem is that the new Terminator, a robotic cocktail of T-1000 and T-800, seems pretty much unstoppable; blow it up and it turns into black lava and reassembles and also has the twofer ability to separate its human form from its endoskeleton with both of them functioning independently.

So, they’re going to need some help and, therefore, welcome the much anticipated reappearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as, with Skynet destroyed (to be supplanted by an AI called Legion with the same destroy humanity agenda), the now reformed T-800 who’s not only got himself a family (who don’t know what he is) but calls himself Carl and (giving rise to some particularly amusing lines) runs a drapery business. But still has a shedful of guns.

As anyone familiar with the franchise will expect, there’s any number of timeline twists regarding Grace and Dani, their connection and the real reasons she’s so important to the fight in the future, but that ultimately just dressing on the constant stream of action as the foursome and the Rev-9 go at it hammer and tongs, things blowing up or being sliced and diced left, right and centre, and including a hairy zero-gravity mid-air assault and escape on a parachuted Humvee that then plunges into a reservoir before the power plant showdown.

There’s a welcome vein of humour as well as some charged socio-political commentary  with the scenes set around the Mexican border and the core cast all deliver strong performances and, while Arnie is, well Arnie (“I’m very funny”, he quips), there’s a soulfulness between him and Hamilton who, returning to the franchise after 30 years, is sensational. Which is a good thing since, with this ending with a Logan moment, and hinting at a new beginning rather than a conclusion, it seems those Sarah Connor Chronicles might be in for at least one more chapter. She’ll be back. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Zombieland: Double Tap (15)

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Interview: Oystercatcher

Oystercatcher is a music collective based in Manchester. At its core are vocals and bass duo Caitlin Laing and Tom Chapman, but their philosophy is to make each live performance unique by constantly varying line-ups and arrangements.

They use their freedom as arrangers to explore different sound-worlds in the studio, braving unorthodox techniques to create recordings that have a separate identity to their live performances.

Oystercatcher make their Birmingham debut on Sunday 24 November 2019 at Centrala, fresh from a tour of South Africa. Also on the bill are Brum songwriter and composer Rosie Tee and Eloise Fabbri.

Caitlin takes BrumNotes’ questions …

How did you and Tom come to form Oystercatcher?

We had played and performed together for years before starting Oystercatcher in a huge range of situations and groups, then one day we ended up doing a bass and vocals arrangement of one of our favourite tunes and we really enjoyed it. We started writing together, booked a few gigs and everything went from there.

How would you describe your sound?

At its core we’re a vocals and bass duo, but our philosophy is to make each live performance unique by constantly varying line-ups and arrangements. With a strong emphasis on songwriting as a duo this is always at the heart of our music but is continually recontextualised by the different line-ups that we use, ranging from just bass and vocals to a full orchestra. Some of our key influences include Moses Sumney, James Blake and Kate Bush.

What are the challenges of playing with a fluid line-up, as a performer?

It’s a lot of extra work constantly re-arranging our songs but the result is worth it. It means that we can make each gig unique to the personalities of the musicians that are joining us and it keeps the songs fresh both for us and for the crowd.

What will be the line-up for your Birmingham show?

As well as vocals and bass we have with us a keys player, a trumpet player and a drummer.

You recently played a few dates in South Africa – how did they come about?

We met a musician who works over there, she invited us over and from there we managed to get in touch with some people and put together a tour.

And what were some of the highlights?

It’s a beautiful country so just travelling to do all the different gigs themselves was amazing, and we met so many lovely people along the way who helped us out loads. Also, the wildlife out there is insane, we even got to meet some penguins!

Can you tell us a bit about the track Dear Katie?

This tune came about after a conversation with a friend who spoke about the idea of giving depression a character/ name and speaking to them, as a way of coping with mental health problems. Katie is the name I chose and this is a letter to her.

What are your plans for the coming months? Any other releases planned

We’ve got a UK tour through November and we have two more releases coming up to complete our EP: Come Home will be out in late November, and It Never Rains will follow in December.

Sunday 24 November 2019
Oystercatcher / Rosie Tee / Eloise Fabbri
Centrala, Unit 4 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street, Birmingham B5 5RT
7.30pm
£6 (adv); £10 (door)
centrala-space.org.uk

Tickets: www.wegottickets.com

For more information at Oystercatcher, see:

Nitin Sawhney speaks From The Source

composer nitin sawhney

Warwick Arts Centre’s mini-From The Source festival launches on Friday 8 November 2019 with a one-off appearance from Nitin Sawhney.

A key figure in the Asian Underground movement of the 1990s, Sahwney’s 1999 album Beyond Skin was his ‘break out’ release and was nominated for the Mercury Prize (alongside albums from Leftfield, Coldplay, Doves, Death In Vegas and winner Badly Drawn Boy). The album called on elements of dance/ club music and Asian music to explore themes of identity, borders, family, war, politics and more.

Sawhney went on to established a varied career as a producer, DJ, composer and solo artist, as well as writing soundtracks for TV, computer games and films (including Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, and BBC’s Human Planet).

For his special appearance in Coventry, Sawhney’s primary focus will be that classic award nominated 1999 long-player.

“It’s basically Beyond Skin, which we perform in full,” he says of his plans for the set-list, “but other than that, I’ll go back, I’ll perform some flamenco tracks, stuff from other albums.”

But there won’t be any material from his growing soundtrack catalogue.

“I don’t perform any of the soundtrack stuff at the moment, I leave that for other things, because that’s not my personal statement, that’s me working with other people.”

Beyond Skin was very much a comment on the times, and Sawhney’s next album (provisionally slated for spring/summer 2020) will also respond to our current situation with an exploration of immigration – featuring input from, and collaborations with, artists and creatives from immigrant backgrounds.

Seeing how immigrants are often treated and referred to negatively, online and in the media especially, the musician is stunned that so few artists have failed to respond with songs of protest and dissent.

“I don’t see enough of a response to the madness that is going on right now,” he says. “I think it’s really strange when you don’t have a strong response from artists, to these crazy times we live in, so it’s really important.

“That’s why I want to make this new album with a lot of different people, and bring in a lot of young artists as well.”

From The Source continues across the weekend with appearances from Stubbleman (aka Pascal Gabriel), vocalist Judi Jackson, violinist Alice Zawadzki, and A Change Is Gonna ComeCarleen Anderson‘s exploration of songs of protest, which now features a line-up that includes Brum rapper Lady Sanity.

From The Source, Friday 8 to Sunday 10 October 2019, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry. For tickets and more information, see: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

Below: Stubbleman – Badlands Train / From The Source

Below: Judi Jackson – Worth It / From The Source

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