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

NEW RELEASES

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (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)

 

Ash Is Purest White (15)

The title referring to how volcanic ash is supposedly the whitest (a metaphor of purity forged in fire), the latest from Chinese director Jia Zhangke, adopts a jianghu – gangster – setting for a bittersweet melodrama about loyalty, betrayal and friendship that, spanning the first 18 years of the 21stcentury, also serves as a snapshot  of the changing face of China. Not intimated by the male milieu of wannabe tough guys, the sassy streetwise  Qiao (Zhao Tao) is girlfriend to  Bin (Liao Fan) who, after his boss gets bumped off, becomes the de facto leader of the local honourable criminal fraternity in his depressed mining town.  However, the times are changing and such old fashioned notions as honour have been swept aside by the new generation of mobsters, leading to an attack on Bin by  aging of young thugs where Qiao comes to his aid in a way that, by refusing to incriminate Bin who owned the illegal firearm she discharged, will see her end up serving five years in jail, he getting off with a much shorter sentence.

On her release, she expects him to be waiting for her, although the fact he hadn’t visited after his release should have told her something, that and the fact he’s blocked her calls,  and what follows involves her journey to confront him so he can tell her it’s over between them himself.

Along the way, Jia balances images of a vanishing way of life (Three Gorges villages on the Yangtze destined to be flooded for a hydroelectric dam project)  with comedic episodes as, having been robbed of her belongs, Qiao uses her wiles to survive, such as crashing a wedding party and conning likely philanders into coughing up contributions for an supposed elder sister’s  non-existent pregnancy as well as earlier getting down to the Village People’s YMCA. There’s also an eccentric but touching scene involving a  cha cha cha dancing display for someone’s funeral.

The somewhat drawn out third act returns to Shanxi where she now runs her own gambling den and the reappearance of a now greatly debilitated Bin, a stroke survivor, her jianghu code prompting her to care for him while claiming she no longer has feelings.

Liao and Zhao are mesmerising in the dance that unfolds between them across their different journeys and, while the path may sometimes by rather long and winding, travelling with them is never a chore.  (MAC)

Beats (18)

In the Summer of 1994, in response to the  Castlemorton Common Festival two years earlier, New Labour, under Tony Blair, introduced the Criminal Justice and the Public Order Act which made it illegal for a gathering of more than 20 people to assemble in the presence of music ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’ Essentially, it looked to strangle rave culture at birth. Rather inevitably, there was a wave of protests, that saw beat bangers facing off against riot police and the rise of crusty outfits such as Spiral Tribe.

Adapted from a stage play by Kieran Hurly and directed by Brian Welsh, shot in symbolic black and white with just touches of red (save for an extended trance sequence), its setting amid the urban decay of West Lothian might prompt Trainspotting comparisons (not least since it includes Laura Fraser), but this is more of a Scottish Easy Rider, the protagonists here being Johnno (first timer Cristian Ortega), who, sporting a sensible haircut and bemusedly forever looking as if he’s expecting the worst, is best mates with Spanner (Lorn Macdonald, perhaps inevitably calling to mind Ewan Bremner’s Spud), a wiry, hyper-energetic teenager with a sort of pre-Peaky Blinders cut who lives under the shadow and the fist of his criminal hardman brother Fido (Neil Leiper).

The friendship is threatened however by the imminent move by Johnno’s mother (Fraser) and policeman stepfather Robert (Brian Ferguson) with his regulation moustache to a more ‘upmarket’ suburban home, that and the fact mom regards Spanner and his family as scum. In one last hurrah, Spanner persuades Johnno to come with him to an illegal outdoor rave party being organised by an older pirate DJ D Man (Ross Mann) and his female crew (Amy Manson, Rachel Macdonald, Gemma McElhinney) to which the Spanner contributes the wad of drug money notes he’s stolen off Fido, fully aware of the inevitable consequences.

Wall to wall with rave classic from the likes of Leftfield, Orbital. The Prodigy, Plastikman and Joey Beltram, this is clearly targeted at a niche audience, one that can also hopefully understand the sometimes thick Scottish accents and, like its photography, the narrative is also pretty much black and white in drawing its lines between the establishment and rebellious and often disenfranchised youth, adults and their kids. But what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in the visual energy, its themes of tight friendship and the desire, indeed the need, to experience life before the lights go out, and the two terrific central performances by Ortega and MacDonald bonded by a love that has nothing to do with queer readings. The full-colour, psychedelic MDMA trip  may be excessively prolonged, leaving you feeling like you’re trapped in a Prodigy video, but otherwise Beats is slamming.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird)

 

Bel Canto (15)

Adapted from Ann Patchett’s pre 9/11 novel inspired by a 1996 Peru hostage crisis, this unfolds in an unnamed South American country to where Japanese industrialist Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) has been invited to attend a diplomatic dinner intended to butter him up over investing in a new factory, although the real reason he’s accepted is because he persuaded them to book his favourite opera singer, the celebrated Roxanne Cross (Julianne Moore), as the entertainment.

However, she’s barely sung a few notes (dubbed by Renee Fleming) when armed rebels storm in looking for the President. However, he’s opted to stay home and watch his favourite soap, so commandant Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta)  finds himself unexpectedly  landed with a roomful of hostages, among them the French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), a Russian businessman (Olek Krupa), and Hosokawa’s  Japanese translator (Ryo Kase) who gets to serve as the go between in various conversations and also plays crucial role in a Stockholm syndrome romantic subplot involving one of the rebels (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Though  Sebastian Koch as Messer, the Red Cross negotiator, the rebels, with no real idea of what to do, demand the release of their political prisoner colleagues (their cause is seen as a just one even if their methods are not), the women and ill being let go as the drama plays out over and extended but never specified timeframe.  As such, friendships are formed between captors and captives, a fairly inevitable romance blossoms and sympathies are engaged before it predictably ends in  a bloodbath (prior to which only one hostage is accidentally shot). Directed by co-writer Paul Weitz with much of the dialogue subtitled, it offers several very human moments that makes the outcome all the more tragic and bitter. (MAC)

 

Breakthrough (12A)

In 2015, three Missouri boys fell through ice on a frozen lake, two clambered out but the third, John Smith (Marcel Ruiz)  sank to the bottom, spending 15 minutes underwater before firemen pulled him out and he was rushed to hospital. He had no pulse and attempts to revive him failed. But then his devout Christian adoptive mom, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), arrived and prayed to God, and he returned to life, the impossibly smiley Middle America community coming together to pray and he eventually fully recovering with no neurological damage. As directed by Roxann Dawson, this marks another entry into the Christian faith-based  genre, offering an inspirational story even if it never countenances any other possible explanations (such as the intense cold actually stopping him drowning), the soulful fireman  (Mike Colter) coming to re-examine his atheism and the surgeon (Dennis Haysbert) all but declaring it  a miracle. The only suggestion of doubt comes from John’s father, Brian (Josh Lucas), who gets to beat himself up for not having strong enough faith to think even God could pull this one off, but a widowed teacher’s question of why God choses to save some and not others is dismissed almost as soon as it’s raised in much the same way as John’s feelings of being unwanted or Joyce’s own backstory are just cursory narrative asides.

Regardless of whether you buy into the beliefs, there’s no denying the film has inspirational power (as well as paying due respect to the medical teams, although Joyce does berate one doctor for daring to talk negatively in her son’s comatose presence), most notably in a scene as the community and John’s schoolfriends gather outside the hospital to sing for him to wake up, the incident also bringing traditionalist Joyce and their  new progressive pastor (Topher Grace) together after  previously being at loggerheads. Ultimately, it’s preaching to the choir, but some of the notes have resonance beyond the church doors. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Woman At War (12A)

Directed and co-written by Iceland’s Olafur Egilsson, there’s whimsical echoes of Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki in the way that three male musicians (piano, accordion, trumpet, tuba and drum) and three Ukranian female singers (in traditional dress) regularly appear in key scenes to provide the accompanying sound track  as both bystanders and commentators. They afford just one of the many delights in this enviro-protest themed comedy in which Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a Reykjavik choir director, conducts an anonymous one-woman eco activist crusade against the energy corporations which she believes are  affecting the climate  and the countryside, using a bow and arrow to bring down power lines. Dubbed Mountain Woman by the local press, she’s particularly keen to scupper a possible deal with the Chinese to build a power plant. The only one who what she’s up to is Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), one of the  choir and a ministry official, but now he’s getting nervous about the government backlash  and her increasingly dramatic actions. She’s also given a hand to evade the police by Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson), a gruff but kindly sheep farmer who might possibly be a cousin.

As Halla’s campaign heads to a climax, she gets a letter telling her that her long forgotten application to adopt (reinforcing the mother/caretaker theme) has been approved and there’s a young Ukrainian orphan girl waiting for her. Not of course that that’s going to happen if she’s nabbed by the authorities. At which point, it should be mentioned that Halla has an identical equally idealistic twin sister,  Ása (Geirharðsdóttir), a meditation and yoga teacher who’s about to take off to an ashram in India for two years. It’s not hard to see how this gimmick will play out, but that doesn’t detract from the gleeful manner in which the plot unfurls or the pleasure to be had in Geirharðsdóttir’s twin performances while Juan Camillo Roman Estrada puts in an amusing running joke as a luckless Spanish tourist who keeps getting arrested for Halla’s deeds. A deadpan joy. (Electric)

 

ALSO PLAYING

Amazing Grace (U)

 Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, legal and technical issues have long prevented this concert documentary from being made public, not least Aretha Franklin’s own refusal to give permission and the fact that Pollock, unused to music documentaries, filmed it in a way that it was impossible to synch the sound and the pictures. Time and technology, and Franklin’s passing,  have finally solved all that, so here (albeit somewhat truncated) is the late Queen of Soul, then 29, recording her new live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, including Wholly Holy and a barnstorming version of the title song.  (Empire Great Park)

 

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll (12A)

Part documentary on the history of  New Jersey’s Asbury Park itself, the seaside resort’s decline under unemployment and a revival of its fortunes through rock n roll and the Upstage club where Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny Lyon and Bruce Springsteen got their start. Featuring interviews with the musician and never before  seen  performances, this serves as a useful appetite whetter for Springsteen’s upcoming new album. (Wed: Everyman)

 

The Ponds (12A)

A documentary about the three swimming ponds in Hampstead Heath and the people who swim in them all year round, regardless the weather, shot over a year to capture the changing of the seasons. (Sat: MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwritinghttps://www.folkradio.co.uk/2019/05/the-maes-the-maes/ dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

All Is True (12A)

Having taken a comedic approach to Will Shakespeare’s pre-fame days  in the TV sitcom Upstart Crow, Ben Elton  now offers a dramatic look at his little-known last three years when, having co-penned Henry VIII, originally known as All is True, he quit writing in 1613 after The Globe Theatre burned down during an early performance and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and his family. Here directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we find him experiencing delayed mourning his young son, Hamnet, who died from plague 17 years earlier and who had been buried by the time he got home from London. And it’s around the circumstances surrounding boy’s death and the poem’s he written that his father cherished, that the plays event unfold, taking in the uneasy dynamic in the Shakespeare household: his wife, Anne (Judy Dench), resentful at being left alone for so many years, consigning him to the guest bedroom, embittered unmarried daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) who’s consumed by survivor guilt and accuses her father of thinking the wrong twin died, and her elder, literate sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson), trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan clergyman John Hall (Hadley Fraser). At one point the latter’s accused of having an adulterous affair, the trial subsequently amusingly defused by her dad’s striking description of a scene and an actor in Titus Andronicus to her accuser. Will, meanwhile, just wants to tend to the garden he’s trying to cultivate in his son’s memory. “I can’t finish your story”, he tells a young lad at the start of the play, though, of course, that turns out to be exactly what the film does.

A perfectly respectable heritage drama, it’s a touch lifeless in the early going and only really begins to spark when hidden family secrets come to the surface, forcing Shakespeare to re-examine what he’s always assumed to be the facts about Hamnet as well as his relationship with the women in the family. There’s also a sense of Elton parading historical facts and speculations about Stratford’s most famous son, such as why his will bequeathed Anne his second best bed and, in a contrived visit by the Earl of Southampton (a scene stealing Ian McKellen in blonde heavy metal wig), his patron and long assumed to be the mysterious amorous subject of many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His arrival has him dismissing the creeping flattery of the oily Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) while his and Will’s intimate fireside chat, in which the former accuses the latter of leading a life far too ordinary for someone of his genius and concludes with them both reciting Sonnet 29, is unquestionably the film’s strongest sequence, but it also throws into relief the dullness of much that surrounds it.

The performances are, as you would expect, high quality, Dench registering profound emotions in just a facial expression, Branagh, with his trademark conversational delivery, portraying a man ruefully aware of his gifts as a playwright but also his failings as a husband and a father. However, the psychological depth is all on the surface and too often spelled out by Elton’s expository dialogue (Anne reminds him that when Hamnet died, he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor), a screenplay the Bard would surely have given a serious overhaul. (Mon-Wed: MAC)

 

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (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)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (15)

Back in 1991, 51-year-old Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was a former celebrated journalist turned down on her luck New York biographer, unable to get her book about 30s stage and screen star Fanny Brice (as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) off the ground and with an agent (Jane Curtin) who never returned her phone calls. She’s confronted with her faded star when, trying to sell some books to pay the rent and the vet bill for her sick cat, the store owner humiliatingly points out the huge mark-down on her latest work.

However, while researching Brice at the library she comes across some letters concealed inside one of the books and, discovering that there’s money to be made from signed letters, typed or handwritten, by dead celebrities, she hits upon the idea of forging them and passing them off as artefacts found among her cousin’s possessions. Some 400 to be exact, purportedly from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, perfectly capturing the tone and style of her subjects, enlisting gadfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and fellow gay alcoholic as her partner-in-crime, their gullible book dealer dupes including a store owner and would be writer (Dolly Wells) who, for a moment, offers the potential for companionship (a  late brief appearance by Israel’s former lover adds resonance) and opportunist blackmailer  (Ben Falcone) upon whom they turn the tables. Meanwhile, the FBI are showing an interest.

Directed by Marielle Heller and scripted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s best-selling memoir, it’s slow to unfold and suffused in a bitter-sweet melancholic ambience as it touches on themes of loneliness, self-loathing, failure and isolation as well as the contemporary desire for celebrity contact by association, while also being frequently wickedly funny.

Playing dowdy, combative, self-destructive and often unlikeable, McCarthy delivers an outstanding and deservedly Oscar nominated performance that eclipses her past comedic work and banishes memory of the atrocity that was  The Happytime Murders as she struggles to keep her world together and is superbly matched and at time outshone – by the equally dominated Grant, clearly channelling large elements of his Withnail character into Hock. It’s slow in places, but there’s more than enough emotional rewards to carry it through such patches to the end credit titles that add even more to Israel’s story. (Sat-Thu: MAC)

Captain Marvel (12A)

Following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (15

Already available on Sky, this biopic of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, a dramatised version of events by director Joe Berlinger who also made the Bundy documentary, Conversations With A Killer, is worth catching on the big screen, if only to fully enjoy a knockout performance from Zac Efron as the psychotic but incredibly charming Bundy (girls swooned over him at his trial) who also had a brilliant legal mind (he conducted his own defence after firing his attorney) in his attempts to persuade the jury – and America -that he as an innocent man fitted up by the police. It’s based on the memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s single mother girlfriend who inadvertently played a significant role in bringing him to justice, with whom he lived a happy family life, even when he was out murdering other young women, while Kaya Scodelarion plays Carole Anne Boone, an old friend and colleague whom he married in court while she was testifying on his behalf. Also featuring  Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker who moves in when Ted’s imprisoned, Jim Parsons as the Florida prosecutor and a deliciously dry  John Malkovich as the murder trial judge, the film manages to be both funny and tender without ever diluting the horror and enormity of the crimes.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; 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 May 10-Thu May 16

 

NEW RELEASES

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

 

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning them ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as  Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Loro (18)

The title loosely translated as ‘them’, set roughly between 2006 and 2009, director Paolo Sorrentino’s sprawling comedy drama (cut to 150 mins from two 100 mins parts) points the camera at the turmoil of Italian politics as seen through the fictionalised lens of its colourful ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi. Except, as played by Toni Servillo,  he doesn’t even appear until an hour in, the early focus being on Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an ambitious chancer who reckons the way to the top is by providing an endless supply of cocaine and young women to those who call the shots and pull the strings in his efforts to get close to Berlusconi, at present nursing his wounded ego after being ousted in exile in the Sardinian home he shares with his neglected second wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), while he connives to secure a return to power, or at least persuade a rising football star to sign to the team he owns.

Meanwhile, Sergio’s assisted in his scheming by his ruthless wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), who he sends to seduce one of his targets, and high class femme fatale Kira (Kasia Smutniak), Silvio’s mistress, whose idea it is to invest in a rental villa teeming with half-naked, stoned women to get Berlusconi’s attention.

It’s a similar world of excess to that Martin Scorsese portrayed in Wolf of Wall Street, and rivals it for sex and drugs parties, intermittently lapsing into surreal psychedelia such as   scene where a truck crashes and suddenly everyone round a swimming pool is being showered in MDMA.

Then the focus shifts to Berlusconi, who frequently bursts into song,  and with it the tone as it becomes more about smooth-tongued political manipulation, brilliantly encapsulated in an extended scene where he passes himself off as a salesman trying to flog a woman some as yet unbuilt real estate over the phone.

There are some inspired and often very funny moments, but, while a scene where an aspiring actress (Alice Pagani) turns down his advances, saying his  old man’s breath, makes for a change. the constant gratuitous visual assault of compliant naked female flesh, all in thrall to ‘him’, feels a bit uncomfortable in the present climate and it’s not always easy to keep track of the political machinations, not to mention the reason for the dead sheep or the silent game show episodes on the TV screen.  (MAC)

 

 

Vox Lux (15)

Written and directed by Brady Corbet, part-narrated by Willem Dafoe, this opens in 1999 with a Staten Island high school classroom shooting of which only 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. Following convalescence for her spinal injury, she performs a song co-written with her more musically talented older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) in commemoration of the victims that, with a lyrical shift from I to we, turns her almost overnight into a superstar, picking up a never named sleazy cynical manager (Jude Law) and a major record deal brokered by high-powered publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), flying out to record an album and having a hedonistic Super 8 hitting the town montage in Stockholm, heading to L.A for a video shoot and losing her virginity to an angsty British goth musician who, as she observes, makes “the sort of music the boy who attacked me used to listen to.”

Genesis closing in the aftermath of 9/11, the second act fast forwards 18 years with Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become something of a diva, and is attempting to make a comeback with a hometown stadium show after her career nosedived in a cocktail of scandals. She also now has a teenage daughter (Cassidy), who is closer to Eleanor, a not entirely suitable guardian, from whom Celeste is increasingly estranged.

Ironically, on the morning of the show, a terrorist incident takes place at a Croatian beachside resort, the gunmen mowing down tourists while wearing masks inspired by Celeste’s video, bringing things full circle. This obviously rakes up past painful memories, her tensions compounded by a prickly diner conversation with her daughter,  a meeting with the press and her subsequent getting wasted.

There’s little doubt that Celeste is something of a monster, but the film seeks to explain why she has become what she is (insecurity seems to be another reason given she’s not the world’s best singer and it’s her sister who writes the material), exploring themes of lost innocence and the walls erected to shield yourself that only serve to push others away (“I’m a private girl in a public world” run the lyrics of one of her songs).

Featuring throbbing electro pop by Sia, a jarring score by Scott Walker (his last work) and shot on 35mm in a dizzying style that swings between slo mo and pumped up montages to complement Celeste’s excess and over-the-top appearance, it fires off barbed but often wise lines that stick in the mind as well as the flesh. Portman is outstanding but full marks to Law too, giving one of his best  performances in years and if the climax in a lengthy concert sequence leaves questions unanswered, the paradoxical notions of the often toxic nature of celebrity set against the euphoria it can bring others resonate long after. (Electric)

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The Corrupted (15
Set prior the 2012 Olympics and loosely based on real events, Tim Spall stars as Clifford Cullen, a corrupt property dealer whose reach embraces bent coppers in Scotland Yard, such as high ranking Hammond (Hugh Bonneville)  and into whose web falls Liam McDonagh (Sam Claflin), a boxer who, just released after serving a term for armed robbery, wants to reconnect with his young son Archie and his ex. Unfortunately, his brother’s, caught up in Collen’s circle, with no route out. Featuring Noel Clarke as a determined cop, it’s a standard issue Brit crime thriller but at least the trailer promises some decent performances and some hefty violence. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Destination Wedding (15)

Reteaming Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder for the fourth time, but with considerably more shared screen time, writer-director Victor Levin brings them together as misanthropes Frank (Reeves) and Lindsay (Ryder) who, meeting at an airport and taking an instant dislike to one another, find themselves attending the same wedding  and gradually bonding as the realise that their dislike of everyone else outweighs their feelings about one another.

Pretty much a dialogue-heavy two-hander, it’s a familiar romcom set up but one which manages to spin some new angles while firing off one bitchy comment after another with a glee that’s hard to resist. (Showcase Walsall)

 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (15

Already available on Sky, this biopic of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, a dramatised version of events by director Joe Berlinger who also made the Bundy documentary, Conversations With A Killer, is worth catching on the big screen, if only to fully enjoy a knockout performance from Zac Efron as the psychotic but incredibly charming Bundy (girls swooned over him at his trial) who also had a brilliant legal mind (he conducted his own defence after firing his attorney) in his attempts to persuade the jury – and America -that he as an innocent man fitted up by the police. It’s based on the memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s single mother girlfriend who inadvertently played a significant role in bringing him to justice, with whom he lived a happy family life, even when he was out murdering other young women, while Kaya Scodelarion plays Carole Anne Boone, an old friend and colleague whom he married in court while she was testifying on his behalf. Also featuring  Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker who moves in when Ted’s imprisoned, Jim Parsons as the Florida prosecutor and a deliciously dry  John Malkovich as the murder trial judge, the film manages to be both funny and tender without ever diluting the horror and enormity of the crimes.  (Everyman; Showcase Walsall)

 

Irene’s Ghost(PG)

A highly personal documentary from Nuneaton’s Iain Cunningham who sets out to find out more about the mother who died when he was just three, but knows nothing about her or the circumstances. His father’s reluctant to help, but through friends and estranged family members he begins to piece together a picture of the women he never knew and of mental health issues that were kept hidden. Told through interviews, archive material and animation, it features a score by Birmingham-based Nuneaton musician Chris Tye  (Thu: MAC+ Q&A)

 

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A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwriting dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (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)

Captain Marvel (12A)

Following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Electric)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has  her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC)

 

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Sisters Brothers (15)

An art-house Western, the first English language film by French director Jacques Audiard, set in 1850s Oregon it stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the bickering titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of bounty hunters come hitmen for hire who work for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) whose latest assignment is to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has somehow crossed their boss’s path.

They’re not the only ones on Warm’s trail, private investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is after him too, his task being to establish his location and let the brothers know. However, he links up with Warm, who has discovered a chemical formula that will make gold prospecting a lot easier, and is always a few days and at least one town ahead of the pair. On top of which, there’s a bunch of other mercenaries on their tail, unaware that Eli and Charlie despatched their brother-running boss a while back.

Although it climaxes in a brutal dramatic sequence before a low-key coda, getting there is slow-paced journey, punctuated with the more sensitive Eli regularly whingeing about how the louder-mouthed Charlie, who’s forever going on a bender, has been designated the lead killer. Along the way, the film also explains how their family background and abusive father led Charlie to being who and what he is.

There’s some excruciating moments, such as spider crawling up to Eli’s mouth as he sleeps, but also gentle humour such as in Eli, the more aspirational of the two, enthusiastically buying into the new invention of a toothbrush, while Audiard pointedly explores the theme of male loneliness, outsiders, the relationship with the environment and, as in There Will Be Blood, the toxic nature of ambition and obsession. (Until Wed:MAC)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; 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 May 3-Thu May 9

 

NEW RELEASES

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic  Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwriting dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick.

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

 

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after  Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Until Wed: MAC)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (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)

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Sat: Electric)

Greta (15)

It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner.  Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant  waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work.

An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

Happy As Lazarro (15)

The third feature from Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, the setting is summer in rural Italy as, on Inviolata, an isolated rural estate, an extended family of tobacco famers work for the domineering Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, blissfully unaware that sharecropping was made illegal in the 80s,a  fact she happily exploits. Among the workers is Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo) a moon-faced otherwordly innocent whose good nature everyone takes advantage of, seding him off to guard the chickens from wolves or pick giant cabbages. When the Marchesa’s spoiled self-absorbed son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), pays a visit with his pet dog in the company of his mother, Lazarro befriends him only to find himself embroiled in a fake kidnapping scam. Tancredi hiding out in the mountains waiting for mom to pay the ransom. Not that, well aware of her son’s nature, she has any intention. At one point, Lazarro has an accident and the film transforms into a magic realism fable as, many years later, Lazarus-like, he reappears from the supposed dead, still as young as he was when he disappeared, reconnecting with Tancredi, who’s fallen on hard times and old now grown friends who operate a series of scams, introducing them to the benefits of wild growing herbs.

Not a great deal of the second half makes much sense as it wanders through the rambling social drama narrative of economic exploitation and social hierarchy in a  dreamlike reverie in which organ music quite literally exits the church follows the group after they’ve been ejected from for crashing a private function. Overlong, it requires a certain patience, but those with time to spare and think will find rewards. (Electric)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has  her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mid90s (15)

Jonah Hill makes his writer-director debut with this (mostly) unsentimental, period-detailed and likely autobiographical but ultimately somewhat underwhelming coming of age story set amid the teenage skater community in a low rent Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Sharing his home with his volatile and messed up elder brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up but whose ‘grown up’ cool he quietly worships,  and their young out of her parenting depth single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterson, pretty much the film’s only adult), dorky 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic looking spookily like the young Corey Feldman) steals money from her to  get an old skateboard and, desperate for friends, starts loitering around Motor Avenue, the local skate shop, looking to get noticed by the emotionally inarticulate slacker misfits who hang there. That’ll be close-cropped incipient sociopath Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most out of it, who genuinely thinks saying ‘thank you’ is a gay thing; a blissed-out surfer-dude bi-racial stoner with a halo of ringlets who goes by the name of Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because of his usual mode of expression; the acne-riddled introverted Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so named on account of his assumed level of intelligence, who spends all his time filming everything on his camcorder on account of; and the ostensible leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a laid-back, kindly African-American who  dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder.

Cocky, enthusiastic and eager to please, Stevie’s taken under their wing (although there’s a subsequent falling out with Ruben), is given a better board, learns to improve his skate moves, give proper conversation, gets drunk and generally tries to join in with their meaningless banter. His impulsive reckless earns him the nickname Sunburn and a reputation of being “crazy as fuck!”

It’s empty braggadocio seeking to impress, but at a house party, while he’s led into a bedroom by a slightly older girl and gets to briefly make out, he’s too scared to go all the way. And that’s pretty much the extent of the narrative. There’s fallings out, moments of reconciliation, emotional catharsis, skating down the L.A. streets, a near tragedy and a soundtrack that includes Dedicated To The One I Love and little known Morrissey track We’ll Let You Know as Hill follows Stevie on the painful path to growing up and perhaps learning a few things about the world.

Shot on 16mm and curiously framed in the middle of the screen and with an almost documentary, improvisational style, you can feel Hill’s empathy for the often annoying but engaging characters (for which full marks to the cast’s naturalism), never judging or condescending to them nor dressing them up in wistful nostalgia. It’s an impressive behind the camera debut for Hill, but it never quite finds its emotional beat in the way that Larry Clark’s similarly themed but more nihilistic Kids, the recent Skate Kitchen or indeed Shane Meadows’s Made In Britain did. (Mockingbird; Mon, Wed/Thu: Electric;)

Out of Blue (15)

British director Carol Morley’s police procedural follow up to the no less enigmatic The Falling may be overambitious not to say often baffling in its pursuit of existentialism and cosmic significance (references to quantum physics thought experiment Schrodinger’s Cat abound) and flirting with magic realism but it’s never boring.

Adapted from Martin Amis novel Night Train and influenced by Nic Roeg (whose son produces), set in New Orleans it stars Patricia Clarkson as Mike Hoolihan, an on the wagon alcoholic looking to solve the death of retro-obsessive Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), an astronomy professor and black holes expert at the local observatory who’s been found dead beside the telescope, the front of her face blown off.  Suspects involve her science lecturer boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), whose sock is found at the scene, and fellow astrophysicist and observer manager Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) who has a swollen jaw.

However, when Hoolihan realises this was suicide not murder, it switches from whodunit to whydunit, a mystery that pokes around dark family secrets involving her sinister Vietnam war hero father (James Caan) who walks with a cane, her oddball mother (Jackie Weaver) and obstructive brothers Walt and Bray, who run the family electronics company, neither of whom seem especially torn up about her death. Has this all got something to with the unsolved case of the .38 calibre killer to which it has many similarities, not least the appearance of the victim?

With Gummer spouting lines like “We are all stardust” to her students on the eve of her death, constant verbal and visual references to masks, Devyn A. Tyler as a fellow alcoholic TV reporter, Stella Honey, who seems to be constantly popping up and is responsible for  giving Mike a crucial file and Hoolihan’s assorted visions/hallucinations, it essentially deals with repressed memory all of which falls into place in the final moments as the clues dotted around the flashbacks and flashforwards finally cohere, albeit in a melodramatic collision. At the end of the day, it’s somewhat messy and abstract, but, atmospheric to a fault, it holds your attention and interest and Clarkson, who at one point drunkenly joins the dancers onstage at a strip club, is mesmerising. It may test your patience, but it also rewards it.  (Sat-Thu: MAC)

 

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Showcase Walsall;Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Tue-Thu:Everyman)

 

Shazam! (12A)

 The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wild Rose (15)

Named one of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits in 2017 and a nominee for BAFTA’s 2019 Rising Star award on the back of her performance in Beast, Jessie Buckley consolidates her growing reputation with a knockout performance as a Glaswegian single mother dreaming of making it in country music.  Unfortunately, Tom Cooper’s film never matches the fire of its star.

Just out of prison for supplying heroin to the inmates, ankle-tag under her white cowboy boots, bolshie Rose-Lynn Harlan returns home to her two young kids and tough-love mother Marion (Julie Walters), looking to reclaim her job singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and still nurturing an ambition to seek fame and fortune in Nashville, despite her mother forever pouring cold water on such ambitions. She gets a cleaning job in an upmarket part of Glasgow, singing as she hoovers away for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who, having been introduced by Rose to the joys of Dolly Parton and the like improbably becomes her fairy godmother, seeking to further her dreams.  This includes sending a demo off to Bob Harris and facilitating meeting at the BBC with him and his producer, Mark Hagen, in quite possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes you’ll see on screen this year. In another cloud of wish-fulfilment, a lawyer also manages to convince a judge to have her ankle tag removed so she can further he singing career and provide for her kids.

Despite blowing a fundraising opportunity thrown by Susannah, Rose, thanks to mom, gets to go to Nashville after all (cue a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Kasey Musgraves) and even sing on the Opry stage before she has yet another epiphany about her parental responsibilities. But, even then, the film still gets to sprinkle fairy dust over things as, Whispering Bob in the audience, she gets to have her cake and eat it by playing one of Scotland’s biggest Americana-based music festivals.

Uncynical and unabashedly feelgood to the point of parody, it almost drowns in clichés about discovering who you are and what truly matters, Walters (clearly there were no actual Scottish actresses available) lays on the Glasgow accent so thickly she’s often impossible to understand and Okenado, a gifted actress, is forced to be so gushy as to make Mary Poppins seem like Nurse Ratched.  The saving grace in all this is Buckley, fiercely playing a character who can be blinkered and self-deluded in the selfish single-minded pursuit of her dream but still has you rooting for her. On top of which, doing her own vocal work (a theatrical background, she first came to notice in the TV auditions for Oliver!), while no Lady GaGa, she also turns out to be a pretty good country singer too, the film’s soundtrack album serving as her own musical debut, including the excellent Cigarette Street (Five O’Clock Freedom) written and sung in the film by The Southern Companion. A star is indeed born.  (Tue: Everyman)

 

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 Apr 26-Thu May 2

 

NEW RELEASES

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights being a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (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)

  

3 Faces (15)

When celebrated Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari (herself) somehow or other gets texted an apparent iPhone suicide note from Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezael), a young girl whose family and future in-laws won’t let her, an “empty-headed brat”, go to drama school, showing her hanging herself, she and acclaimed director Jafar Panahi  (himself) take time out from filming and head off to a remote mountain village in northern Iran to find her. As you might surmise, things don’t turn about to be as they appeared.

A meandering road movie that trades in Panahi’s customary misdirection and unfolds in a long sequence of conversations, arguments and invitations to tea and debates on the point of entertainment in an area where it’s hard enough to scrape a living, the three faces belonging to the girl, Jafari and Shahrazade, an aged former star who, though never seen, has come to the area to paint and is equally scorned by the locals who both revere her celebrity but are dismissive of her current status. An attitude that also extends to Jafari and Panahi who may be feted but are of no use in ficing the electricity supply.

A quasi-documentary with an improvisational feel and some disarmingly engaging interludes, it’s both slight in plot but carries with it’s a typical Panahi commentary on the way women are viewed and treated in Iran. Despite ending on an ambiguous note of hope, this is one of his lesser offerings but, even so, it has a beguiling charm. (Sun-Tue:MAC)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Happy As Lazarro (15)

The third feature from Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, the setting is summer in rural Italy as, on Inviolata, an isolated rural estate, an extended family of tobacco famers work for the domineering Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, blissfully unaware that sharecropping was made illegal in the 80s,a  fact she happily exploits. Among the workers is Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo) a moon-faced otherwordly innocent whose good nature everyone takes advantage of, seding him off to guard the chickens from wolves or pick giant cabbages. When the Marchesa’s spoiled self-absorbed son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), pays a visit with his pet dog in the company of his mother, Lazarro befriends him only to find himself embroiled in a fake kidnapping scam. Tancredi hiding out in the mountains waiting for mom to pay the ransom. Not that, well aware of her son’s nature, she has any intention. At one point, Lazarro has an accident and the film transforms into a magic realism fable as, many years later, Lazarus-like, he reappears from the supposed dead, still as young as he was when he disappeared, reconnecting with Tancredi, who’s fallen on hard times and old now grown friends who operate a series of scams, introducing them to the benefits of wild growing herbs.

Not a great deal of the second half makes much sense as it wanders through the rambling social drama narrative of economic exploitation and social hierarchy in a  dreamlike reverie in which organ music quite literally exits the church follows the group after they’ve been ejected from for crashing a private function. Overlong, it requires a certain patience, but those with time to spare and think will find rewards. (Fri-Wed:MAC)

 

Last Breath (15)

In September 2012, working as a deep-sea saturation diver for the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea, 33-year-old Chris Lemons was underwater along with two colleagues, his mentor Duncan Allcock and the more experienced Dave Yuasa, who remained in the diving bell, carrying out routine maintenance. They were unaware that a computer error on the boat had caused their positional system to failed and that it was drifting out of control, dragging everything with it. On attempting to return to the bell, Chris’s ‘umbilical’ became caught, leaving him trapped in the darkness with his oxygen and heat running out and prompting a race against the clock – just five minutes – to try and save him.

Directed by Richard da Costa and Alex Parkinson, the documentary reconstructs events  and often jocular interviews those involved, which, since they include Chris, does somewhat dissipate the will he/won’t he tension. That said, there’s still a calustrophobic edge-of-the-seat quality as the film unfolds as it gives an insight into what life is like for the men who work such dangerous conditions.  (Sat – Mon: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

At Eternity’s Gate (12A)

First portrayed on screen in 1948 in an Oscar-winning French short by Alain Resnais, followed in 1956 by Vincent Minelli’s Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas, there’s since been a further five films about the life of Vincent Van Gogh (as well as an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams with Martin Scorsese), the most recent being 2017’s painted animated biography Loving Vincent.

Now Willem Dafoe gets to take on the mantle, earning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination, for Julian Schnabel’s latest foray into the world of tormented, troubled artists, an inevitably often impressionistic and experimental affair in which he explores Van Gogh’s fascination with and attempt to capture the nature of light and its ecstatic holiness effect on the things it touches.

 

Although opening in Paris, where, after a failed one-man exhibition in a local café, Vincent meets Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), it’s mostly set in the small Provençal town of Arles where, in his final days, he produced some 75 paintings, before dying in Auvers-sur-Oise of a gunshot wounded, inflicted, as also claimed in Loving Vincent, by a local boy, though Van Gogh refused to identify him. There’s also a couple of scenes in the local asylum to which he was committed for his madness, not least cutting off his ear and having it sent to Gaugin (he’s questioned by a doctor with Dafoe made up with the bandage exactly as in the famous self-portrait), where, in an inspired sequence he’s questioned about his art, beliefs and motivations by a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who, Pilate to Vincent’s Christ, dismisses his paintings as ugly and worthless while Vincent suggests he was made by God to paint for people who have not yet been born.

The visual style can be irksome, several scenes involving the camera pointed at Vincent’s feet as he scurries through fields, but it also seeks to capture the essence of his paintings and the way in which he saw the world, the most striking moment being as he wanders through a field of dead sunflowers, calling to mind the vibrancy with which he captured them in his famous painting.

The vision of Van Gogh as some sort of proto-flower child hippy, suffused with happiness, high on painting while also a depressive estranged from and trying to make sense of the world around him (as Dafoe puts it, “When facing a landscape I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one to see it?”), captures the agony and the ecstasy of his life, even if it is a tad romanticised, but there’s no denying the impact of the final scenes of his body laid out in an open coffin surrounded by his paintings, still unenthusiastically dismissed by the few mourners. Not one for those who prefer more traditional biopics, but the textures here still have a mesmerising impact. (Fri-Mon:MAC)

 

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Greta (15)

It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner.  Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant  waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work.

An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Hellboy (15) 

A reboot of the Mike Mignola comics-based franchise originally brought to the screen by writer/director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman, Neil Marshall’s version doesn’t take itself seriously. Unfortunately, borderline ludicrous and with some howlingly bad dialogue and third-rate CGI, no one else is likely to either.

For late arrivals, Hellboy is a red, buffed demon summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists in a  last ditch attempt to win WWII, but who’s scheme was thwarted byvigilante The Lobster (Thomas Haden Church) and Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane, clearly immune to embarrassment), the latter taking the baby demon under his wing and,  his horns filed off, rearing him as his adopted son to work for mankind as, armed with great strength and his ‘Right Hand of Doom’, part of  the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. All of this is variously revisited in assorted flashbacks, but the film actually opens with some excruciatingly bad voiceover narrating how, in a radical departure from her usual embodiment of the Lady of the Lake, the evil sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich), aka the Blood Queen, is prevented from destroying mankind by King Arthur who chops her into pieces with the enchanted Excalibur and has the body parts buried in various hidden locations. Things don’t much improve.

Fast forward to the present day where, after an irrelevant second prologue as Hellboy’s mission to bring back a missing agent ends badly, he’s sent off to England by dad to link up with a bizarre secret society who are battling three giants, only to discover the monster they really want to kill is him. It’s all down to some prophecy about him bringing about the apocalypse, which is why a badly rendered, cartoon-accented demonic pig is going about recovering Nimue’s body parts to put her back together so he can get revenge on Hellboy for an incident many years earlier. For reasons that are never particularly well-articulated, he’s pared with the dead-channelling psychic Alice (American Honey star Sasha Lane), who he saved when she was kidnapped by fairies as a baby, and scarred primly Brit-accented M11 agent Daimo (Daniel Dae Kim) who has a secret of his own. Nimue, meanwhile, is determined to get Hellboy to become her consort as their destined are entwined.

Marshall lurches through the plot, tossing plot points aside in abandon but earning the higher certificate with numerous scenes of gratuitous extreme violence and copious bloodshed in some generic, dull and clunky action sequences as Nimue’s demons graphically tear bodies in half. Playing Hellboy as a demon with his own inner demon, Harbour’s saddled with badly written attempts at Perlman’s hardboiled, seen it all sarcasm and is just prosthetic and posture with none of the charisma or wit, while the rest of the cast appear to be trying to make sense of a convoluted over-the-top plot that’s linked together only by the editing as they go, although Jovovich, casting subtlety to the wind, does at least give some decent bitch witch. And then just when you mercifully think it’s all over, there’s a some months later coda with the surviving trio on another mission to set up a sequel introducing one of the more poignant characters from the original films. Hell will have to freeze over first. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and Trevor  are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mid90s (15)

Jonah Hill makes his writer-director debut with this (mostly) unsentimental, period-detailed and likely autobiographical but ultimately somewhat underwhelming coming of age story set amid the teenage skater community in a low rent Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Sharing his home with his volatile and messed up elder brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up but whose ‘grown up’ cool he quietly worships,  and their young out of her parenting depth single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterson, pretty much the film’s only adult), dorky 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic looking spookily like the young Corey Feldman) steals money from her to  get an old skateboard and, desperate for friends, starts loitering around Motor Avenue, the local skate shop, looking to get noticed by the emotionally inarticulate slacker misfits who hang there. That’ll be close-cropped incipient sociopath Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most out of it, who genuinely thinks saying ‘thank you’ is a gay thing; a blissed-out surfer-dude bi-racial stoner with a halo of ringlets who goes by the name of Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because of his usual mode of expression; the acne-riddled introverted Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so named on account of his assumed level of intelligence, who spends all his time filming everything on his camcorder on account of; and the ostensible leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a laid-back, kindly African-American who  dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder.

Cocky, enthusiastic and eager to please, Stevie’s taken under their wing (although there’s a subsequent falling out with Ruben), is given a better board, learns to improve his skate moves, give proper conversation, gets drunk and generally tries to join in with their meaningless banter. His impulsive reckless earns him the nickname Sunburn and a reputation of being “crazy as fuck!”

It’s empty braggadocio seeking to impress, but at a house party, while he’s led into a bedroom by a slightly older girl and gets to briefly make out, he’s too scared to go all the way. And that’s pretty much the extent of the narrative. There’s fallings out, moments of reconciliation, emotional catharsis, skating down the L.A. streets, a near tragedy and a soundtrack that includes Dedicated To The One I Love and little known Morrissey track We’ll Let You Know as Hill follows Stevie on the painful path to growing up and perhaps learning a few things about the world.

Shot on 16mm and curiously framed in the middle of the screen and with an almost documentary, improvisational style, you can feel Hill’s empathy for the often annoying but engaging characters (for which full marks to the cast’s naturalism), never judging or condescending to them nor dressing them up in wistful nostalgia. It’s an impressive behind the camera debut for Hill, but it never quite finds its emotional beat in the way that Larry Clark’s similarly themed but more nihilistic Kids, the recent Skate Kitchen or indeed Shane Meadows’s Made In Britain did. (Electric)

Missing Link (PG)

The latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and Kubo & The Two Strings is a much more lighthearted affair, even it does come with some heavy duty messages.

Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, a self-absorbed English Victorian explorer who’s desperate to become part of an exclusive adventurer’s club of  ‘great men’ which, headed up by pompous braggart Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), treats his wild exploits to prove the existence of mythological creatures with disdain.

However, when, following his latest  failure, he receives a letter offering to lead him to the fabled Sasquatch, he strikes a deal that, if he can provide proof, and as such validate Darwin’s theory of evolution, Piggot-Dunceby will let him join and duly sets of to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest where he does indeed meet up with the titular missing link (Zach Galifianakis). To his surprise, the hairy creature, is a charmingly affable fellow who speaks excellent English, even if he takes things overly literally, who, rather than wanting  Frost to reveal his existence, wants him to help find his Asian cousins, the Yetis, as, one of his kind, he’s rather lonely.

Frost, reckoning he can prove two creatures at one go, agrees and, after some amusing plot padding concerning map to the hidden city of Shangri La in the Himalayas, sets off with Mr. Link (who later decides to name himself Susan) and Adelina Fortlight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his late partner and, apparently, an old flame.

However, Piggot-Dunceby is taking no chances on having to eat humble pie and has despatched moustachioed varmint Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), an infamous hunter of rare animals, to ensure he never returns.

Taking the form of a road movie involving various modes of transport, countries and run-ins with Stenk, it winds up in the Himalayas where the trio finally come face-to-face with the snow white Yetis, led by the long-haired matriachial Elder (Emma Thompson), only to find, in a comment about isolationism, that  not all dreams have happy endings before a literal cliffhanger as their enemies close in.

The backdrops adopt a fairly realistic look while the human characters are all highly stylised with big bellies, long spindly legs, angular features and either pointed or blobby pink glowing noses while Susan is covered in rust-coloured fur that looks like he’s been stitched with rubbery filaments, accentuating the sense of cartoonish fun. Written and directed by Chris Butler, who made ParaNorman, it deals with such familiar concerns as family, belonging, rejecting bigotry,  and doing the right thing as Frost offers up his own instance of evolution into a better person.

With David Walliams and Matt Lucas also adding their voices, the emphasis very much on colourful fun with physical comedy blending with fish out of water gags and jokes about wordplay and language, it wisely downplays the romantic interest angle the younger audience might find too soppy, but unerringly hits all the emotional notes. It ends back in London with  the promise of future adventures from this unlikely duo, a sort of adventurer version of Holmes and Watson. Get Linked in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall;Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Shazam! (12A)

 The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an over-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wild Rose (15)

Named one of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits in 2017 and a nominee for BAFTA’s 2019 Rising Star award on the back of her performance in Beast, Jessie Buckley consolidates her growing reputation with a knockout performance as a Glaswegian single mother dreaming of making it in country music.  Unfortunately, Tom Cooper’s film never matches the fire of its star.

Just out of prison for supplying heroin to the inmates, ankle-tag under her white cowboy boots, bolshie Rose-Lynn Harlan returns home to her two young kids and tough-love mother Marion (Julie Walters), looking to reclaim her job singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and still nurturing an ambition to seek fame and fortune in Nashville, despite her mother forever pouring cold water on such ambitions. She gets a cleaning job in an upmarket part of Glasgow, singing as she hoovers away for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who, having been introduced by Rose to the joys of Dolly Parton and the like improbably becomes her fairy godmother, seeking to further her dreams.  This includes sending a demo off to Bob Harris and facilitating meeting at the BBC with him and his producer, Mark Hagen, in quite possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes you’ll see on screen this year. In another cloud of wish-fulfilment, a lawyer also manages to convince a judge to have her ankle tag removed so she can further he singing career and provide for her kids.

Despite blowing a fundraising opportunity thrown by Susannah, Rose, thanks to mom, gets to go to Nashville after all (cue a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Kasey Musgraves) and even sing on the Opry stage before she has yet another epiphany about her parental responsibilities. But, even then, the film still gets to sprinkle fairy dust over things as, Whispering Bob in the audience, she gets to have her cake and eat it by playing one of Scotland’s biggest Americana-based music festivals.

Uncynical and unabashedly feelgood to the point of parody, it almost drowns in clichés about discovering who you are and what truly matters, Walters (clearly there were no actual Scottish actresses available) lays on the Glasgow accent so thickly she’s often impossible to understand and Okenado, a gifted actress, is forced to be so gushy as to make Mary Poppins seem like Nurse Ratched.  The saving grace in all this is Buckley, fiercely playing a character who can be blinkered and self-deluded in the selfish single-minded pursuit of her dream but still has you rooting for her. On top of which, doing her own vocal work (a theatrical background, she first came to notice in the TV auditions for Oliver!), while no Lady GaGa, she also turns out to be a pretty good country singer too, the film’s soundtrack album serving as her own musical debut, including the excellent Cigarette Street (Five O’Clock Freedom) written and sung in the film by The Southern Companion. A star is indeed born.  (Cineworld Solihull; Everyman; Mockingbird)

Wonder Park (PG)

From an early age, June (Brianna Denski) and her mom (Jennifer Garner) made up stories together about Wonderland (it’s  never referred to as Wonder Park), a theme park packed with wild rides and run by talking animals, bear greeter Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), hyper beaver twins Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), Steve (John Oliver), a neurotic but highly educated (parents should be prepared to explain existentialism to the kids)  porcupine who’s lovesick for Greta (Mila Kunis) the warthog who’s de facto in charge  and Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the chimp who magically creates the rides when June whispers into the ear of his cuddly toy counterpart.

From bedtime tales, Wonderland grows into a model made  up of, among other things, cardboard and drinking straws that takes over those house, June even builds a ramshackle thrill ride for real, causing chaos in her neighbourhood.

But then, suddenly, mom gets sick and disappears from the film, leaving an increasingly disconsolate June with her bumbling dad (Matthew Broderick) who, when she packs up her model, puts the toys in a box and burns the lay out plan decides the best thing is to pack her off to a math camp, Camp Awe+Sum (the film’s best gag), for the summer.  She never gets there. Instead, abandoning the bus, she heads into the wood planning to return home but a fragment of the burnt map lures her further on where she discovers the park of her imagination, except it’s fallen into disrepair and the animals are being besieged by toy monkeys that have  turned into Chimpan-Zombies and are tearing the place apart and feeding it into ‘the darkness’, a huge black cloud hovering over the park, Peanut having hidden himself away since he stopped getting those messages.

Suffice to say, June, realising she’s the source of the darkness in her anger and worry over mom’s illness,  decides to fix things and restore Wonderland to its former glory, and, just in case you miss the message, healing herself in the process. But the sentiment is tepid, the laughs few and the emotion never comes near the depth of either A Monster Calls or Inside Out, both of which are obvious touchstones. It’s thrillingly animated and the physical action and animal antics  may engage a younger audience, but, despite the worthy idea about dealing with your feelings when someone you care for is ill, the execution is a confused jumble that never coherently hangs together, likely to leave older children and adults  wondering what it was all about. Despite the title, this is more a case of bemusement park. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – 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 Apr 19-Thu Apr 25

 

NEW RELEASES

Dragged Across Concrete (18)

A gritty cop drama from Bone Tomahawk writer-director S. Craig Zahler, this finds  grizzled old school Bulwark detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his slightly more moderate partner Anthony Lurasetti (Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 star Vince Vaughn) being suspended by the former’s old partner turned boss (Don Johnson) after being accused of using racially motivated excessive force on a suspect during a drugs bust with  Ridgeman videoed pushing the guy to the ground with his foot on his neck. Even though he has a black girlfriend, Lurasetti is no less guilty of casual racism in their manhandling and verbally abusing of the perp’s semi-naked Latina girlfriend in the apartment.

Deciding he’s had enough of political correctness stopping them doing their job and, with an ex-cop wife (Laurie Holden) suffering from MS and a teenage daughter, preparing for college and regularly harassed by the local black hoodlums, needing to make some money to move them to a better neighbourhood, following a tip off from an underworld connection (Udo Kier) he decides to intercept a planned heist, his initially reluctant but equally financially strapped partner agreeing to go along for the ride.

The snag is that, as revealed in the film’s parallel plot, looking to forge a better life for his younger crippled brother and mom (who he returns from prison to find on heroin and paying the rent as a whore), African-American career criminal Henry (Tory Kittles) is roped in by childhood friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) to act as getaway drivers for a bank bullion robbery masterminded by the ruthless Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), ingenuously accepting his word that no-one’s getting killed. Naturally, things get bloody (at one point someone’s disembowelled to get to a key he swallowed), paths cross and nothing ends well.

While Gibson’s own past racist outbursts are clearly intended to resonate with his character, he delivers a compelling and deeply textured performance as a basically good cop sent bad in trying to do right by his job and his family, indeed all three of the central protagonists can make a case for acting in response to the hand life’s dealt them as opposed to the cold vicious streak embodied in Vogelmann.

Stretching past the two-and-a-half-hour mark, it takes its time to unfold, the two partners shooting the breeze on the stakeout or tailing vehicles, but when the action comes its raw and brutal, loading up the tension with the fate of a new mother bank employee (Jennifer Carpenter) unwillingly returning to work on a day she should have indeed stayed home. It’s often a gruelling, nerve-shredding watch, but such is the magnetism of the performances and the intensity of the action that it’s hard to tear your eyes from the screen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Foxtrot (15)

There’s a knock at the door of a luxury Tel Aviv apartment and its occupants, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafa (Sarah Adler) Feldman are informed that their son, Jonathan, has been killed in the line of duty. She faints and is tranquilized and he sits numbed while a military counsellor explains the funeral arrangements, all of which they’ll take care of, reminding him to keep hydrated.   Michael deliberately scalds himself with hot water, his older brother, Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) arrives and takes over, their Auschwitz-survivor mother, in a home with dementia, is given the news but has no reaction and, told it won’t be possible to view the body, Michael loses it, accusing the military of not even having a corpse to bury. And then they’re told there’s been a mistake. It’s the wrong Jonathan Feldman.

The focus now switches to a remote border checkpoint where Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) and three other young inexperienced soldiers spend their days watching pretty much nothing, letting through the occasional camel and checking the papers of hapless Arabs passing through. Unlike the first section, filed in unrelenting close-up and heavy with anguish, this is more lighthearted, almost surreal, one of the crew dancing with his rifle to the backdrop of a van with a faded ice cream ad. Until, in a moment of misunderstanding, tragedy strikes and a cover up has to be put in place. Which is when, as demanded by Michael by way of compensation for what they went through, Jonathan is told he’s being sent home.

The third part returns to Tel Aviv, the now estranged Michael and Dafna having just gone through their son’s funeral, this time having been killed for real, again the film suffused with a palpable sense of loss. It ends back with Jonathan for a brief, cruelly absurdist coda that contextualises his death in the line of duty, underlining the randomness and futility of it all with a hollow mocking laugh.

Directed with total assurance by Samuel Maoz with both the dialogue and the mosaic of the Feldmans floor reinforcing the theme of illusion and, in the soldier’s listing trailer, a world off balance, leading you to wonder which Jonathan Feldman’s fate it is you’ve just been watching, but making the point that it’s universal anyway. (Until Tue:MAC)

 

Girl (15)

The struggle of growing up transgender and the trials involved in transitioning provide the bedrock for Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont’s utterly engaging debut. Born a boy, 16-year-old Lara (brilliantly played by male dancer turned first time actor Victor Polster) identifies as female and is undergoing treatment in preparation for a sex change operation. Unreservedly accepted by her supportive father (Arieh Worthalter) and young brother (Oliver Bodart), she dresses as a girl, strapping down her penis beneath padding, and, having moved to a new city, enrols in a prestigious ballet school.

The film moves back and forth between consultations regarding the operation and Lara’s attempt to keep up with the other girls in her class, the strain and demands of the one putting increasing pressure on the possibility of the other. Although there’s an emotionally harrowing moment at a party where one of the girls cruelly demands that, since she’s seen them in the showers, she show them her genitals, her gender issues seem to be accepted without question or problems. The narrative and emotional core is Lara’s own self-acceptance, issues that to all extents and purposes leak into self-harm as she battles to come to terms with her nagging inner demons, her impatience at the time things are taking, her disappointment with herself, and her sense of identity and (in one fumbling moment with a neighbouring boy (Tijmen Govaerts)) her sexuality. She just wants to become, to be herself, a girl.

The film takes something of a misstep in the final moments with a shocking moment of self-mutilation, but recovers for an uplifting final open ending freeze frame shot of confidence that you cannot help but applaud. (Sat-Wed: MAC)

Greta (15)

It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner.  Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant  waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work.

An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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The Fight (12A)

Directed, written by and starring Jessica Hynes (Angel Matthews in the Nativity films) alongside Sally Phillips and Anita Dobson, this follows Tina (Hynes), a careworker mother of three in a quiet seaside town beset by domestic problems such as her overbearing mother (Dobson) threatening to leave her father (Christopher Fairbanks), her eldest(Sennia Nanua) being bulled at school (with Liv Hill as the bully) and she and her husband (Shaun Oarkes) juggling jobs and parenthood. Determined to rise above things, she uses boxing to work out her stress and anxieties, but then an old rival from her schooldays (Rhona Mitra) turns up, forcing her to confront difficult memories and fight for herself. Featuring a cameo from Alice Lowe and Russell Brand as the voice of a motivational audiobook, incorporating workplace racism, domestic abuse, parental neglect and even a school talent show, it doesn’t quite make the Mike Leigh family drama grade, but it’s an impressive first attempt. (Mon/Wed: MAC)

 

Head Full of Honey (12A)

In remaking his own 2014 German language original, partly scripted by Jojo Moyes, director Til Schweiger has lost total control of the steering wheel, resulting in a car crash attempt to address the subject of Alzheimer’s. Suspecting dad Amadeus (Nick Nolte) might be losing it when, at his wife’s funeral, he starts going on about pie and her breasts and seems to be totally oblivious to the fact. So, he’s reluctantly persuaded to move from Connecticut to London and live with his banker son Nick (Matt Dillon) and his stressed out wife Sarah (Emily Mortimer) and, needless to say, this just adds to the family tensions. Dad pisses in the fridge, takes a chainsaw to the garden, sets fire to the kitchen, casually fires off his guns around his young granddaughter, Matilda (Sophia Lane Nolte), her parents apparently oblivious or unconcerned about the danger he might pose, smears butter over his face at a restaurant thinking it’s soap and regularly calls up his dead wife (for whom he hides jars of honey in the barn) on a banana. This should evoke empathy and poignancy, but instead it plays like the endearingly wacky comical exploits of some crazy old coot.

Even more absurdly, young Matilda sneaks out of those one night with grandpa and, the realities of passport control be damned, takes him off to Venice to spark memories of his wedding night where he ends up telling vulgar jokes about cucumbers to a dinner table of nuns! Audiences can only pray for a loss of memory too. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

NOW SHOWING

Border (15)

Adapted from a story by Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who co-wrote the screenplay, this is a Nordic noir with a social commentary subtext and a bizarre twist that sends the narrative off into dark supernatural folklore territory. Scarred by a lightning strike, sporting a scar on her tailbone and with troglodyte features, Tina (Eva Melander under heavy make-up), who has more affinity with wild animals than humans, lives with her good-for-nothing Rottweiler owning boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson), who’s fonder of his dogs (who don’t get on with Tina) than her, and makes regular visits to her dementia sufferer father. She also works at a Swedish portside border crossing, quite literally sniffing out those with something to hide. It seems she has the sixth sense ability to smell feelings like fear or guilt (not to mention knowing when deer are about to cross the road). It’s a gift that exposes a child pornography ring, a subplot in which she helps police track down the paedophile ring, that proves to have significant bearing on the main narrative. One day she sniffs out Vole (Eero Milonoff) who shares similar features, grunts and says he collects (and eats) live insects. On examination, it’s found he also has female rather than make genitals.

There’s a chemistry between them and Tina invites him to move into their guest cabin. It’s around this point, as they draw closer, that the film introduces its jaw-dropping twist in a truly weird sex scene, about which I can say nothing without spoiling what follows, but suffice to say neither Vole nor Tina are what they seem and that the revelation about Vole ties into the child porn strand, compounded by the fact that Tina’s neighbours have just given birth.

Subverting genres, Iran-born director Ali Abbasi takes his time in teasing out the mystery, building the tension and dropping clues, among which are a naked swim and Tina’s introduction to eating bugs, as she comes to learn more about who she truly is. As unexpectedly touching as it is unsettling, you’re unlikely to seen anything else quite like this year.  (Fri/Thu:MAC)

 

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hellboy (15) 

A reboot of the Mike Mignola comics-based franchise originally brought to the screen by writer/director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman, Neil Marshall’s version doesn’t take itself seriously. Unfortunately, borderline ludicrous and with some howlingly bad dialogue and third-rate CGI, no one else is likely to either.

For late arrivals, Hellboy is a red, buffed demon summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists in a  last ditch attempt to win WWII, but who’s scheme was thwarted byvigilante The Lobster (Thomas Haden Church) and Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane, clearly immune to embarrassment), the latter taking the baby demon under his wing and,  his horns filed off, rearing him as his adopted son to work for mankind as, armed with great strength and his ‘Right Hand of Doom’, part of  the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. All of this is variously revisited in assorted flashbacks, but the film actually opens with some excruciatingly bad voiceover narrating how, in a radical departure from her usual embodiment of the Lady of the Lake, the evil sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich), aka the Blood Queen, is prevented from destroying mankind by King Arthur who chops her into pieces with the enchanted Excalibur and has the body parts buried in various hidden locations. Things don’t much improve.

Fast forward to the present day where, after an irrelevant second prologue as Hellboy’s mission to bring back a missing agent ends badly, he’s sent off to England by dad to link up with a bizarre secret society who are battling three giants, only to discover the monster they really want to kill is him. It’s all down to some prophecy about him bringing about the apocalypse, which is why a badly rendered, cartoon-accented demonic pig is going about recovering Nimue’s body parts to put her back together so he can get revenge on Hellboy for an incident many years earlier. For reasons that are never particularly well-articulated, he’s pared with the dead-channelling psychic Alice (American Honey star Sasha Lane), who he saved when she was kidnapped by fairies as a baby, and scarred primly Brit-accented M11 agent Daimo (Daniel Dae Kim) who has a secret of his own. Nimue, meanwhile, is determined to get Hellboy to become her consort as their destined are entwined.

Marshall lurches through the plot, tossing plot points aside in abandon but earning the higher certificate with numerous scenes of gratuitous extreme violence and copious bloodshed in some generic, dull and clunky action sequences as Nimue’s demons graphically tear bodies in half. Playing Hellboy as a demon with his own inner demon, Harbour’s saddled with badly written attempts at Perlman’s hardboiled, seen it all sarcasm and is just prosthetic and posture with none of the charisma or wit, while the rest of the cast appear to be trying to make sense of a convoluted over-the-top plot that’s linked together only by the editing as they go, although Jovovich, casting subtlety to the wind, does at least give some decent bitch witch. And then just when you mercifully think it’s all over, there’s a some months later coda with the surviving trio on another mission to set up a sequel introducing one of the more poignant characters from the original films. Hell will have to freeze over first. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywod youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power play in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Lords Of Chaos (18)

Back in 1984, Mayhem became the controversial pioneers of Norway’s black metal scene, one which, associated with Satanic worship, spawned a string of church burnings and saw one of their singers commit suicide and a former member murder one of the band.  Adapting the biography of the same name, Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has a long history of music videos and founded black metal outfit Bathory, takes a gallows humour black absurdist comedy approach that doesn’t shrink from the dark, nihilistic aspects but which does have considerably more laughs (the bands’ actual answerphone message was “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re too busy sacrificing children”) than you might expect.

It stars and is narrated by Rory Culkin who brilliantly plays Oystein Aarseth, the band’s founder who originally called himself Destructor before settling on Euronymous, recruiting the unhinged Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who called himself Dead, worse corpse makeup and would frequently cut himself during gigs, as their vocalist, only for him to commit suicide by blowing his brains out in 1991, leaving behind a note saying “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” Aarseth immediately took photos of the body, one of which later ended up on the cover of a bootleg album.

Dead was replaced by Hungarian singer Attila Csihar while Aarseth also recruited bassist Varg Vikernes (a mesmerisingly unsettling Emory Cohen) on bass, a troubled neo-Nazi sympathiser who took the band into even more extreme territory than Aarseth who, the son of a middle-class family, was all theatrical front and pose rebellion rather than the real thing (he shut his shop when his parents complained), could handle. An argument between the two at Euronymous’s Oslo apartment in 1993 ended in Vang murdering him, allegedly stabbing him twenty-three times, and being subsequently imprisoned for murder and church arson.

Regardless of your feelings about the music and the death metal scene, this is considerably more fun than any film featuring severed pig heads, hung cats and hate-fuelled church burnings deserves to be. (Odeon Broadway Luxe)

 

Mid90s (15)

Jonah Hill makes his writer-director debut with this (mostly) unsentimental, period-detailed and likely autobiographical but ultimately somewhat underwhelming coming of age story set amid the teenage skater community in a low rent Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Sharing his home with his volatile and messed up elder brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up but whose ‘grown up’ cool he quietly worships,  and their young out of her parenting depth single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterson, pretty much the film’s only adult), dorky 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic looking spookily like the young Corey Feldman) steals money from her to  get an old skateboard and, desperate for friends, starts loitering around Motor Avenue, the local skate shop, looking to get noticed by the emotionally inarticulate slacker misfits who hang there. That’ll be close-cropped incipient sociopath Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most out of it, who genuinely thinks saying ‘thank you’ is a gay thing; a blissed-out surfer-dude bi-racial stoner with a halo of ringlets who goes by the name of Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because of his usual mode of expression; the acne-riddled introverted Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so named on account of his assumed level of intelligence, who spends all his time filming everything on his camcorder on account of; and the ostensible leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a laid-back, kindly African-American who  dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder.

Cocky, enthusiastic and eager to please, Stevie’s taken under their wing (although there’s a subsequent falling out with Ruben), is given a better board, learns to improve his skate moves, give proper conversation, gets drunk and generally tries to join in with their meaningless banter. His impulsive reckless earns him the nickname Sunburn and a reputation of being “crazy as fuck!”

It’s empty braggadocio seeking to impress, but at a house party, while he’s led into a bedroom by a slightly older girl and gets to briefly make out, he’s too scared to go all the way. And that’s pretty much the extent of the narrative. There’s fallings out, moments of reconciliation, emotional catharsis, skating down the L.A. streets, a near tragedy and a soundtrack that includes Dedicated To The One I Love and little known Morrissey track We’ll Let You Know as Hill follows Stevie on the painful path to growing up and perhaps learning a few things about the world.

Shot on 16mm and curiously framed in the middle of the screen and with an almost documentary, improvisational style, you can feel Hill’s empathy for the often annoying but engaging characters (for which full marks to the cast’s naturalism), never judging or condescending to them nor dressing them up in wistful nostalgia. It’s an impressive behind the camera debut for Hill, but it never quite finds its emotional beat in the way that Larry Clark’s similarly themed but more nihilistic Kids, the recent Skate Kitchen or indeed Shane Meadows’s Made In Britain did. (Cineworld 5 Ways;Vue Star City)

Missing Link (PG)

The latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and Kubo & The Two Strings is a much more lighthearted affair, even it does come with some heavy duty messages.

Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, a self-absorbed English Victorian explorer who’s desperate to become part of an exclusive adventurer’s club of  ‘great men’ which, headed up by pompous braggart Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), treats his wild exploits to prove the existence of mythological creatures with disdain.

However, when, following his latest  failure, he receives a letter offering to lead him to the fabled Sasquatch, he strikes a deal that, if he can provide proof, and as such validate Darwin’s theory of evolution, Piggot-Dunceby will let him join and duly sets of to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest where he does indeed meet up with the titular missing link (Zach Galifianakis). To his surprise, the hairy creature, is a charmingly affable fellow who speaks excellent English, even if he takes things overly literally, who, rather than wanting  Frost to reveal his existence, wants him to help find his Asian cousins, the Yetis, as, one of his kind, he’s rather lonely.

Frost, reckoning he can prove two creatures at one go, agrees and, after some amusing plot padding concerning map to the hidden city of Shangri La in the Himalayas, sets off with Mr. Link (who later decides to name himself Susan) and Adelina Fortlight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his late partner and, apparently, an old flame.

However, Piggot-Dunceby is taking no chances on having to eat humble pie and has despatched moustachioed varmint Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), an infamous hunter of rare animals, to ensure he never returns.

Taking the form of a road movie involving various modes of transport, countries and run-ins with Stenk, it winds up in the Himalayas where the trio finally come face-to-face with the snow white Yetis, led by the long-haired matriachial Elder (Emma Thompson), only to find, in a comment about isolationism, that  not all dreams have happy endings before a literal cliffhanger as their enemies close in.

The backdrops adopt a fairly realistic look while the human characters are all highly stylised with big bellies, long spindly legs, angular features and either pointed or blobby pink glowing noses while Susan is covered in rust-coloured fur that looks like he’s been stitched with rubbery filaments, accentuating the sense of cartoonish fun. Written and directed by Chris Butler, who made ParaNorman, it deals with such familiar concerns as family, belonging, rejecting bigotry,  and doing the right thing as Frost offers up his own instance of evolution into a better person.

With David Walliams and Matt Lucas also adding their voices, the emphasis very much on colourful fun with physical comedy blending with fish out of water gags and jokes about wordplay and language, it wisely downplays the romantic interest angle the younger audience might find too soppy, but unerringly hits all the emotional notes. It ends back in London with  the promise of future adventures from this unlikely duo, a sort of adventurer version of Holmes and Watson. Get Linked in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall;Vue Star City)

Shazam! (12A)

 The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

 

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an over-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wild Rose (15)

Named one of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits in 2017 and a nominee for BAFTA’s 2019 Rising Star award on the back of her performance in Beast, Jessie Buckley consolidates her growing reputation with a knockout performance as a Glaswegian single mother dreaming of making it in country music.  Unfortunately, Tom Cooper’s film never matches the fire of its star.

Just out of prison for supplying heroin to the inmates, ankle-tag under her white cowboy boots, bolshie Rose-Lynn Harlan returns home to her two young kids and tough-love mother Marion (Julie Walters), looking to reclaim her job singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and still nurturing an ambition to seek fame and fortune in Nashville, despite her mother forever pouring cold water on such ambitions. She gets a cleaning job in an upmarket part of Glasgow, singing as she hoovers away for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who, having been introduced by Rose to the joys of Dolly Parton and the like improbably becomes her fairy godmother, seeking to further her dreams.  This includes sending a demo off to Bob Harris and facilitating meeting at the BBC with him and his producer, Mark Hagen, in quite possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes you’ll see on screen this year. In another cloud of wish-fulfilment, a lawyer also manages to convince a judge to have her ankle tag removed so she can further he singing career and provide for her kids.

Despite blowing a fundraising opportunity thrown by Susannah, Rose, thanks to mom, gets to go to Nashville after all (cue a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Kasey Musgraves) and even sing on the Opry stage before she has yet another epiphany about her parental responsibilities. But, even then, the film still gets to sprinkle fairy dust over things as, Whispering Bob in the audience, she gets to have her cake and eat it by playing one of Scotland’s biggest Americana-based music festivals.

Uncynical and unabashedly feelgood to the point of parody, it almost drowns in clichés about discovering who you are and what truly matters, Walters (clearly there were no actual Scottish actresses available) lays on the Glasgow accent so thickly she’s often impossible to understand and Okenado, a gifted actress, is forced to be so gushy as to make Mary Poppins seem like Nurse Ratched.  The saving grace in all this is Buckley, fiercely playing a character who can be blinkered and self-deluded in the selfish single-minded pursuit of her dream but still has you rooting for her. On top of which, doing her own vocal work (a theatrical background, she first came to notice in the TV auditions for Oliver!), while no Lady GaGa, she also turns out to be a pretty good country singer too, the film’s soundtrack album serving as her own musical debut, including the excellent Cigarette Street (Five O’Clock Freedom) written and sung in the film by Darren Hodson and The Southern Companion. A star is indeed born.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Wonder Park (PG)

From an early age, June (Brianna Denski) and her mom (Jennifer Garner) made up stories together about Wonderland (it’s  never referred to as Wonder Park), a theme park packed with wild rides and run by talking animals, bear greeter Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), hyper beaver twins Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), Steve (John Oliver), a neurotic but highly educated (parents should be prepared to explain existentialism to the kids)  porcupine who’s lovesick for Greta (Mila Kunis) the warthog who’s de facto in charge  and Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the chimp who magically creates the rides when June whispers into the ear of his cuddly toy counterpart.

From bedtime tales, Wonderland grows into a model made  up of, among other things, cardboard and drinking straws that takes over those house, June even builds a ramshackle thrill ride for real, causing chaos in her neighbourhood.

But then, suddenly, mom gets sick and disappears from the film, leaving an increasingly disconsolate June with her bumbling dad (Matthew Broderick) who, when she packs up her model, puts the toys in a box and burns the lay out plan decides the best thing is to pack her off to a math camp, Camp Awe+Sum (the film’s best gag), for the summer.  She never gets there. Instead, abandoning the bus, she heads into the wood planning to return home but a fragment of the burnt map lures her further on where she discovers the park of her imagination, except it’s fallen into disrepair and the animals are being besieged by toy monkeys that have  turned into Chimpan-Zombies and are tearing the place apart and feeding it into ‘the darkness’, a huge black cloud hovering over the park, Peanut having hidden himself away since he stopped getting those messages.

Suffice to say, June, realising she’s the source of the darkness in her anger and worry over mom’s illness,  decides to fix things and restore Wonderland to its former glory, and, just in case you miss the message, healing herself in the process. But the sentiment is tepid, the laughs few and the emotion never comes near the depth of either A Monster Calls or Inside Out, both of which are obvious touchstones. It’s thrillingly animated and the physical action and animal antics  may engage a younger audience, but, despite the worthy idea about dealing with your feelings when someone you care for is ill, the execution is a confused jumble that never coherently hangs together, likely to leave older children and adults  wondering what it was all about. Despite the title, this is more a case of bemusement park. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; 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

Technology liberates Bill Laurance

Known for his work with Grammy-winning US jazz collective Snarky Puppy, London-based keyboard-player and composer Bill Laurance has built a reputation as one of the finest pianists of his generation.

Branching out into film scores, he’s also worked with big bands, dance companies, and various artists (from David Crosby to Ana Silvera and YolanDa Brown).

His latest solo venture, Cables, takes Bill in a new direction. Inspired by the exponential rise in technology and futurists predictions of human/ machine hybrids and sentient computers, the instrumentals combine effected piano with synths, sequences and drum-machines – a combo he’s now taking out for a series of one-man live dates, including Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Saturday 27 April 2019.

You’ve already done a fair few dates on your lonesome – how’s everything going so far?

The tour is going great, thank you, really great. It is total freedom, you can go wherever you want at any point. A profound thing, really, which I’m enjoying more and more every night. That freedom is … I didn’t quite expect how liberating and how cathartic that would be. I’m loving every minute.

What’s your stage set-up?

So it’s piano … there is a YouTube video going through it, on my YouTube channel, but basically its piano going through an MXR delay pedal and then I’m using a Prophet Six module, TR09 drum-machine, SE-02 Roland synth, a Vocoder and a Kaoss pad, so I put all that on top of the piano and I run alongside it. It all revolves around the piano.

Cables sees you embracing technology more than you have previously. Do you see yourself as continuing more in this direction in the future …?

With the solo stuff … yes … quite possibly. I’m fascinated by technology and the speed at which it’s growing and I think that it has to be harnessed in some way – if you’re dealing in any creative world I think technology, and using technology, is an important part, and has to be an important part, of what we do. But that said I’m equally interested in doing another album that will be just acoustic. Seeing where that goes. That was what this album was s’posed to be! I said I wanted to do a solo piano album, and Cables was the result! [laughs]

But as you’ve said, the acoustic piano remains at the centre of your work at present …

I like the variety, I like to be really able to dig my heels in with the technology and that world, and come away from it. Ultimately, I’m interested in the marriage between the two, the album’s really about the battle, I s’pose, the balance between man and machine. The film Transcendent Man was what really inspired this, a film about Ray Kurzweil who says we’ll have invented a conscious robot by the year 2029, and he talks that God doesn’t exist, and argues that God will exist when man and machine become one. It’s the whole ethical questions, this moral dilemma we’re in, where everyone stares at their phones all day, and did we sign up for that? I’m not sure that we did! But obviously it’s also enabling lots more of things to be faster and be more efficient …

You’ve played with lots of different people over the years, including Laura Mvula. How did you come to work with her?

We performed together on Snarky Puppy’s second volume of Family Dinner, and she was one of the guest vocalists, in New Orleans. We met there and stayed friends, I’ve gone to many of her gigs, and she’s come to many of mine. She’s a wonderful singer, she’s always pushing boundaries, she never makes do with something straight down the line, she always keeps things unexpected, and that’s a wonderful thing, especially in today’s more ‘pop’ industry, where people are crying out for the auto-tune, she’s the real thing, a true artist. It was amazing working with her. So pro’! Her intonation! I remember talking to Mike League [Snarky Puppy] about it when we were making the record, and it was absolutely faultless on every take. She’s the real deal.

Family Dinner Vol.2 also featured David Crosby, who you’ve also worked with recently on a track.

The David Crosby song is called Your Own Ride and it’s from his latest album, Here If You Listen, a song about his son … just accepting that his son is going to go on his own way, basically. Crosby gave me a bunch of different songs to read though and that one jumped out at me, so we worked together on it at his ranch outside LA and he loved it, and so wanted to put it on the record. It definitely hits home the frustration of parenthood, and all the worries and concerns, making sure your offspring is the way you wanted them to be …

There’s also a new Snarky Puppy album, Immigrance.

Yes. The new album just came out. I wrote a new track that’s coming out as a bonus track, I think later this year. It might be on the download? I’ll be touring with them in November.

  • Bill Laurance plays Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Saturday 27 April 2019. Details: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk
  • Bill Laurance’s Cables is out now on Flint Music.

MOVIE ROUND-UP, This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Apr 12-Thu Apr 18

NEW RELEASES

Hellboy (15) 

A reboot of the Mike Mignola comics-based franchise originally brought to the screen by writer/director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman, Neil Marshall’s version doesn’t take itself seriously. Unfortunately, borderline ludicrous and with some howlingly bad dialogue and third-rate CGI, no one else is likely to either.

For late arrivals, Hellboy is a red, buffed demon summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists in a  last ditch attempt to win WWII, but who’s scheme was thwarted byvigilante The Lobster (Thomas Haden Church) and Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane, clearly immune to embarrassment), the latter taking the baby demon under his wing and,  his horns filed off, rearing him as his adopted son to work for mankind as, armed with great strength and his ‘Right Hand of Doom’, part of  the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. All of this is variously revisited in assorted flashbacks, but the film actually opens with some excruciatingly bad voiceover narrating how, in a radical departure from her usual embodiment of the Lady of the Lake, the evil sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich), aka the Blood Queen, is prevented from destroying mankind by King Arthur who chops her into pieces with the enchanted Excalibur and has the body parts buried in various hidden locations. Things don’t much improve.

Fast forward to the present day where, after an irrelevant second prologue as Hellboy’s mission to bring back a missing agent ends badly, he’s sent off to England by dad to link up with a bizarre secret society who are battling three giants, only to discover the monster they really want to kill is him. It’s all down to some prophecy about him bringing about the apocalypse, which is why a badly rendered, cartoon-accented demonic pig is going about recovering Nimue’s body parts to put her back together so he can get revenge on Hellboy for an incident many years earlier. For reasons that are never particularly well-articulated, he’s pared with the dead-channelling psychic Alice (American Honey star Sasha Lane), who he saved when she was kidnapped by fairies as a baby, and scarred primly Brit-accented agent Daimo (Daniel Dae Kim) who has a secret of his own. Nimue, meanwhile, is determined to get Hellboy to become her consort as their destined are entwined.

Marshall lurches through the plot, tossing plot points aside in abandon but earning the higher certificate with numerous scenes of gratuitous extreme violence and copious bloodshed in some generic, dull and clunky action sequences as Nimue’s demons graphically tear bodies in half. Playing Hellboy as a demon with his own inner demon, Harbour’s saddled with badly written attempts at Perlman’s hardboiled, seen it all sarcasm and is just prosthetic and posture with none of the charisma or wit, while the rest of the cast (which, in tandem with Wild Rose, includes another career blot for Sophie Okenodo) appear to be trying to make sense of a convoluted over-the-top plot that’s linked together only by the editing as they go, although Jovovich, casting subtlety to the wind, does at least give some decent bitch witch. And then just when you mercifully think it’s all over, there’s a some months later coda with the surviving trio on another mission to set up a sequel introducing one of the more poignant characters from the original films. Hell will have to freeze over first. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big, directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has  her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be  a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor  are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywod youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power play in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mid90s (15)

Jonah Hill makes his writer-director debut with this (mostly) unsentimental, period-detailed and likely autobiographical but ultimately somewhat underwhelming coming of age story set amid the teenage skater community in a low rent Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Sharing his home with his volatile and messed up elder brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up but whose ‘grown up’ cool he quietly worships, and their young out of her parenting depth single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterson, pretty much the film’s only adult), dorky 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic looking spookily like the young Corey Feldman) steals money from her to  get an old skateboard and, desperate for friends, starts loitering around Motor Avenue, the local skate shop, looking to get noticed by the emotionally inarticulate slacker misfits who hang there. That’ll be close-cropped incipient sociopath Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most out of it, who genuinely thinks saying ‘thank you’ is a gay thing; a blissed-out surfer-dude bi-racial stoner with a halo of ringlets who goes by the name of Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because of his usual mode of expression; the acne-riddled introverted Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so named on account of his assumed level of intelligence, who spends all his time filming everything on his camcorder on account of; and the ostensible leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a laid-back, kindly African-American who  dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder.

Cocky, enthusiastic and eager to please, Stevie’s taken under their wing (although there’s a subsequent falling out with Ruben), is given a better board, learns to improve his skate moves, give proper conversation, gets drunk and generally tries to join in with their meaningless banter. His impulsive reckless earns him the nickname Sunburn and a reputation of being “crazy as fuck!”

It’s empty braggadocio seeking to impress, but at a house party, while he’s led into a bedroom by a slightly older girl and gets to briefly make out, he’s too scared to go all the way. And that’s pretty much the extent of the narrative. There’s fallings out, moments of reconciliation, emotional catharsis, skating down the L.A. streets, a near tragedy and a soundtrack that includes Dedicated To The One I Love and little known Morrissey track We’ll Let You Know as Hill follows Stevie on the painful path to growing up and perhaps learning a few things about the world.

Shot on 16mm and curiously framed in the middle of the screen and with an almost documentary, improvisational style, you can feel Hill’s empathy for the often annoying but engaging characters (for which full marks to the cast’s naturalism), never judging or condescending to them nor dressing them up in wistful nostalgia. It’s an impressive behind the camera debut for Hill, but it never quite finds its emotional beat in the way that Larry Clark’s similarly themed but more nihilistic Kids, the recent Skate Kitchen or indeed Shane Meadows’s Made In Britain did. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Wild Rose (15)

Named one of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits in 2017 and a nominee for BAFTA’s 2019 Rising Star award on the back of her performance in Beast, Jessie Buckley consolidates her growing reputation with a knockout performance as a Glaswegian single mother dreaming of making it in country music.  Unfortunately, Tom Cooper’s film never matches the fire of its star.

Just out of prison for supplying heroin to the inmates, ankle-tag under her white cowboy boots, bolshie Rose-Lynn Harlan returns home to her two young kids and tough-love mother Marion (Julie Walters), looking to reclaim her job singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and still nurturing an ambition to seek fame and fortune in Nashville, despite her mother forever pouring cold water on such ambitions. She gets a cleaning job in an upmarket part of Glasgow, singing as she hoovers away for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who, having been introduced by Rose to the joys of Dolly Parton and the like improbably becomes her fairy godmother, seeking to further her dreams.  This includes sending a demo off to Bob Harris and facilitating meeting at the BBC with him and his producer, Mark Hagen, in quite possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes you’ll see on screen this year. In another cloud of wish-fulfilment, a lawyer also manages to convince a judge to have her ankle tag removed so she can further he singing career and provide for her kids.

Despite blowing a fundraising opportunity thrown by Susannah, Rose, thanks to mom, gets to go to Nashville after all (cue a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Kasey Musgraves) and even sing on the Opry stage before she has yet another epiphany about her parental responsibilities. But, even then, the film still gets to sprinkle fairy dust over things as, Whispering Bob in the audience, she gets to have her cake and eat it by playing one of Scotland’s biggest Americana-based music festivals.

Uncynical and unabashedly feelgood to the point of parody, it almost drowns in clichés about discovering who you are and what truly matters, Walters (clearly there were no actual Scottish actresses available) lays on the Glasgow accent so thickly she’s often impossible to understand and Okenado, a gifted actress, is forced to be so gushy as to make Mary Poppins seem like Nurse Ratched.  The saving grace in all this is Buckley, fiercely playing a character who can be blinkered and self-deluded in the selfish single-minded pursuit of her dream but still has you rooting for her. On top of which, doing her own vocal work (a theatrical background, she first came to notice in the TV auditions for Oliver!), while no Lady GaGa, she also turns out to be a pretty good country singer too, the film’s soundtrack album serving as her own musical debut, including the excellent Cigarette Street (Five O’Clock Freedom) written and sung in the film by Darren Hodson and The Southern Companion. A star is indeed born.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

ALSO PLAYING

Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno (15)

Mektoub being Arabic for destiny, this three hour coming-of-age drama (complete with a 30-minute disco scene) from Blue Is the Warmest Colour director Abdellatif Kechiche is set in the Mediterranean in 1994 as sensitive and serious teenage aspiring screenwriter Amin (Shaïn Boumedine) returns home from Paris for the summer holidays and calls in on his friend, Ophelie (Ophelie Bau) only to see her having sex with his philandering cousin, even though she has an absent army boyfriend. The first of Tony’s several sexual encounters, while Amin remains reservedly chaste, the film meanderingly follows the latter in search of love and inspiration, presumably all being resolved in the planned sequel, Intermezzo.  (Sun/Mon: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (15)

Hailing from Sale in Cheshire, not far from Timperley, as frontman with late 70s pop outfit The Freshies, Chris Sievey had a minor hit with I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk (it would have been bigger had BBC crews not gone on strike the week it was due on Top of the Pops) and cult success with I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies by the Teardrop Explodes, but by far his biggest success came when he donned a papier-mache head and created the character of Frank Sidebottom, becoming Manchester’s court jester for over 25 years until his death in 2010. The character even inspired Frank, a film starring Michael Fassbender inspired by his alter ego.

He’s also now the subject of this affectionate and illuminating bittersweet documentary by Steve Sullivan that documents his life from childhood, where even at an early age he clearly sought both the limelight and complete control, through his teenage years and Beatles obsession (he and his brother went to Apple looking for a record deal and  briefly met Ringo) and his formative bands, such as the deliberately bad but compelling Oh Blimey Big Band, before hitting on the concept of the Frank Sidebottom (originally called John Smith and created for a fancy dress party), a stalker-like Freshies fan,  who, despite his odd and frankly somewhat creepy nature (he had his own cardboard puppet, Little Frank), became a hit on children’s TV shows, improvising as he went,  and secured his own Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.

With a day job working as an animator on the likes of Bob The Builder, the success of his character overwhelmed the man behind the mask who became lost, turning to drink and cocaine to numb the alienation he felt from himself.  Decline was inevitable, Frank ending up playing Manchester clubs leading karaoke version of Love Will Tear Us Apart and, when he dies, he would have had a pauper’s funeral had not his manager raised £21,000 from fans.

Clearly an eccentric on uncertain mental stability, Sievey was also an innovator, at one point devising a vinyl single that, on the B-side, had digital code to enable you to play a video game on a computer, while, ex-wife Paula reveals that his chat up approach was to push her into the canal.

As well as access to Sievey’s notebooks, videos and recordings, the documentary also features interviews with friends and family, such as his former keyboard player Jon Ronson (who scripted Frank), comedians Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas, his three children (tragically the youngest, Harry, was killed in a motorbike accident not long after filming his contributions), revealing a brilliant but tormented creative genius who could have built himself a career as a visual artist had he not been so obsessed with finding music business success.  In many ways a parallel story to John Otway, who made a success out of being a failure, this doesn’t always dig as deeply as it might, but, for those who never knew about the band inside the head (and Sievey was fanatical about not being photographed without it), it’s a welcome insight into one of the great British eccentrics of our time who, may not have become a pop star but does have a bronze statue of Frank erected in Timperely in tribute. (Sat/Thu : Electric)

 

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (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)

Eaten By Lions (12A)

Half-brothers, when their parents were eaten by lions on a safari holiday, shy charmer Omar (Antonio Askeel) and sly humoured cerebral palsy sufferer Pete (Jack Carroll) were taken in by their gran. However, now that she too has passed, they’re faced with having to live with their racist domineering aunt and submissive uncle (Vicki Pepperdine, Kevin Eldon), Omar being forced to sleep in the closet under the stairs. So, when the couple declare they intend to adopt Pete, but not Omar, because he’s not really proper family, the latter decides to leave Bradford and go in search of his biological father, one Malik Chaudhry (Nitin Ganatra). Not, as Pete hopes, in India, but rather Blackpool.

Arriving at the seaside resort, presumably off-season given how empty it is, losing all their belongings when the tide comes in, they get to stay in a dodgy B&B (with no door to their room) run by the no less dodgy Ray (Johnny Vegas, less annoying than usual), who also kits them out with some naff clothing left behind my previous guests, the cross-dressing gay uncle of Amy (Sarah Hoare), the mouthy pink-haired teen who works at Sea Planet and takes a shine to Omar. Given Malik’s address by a tacky camp fortune teller (a funny Tom Binns), they set off to confront Omar’s dad, one of a wealthy local Pakistani clan who, along with other guests, have all assembled for his eldest daughter’s wedding (“it’s a bit like Gremlins isn’t it, Ramadan, similar rules”, remarks Pete), and who, rather inevitably denies parentage.

Suffice to say, there’s an amusing – and ultimately touching – twist involving his jack-the-lad brother Irfan (Asim Chaudhry), who runs a seedy seafront gift shop (providing a great gag with a pen with a picture of a scantily clad woman which, when turned upside down, reveals her clad in a burka) and gifts the brothers with fake Rolexes.

Written and directed by Jason Wingard, the comedy of misadventures unfolds on a raft of one-liners and emotional swings along with Britcom moments involving a yellow Rolls Royce, the pride and joy of the family patriarch (Darshan Jariwala), that sits languishing in the garage and Malik’s younger daughter Parveen (Natalie Davies), who pretends to be mute and take a sexually predatory interest in Pete.

Never attaining the heights of East is East, the template for such multi-cultural comedies, there’s no riotously funny moments and it’s all a bit predictable, but it rolls along with an undeniable charm and there’s a warm heart to the bond between the brothers, Askeel an affable low-key presence while Carroll gets the bulk of the best lines as the cynical, quizzical and sarcastic Pete who unexpectedly finds himself out of his league when he meets Parveen. A minor treat, but a treat nonetheless. (Vue Star City)

 

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kindergarten Teacher (12A)

Driven by a terrific complex performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director Sara Colangelo’s remake of the Israeli art house hit stays close to the original while adding some extra emotional layers. Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a caring kindergarten teacher in Staten Island who, once a week she takes the ferry to Manhattan for a poetry class run by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), but her writing, about flowers and butterflies, while earnest, lacks spark and finds no enthusiasm from her tutor or, back home, her distracted husband (Michael Chernus) or their two teenage kids (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules), neither of whom, especially the social-media fixated daughter, have time for her.

Then, one day, at school, she catches one of her charges, Jimmy (a wonderfully blank Parker Sevak), a five-year-old from Indian heritage and a broken family, slipping into some kind of trace and reciting a poem he’s composed, one far beyond his age and awareness. Understandably excited, she writes it down, encourages his airheaded former coatcheck girl nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) to do likewise if he does it at home, and takes both it and another to her class, reading it out to hugely positive response from her instructor.

At which point, it would seem that this is shaping up as a story about exploitation, with Lisa piggybacking her way to validation and success (not to mention having sex with Simon) on Jimmy’s poems. By that’s just falsefooting.  While not entirely selfless, as its gives her a sense of purpose and self-worth in a life where she’s very much pushed to the side, the reality is that Lisa genuinely wants to nurture and preserve this rare talent, seeing him as poetry’s answer to Mozart, seeking to persuade his always too busy nightclub owner father (Ajay Naidu) to give him the attention he needs. He’d rather his son entered the business world than something artsy fartsy. As such, she spends an increasingly amount of time with Jimmy, gives him her number so he can call when he has a poem, has Becca removed so she can care for him, taking him to museums, poetry readings and, when the line’s clearly crossed into obsession and inappropriate behaviour, engineering abduction. Posing the ethical dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, the film builds tension while juggling moral ambiguity and slipping in observations on a society that’s become fixated on the instant and ephemeral rather than lasting value. With a lack of clearly explained motivations, the ending and the raises more questions, philosophically, morally and ethically, than provides answers. But in world with increasingly less time for those who “have a poem”, the film has a lingering resonance. (Until Tue: MAC)

Lords Of Chaos (18)

Back in 1984, Mayhem became the controversial pioneers of Norway’s black metal scene, one which, associated with Satanic worship, spawned a string of church burnings and saw one of their singers commit suicide and a former member murder one of the band.  Adapting the biography of the same name, Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has a long history of music videos and founded black metal outfit Bathory, takes a gallows humour black absurdist comedy approach that doesn’t shrink from the dark, nihilistic aspects but which does have considerably more laughs (the bands’ actual answerphone message was “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re too busy sacrificing children”) than you might expect.

It stars and is narrated by Rory Culkin who brilliantly plays Oystein Aarseth, the band’s founder who originally called himself Destructor before settling on Euronymous, recruiting the unhinged Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who called himself Dead, worse corpse makeup and would frequently cut himself during gigs, as their vocalist, only for him to commit suicide by blowing his brains out in 1991, leaving behind a note saying “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” Aarseth immediately took photos of the body, one of which later ended up on the cover of a bootleg album.

Dead was replaced by Hungarian singer Attila Csihar while Aarseth also recruited bassist Varg Vikernes (a mesmerisingly unsettling Emory Cohen) on bass, a troubled neo-Nazi sympathiser who took the band into even more extreme territory than Aarseth who, the son of a middle-class family, was all theatrical front and pose rebellion rather than the real thing (he shut his shop when his parents complained), could handle. An argument between the two at Euronymous’s Oslo apartment in 1993 ended in Vang murdering him, allegedly stabbing him twenty-three times, and being subsequently imprisoned for murder and church arson.

Regardless of your feelings about the music and the death metal scene, this is considerably more fun than any film featuring severed pig heads, hung cats and hate-fuelled church burnings deserves to be. (Odeon Broadway Luxe)

Missing Link (PG)

The latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and Kubo & The Two Strings is a much more lighthearted affair, even it does come with some heavy duty messages.

Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, a self-absorbed English Victorian explorer who’s desperate to become part of an exclusive adventurer’s club of  ‘great men’ which, headed up by pompous braggart Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), treats his wild exploits to prove the existence of mythological creatures with disdain.

However, when, following his latest  failure, he receives a letter offering to lead him to the fabled Sasquatch, he strikes a deal that, if he can provide proof, and as such validate Darwin’s theory of evolution, Piggot-Dunceby will let him join and duly sets of to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest where he does indeed meet up with the titular missing link (Zach Galifianakis). To his surprise, the hairy creature, is a charmingly affable fellow who speaks excellent English, even if he takes things overly literally, who, rather than wanting  Frost to reveal his existence, wants him to help find his Asian cousins, the Yetis, as, one of his kind, he’s rather lonely.

Frost, reckoning he can prove two creatures at one go, agrees and, after some amusing plot padding concerning map to the hidden city of Shangri La in the Himalayas, sets off with Mr. Link (who later decides to name himself Susan) and Adelina Fortlight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his late partner and, apparently, an old flame.

However, Piggot-Dunceby is taking no chances on having to eat humble pie and has despatched moustachioed varmint Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), an infamous hunter of rare animals, to ensure he never returns.

Taking the form of a road movie involving various modes of transport, countries and run-ins with Stenk, it winds up in the Himalayas where the trio finally come face-to-face with the snow white Yetis, led by the long-haired matriachial Elder (Emma Thompson), only to find, in a comment about isolationism, that  not all dreams have happy endings before a literal cliffhanger as their enemies close in.

The backdrops adopt a fairly realistic look while the human characters are all highly stylised with big bellies, long spindly legs, angular features and either pointed or blobby pink glowing noses while Susan is covered in rust-coloured fur that looks like he’s been stitched with rubbery filaments, accentuating the sense of cartoonish fun. Written and directed by Chris Butler, who made ParaNorman, it deals with such familiar concerns as family, belonging, rejecting bigotry,  and doing the right thing as Frost offers up his own instance of evolution into a better person.

With David Walliams and Matt Lucas also adding their voices, the emphasis very much on colourful fun with physical comedy blending with fish out of water gags and jokes about wordplay and language, it wisely downplays the romantic interest angle the younger audience might find too soppy, but unerringly hits all the emotional notes. It ends back in London with  the promise of future adventures from this unlikely duo, a sort of adventurer version of Holmes and Watson. Get Linked in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Sisters Brothers (15)

An art-house Western, the first English language film by French director Jacques Audiard, set in 1850s Oregon it stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the bickering titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of bounty hunters come hitmen for hire who work for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) whose latest assignment is to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has somehow crossed their boss’s path.

They’re not the only ones on Warm’s trail, private investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is after him too, his task being to establish his location and let the brothers know. However, he links up with Warm, who has discovered a chemical formula that will make gold prospecting a lot easier, and is always a few days and at least one town ahead of the pair. On top of which, there’s a bunch of other mercenaries on their tail, unaware that Eli and Charlie despatched their brother-running boss a while back.

Although it climaxes in a brutal dramatic sequence before a low-key coda, getting there is slow-paced journey, punctuated with the more sensitive Eli regularly whingeing about how the louder-mouthed Charlie, who’s forever going on a bender, has been designated the lead killer. Along the way, the film also explains how their family background and abusive father led Charlie to being who and what he is.

There’s some excruciating moments, such as spider crawling up to Eli’s mouth as he sleeps, but also gentle humour such as in Eli, the more aspirational of the two, enthusiastically buying into the new invention of a toothbrush, while Audiard pointedly explores the theme of male loneliness, outsiders, the relationship with the environment and, as in There Will Be Blood, the toxic nature of ambition and obsession. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an over-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 The White Crow (12A)

The third film to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, this meticulous if somewhat dry affair tells of how the legendary and intensely egotistical ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, born on a train in 1938, rose to fame and came to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961. Visiting the West for the first time with the Kirov Ballet, after not being allowed to dance on the opening night as punishment for disobedience, when the company arrived at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, the 23-year-old star refused orders from his Soviet minders to get on the plane home. Former dancer turned first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko wears Nureyev’s skin with ease while Fiennes takes on the role of his mentor, Alexander Pushkin, ballet master of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, and whose wife took an even greater interest in the young prodigy. Framing Nureyev’s childhood in black and white, the film, written by David Hare, is soaked in the paranoia and conspiracy of the Cold War period even if the narrative is often too extended rather than focusing on the core drama.

The title, as he tells sulky socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos) as they frolic around Paris, refers to his childhood nickname, a term for an outsider, prompting several flashbacks to his formative years in Ufa and Moscow and early signs of defiance of authority which tend to hinder rather than enhance the film’s momentum. (MAC)

Wonder Park (PG)

From an early age, June (Brianna Denski) and her mom (Jennifer Garner) made up stories together about Wonderland (it’s  never referred to as Wonder Park), a theme park packed with wild rides and run by talking animals, bear greeter Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), hyper beaver twins Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), Steve (John Oliver), a neurotic but highly educated (parents should be prepared to explain existentialism to the kids)  porcupine who’s lovesick for Greta (Mila Kunis) the warthog who’s de facto in charge  and Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the chimp who magically creates the rides when June whispers into the ear of his cuddly toy counterpart.

From bedtime tales, Wonderland grows into a model made  up of, among other things, cardboard and drinking straws that takes over those house, June even builds a ramshackle thrill ride for real, causing chaos in her neighbourhood.

But then, suddenly, mom gets sick and disappears from the film, leaving an increasingly disconsolate June with her bumbling dad (Matthew Broderick) who, when she packs up her model, puts the toys in a box and burns the lay out plan decides the best thing is to pack her off to a math camp, Camp Awe+Sum (the film’s best gag), for the summer.  She never gets there. Instead, abandoning the bus, she heads into the wood planning to return home but a fragment of the burnt map lures her further on where she discovers the park of her imagination, except it’s fallen into disrepair and the animals are being besieged by toy monkeys that have  turned into Chimpan-Zombies and are tearing the place apart and feeding it into ‘the darkness’, a huge black cloud hovering over the park, Peanut having hidden himself away since he stopped getting those messages.

Suffice to say, June, realising she’s the source of the darkness in her anger and worry over mom’s illness,  decides to fix things and restore Wonderland to its former glory, and, just in case you miss the message, healing herself in the process. But the sentiment is tepid, the laughs few and the emotion never comes near the depth of either A Monster Calls or Inside Out, both of which are obvious touchstones. It’s thrillingly animated and the physical action and animal antics  may engage a younger audience, but, despite the worthy idea about dealing with your feelings when someone you care for is ill, the execution is a confused jumble that never coherently hangs together, likely to leave older children and adults  wondering what it was all about. Despite the title, this is more a case of bemusement park. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; 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

Rosie Tee’s Chambers EP, Track-By-Track

Dan Whiehouse and Rosie Tee at Artrix 20 April 2019Birmingham-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rosie Tee’s latest release is the five-track Chambers EP.

Her second solo collection, following 2017’s Heavy Prayers EP and a live version of Chambers’ title track (recorded at legendary studio facility Abbey Road), the EP was released at the tail end of March, and has already picked up airplay via BBC 6Music, BrumRadio and Switch.

Her forthcoming live appearances include Bromsgrove’s Artrix (20 April 2019), where she’ll be opening for (and also playing with) ‘Black Country soul’ singer-songwriter Dan Whitehouse – who takes a break from recording his forthcoming new album for Reveal Records.

Here, the multi-instrumentalist gives BrumNotes a track-by-track breakdown of Chambers EP

Chambers
“This was the first single we released from the EP with a music video back in December 2018. With the lyrics ‘I’ll be the one to make you slow down’, the track outlines the idea of rest – stopping and taking time for yourself. Chambers began its life whilst I was living in Rotterdam and for me, marks the beginning of a more electronic output for my recorded/ live act.”

All We Are Now
“This track was the first of mine to ever be played BBC 6 Music, which meant a lot to me. Similarly to Chambers, this track also stemmed from initial sketches I created whilst in Rotterdam, but was developed with the band.”

Wax & Wane
“This track was originally written with some special technology called REACH designed by Niccolo Niccolò Granieri. Reach is a system that enables the pianist to interact with sound modulation and effects through hand gestures. Niccoló and I worked closely together to develop a bespoke system that worked for specifically for me as a songwriter with a focus on how my hand gestures could affect the output of my vocal.”

Watersong
“This song was originally composed for a premiere performance I did with the amplified Decibel Ensemble back in March 2018. For me, it suggests a blend of all of my influences, incorporating bass/ drum grooves with coloristic motifs on instruments such as clarinet, trombone, saxophone and violin. For Chambers EP, Watersong has been reinvented with a synth-led focus, but still contains samples from the original performance. I enjoy that my music can exist in many different forms and carnations.”

Siren
“A very exciting feature of this track is the samples from traditional Javanese Gamelan. I endeavoured to make the most of such a unique sound, which is scarcely found in western song. From this point onwards, I collaborated with Dan Cippico in the compilation of these samples creating an electronic interpretation inspired by the works of Björk and Submotion Orchestra. To maintain an organic sound and as respect to the sacred history of the gamelan, I decided to keep the samples at pitch. This meant Dan and I finely re-tuning the midi sounds to match the Gamelan’s pelog tuning system. We also recorded my voice in this tuning.”

Stream EP in full here: Chambers EP to stream

Dan Whitehouse and Rosie Tee appear at Artrix, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, on Saturday 20 April 2019. For more information/ tickets, see: www.artrix.co.uk

Rosie also appears at Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival on Saturday 13 July 2019, with Brand New Heavies, Brian Jackson, Smoove and Turrell, Sam Redmore, and more. Other artists appearing at the 10th anniversary Mostly Jazz Festival include Burt Bacharah, The Jacksons, Ibibio Sound Machine and Khruangbin. For full line-up and tickets, see: mostlyjazz.co.uk

Rosie Tee with band

MOVIE ROUND-UP-This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Apr 5-Thu Apr 11

NEW RELEASES

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother  Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lightning flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

At Eternity’s Gate (12A)

First portrayed on screen in 1948 in an Oscar-winning French short by Alain Resnais, followed in 1956 by Vincent Minelli’s Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas, there’s since been a further five films about the life of Vincent Van Gogh (as well as an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams with Martin Scorsese), the most recent being 2017’s painted animated biography Loving Vincent.

Now Willem Dafoe gets to take on the mantle, earning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination, for Julian Schnabel’s latest foray into the world of tormented, troubled artists, an inevitably often impressionistic and experimental affair in which he explores Van Gogh’s fascination with and attempt to capture the nature of light and its ecstatic holiness effect on the things it touches.

Although opening in Paris, where, after a failed one-man exhibition in a local café, Vincent meets Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), it’s mostly set in the small Provençal town of Arles where, in his final days, he produced some 75 paintings, before dying in Auvers-sur-Oise of a gunshot wounded, inflicted, as also claimed in Loving Vincent, by a local boy, though Van Gogh refused to identify him. There’s also a couple of scenes in the local asylum to which he was committed for his madness, not least cutting off his ear and having it sent to Gaugin (he’s questioned by a doctor with Dafoe made up with the bandage exactly as in the famous self-portrait), where, in an inspired sequence he’s questioned about his art, beliefs and motivations by a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who, Pilate to Vincent’s Christ, dismisses his paintings as ugly and worthless while Vincent suggests he was made by God to paint for people who have not yet been born.

The visual style can be irksome, several scenes involving the camera pointed at Vincent’s feet as he scurries through fields, but it also seeks to capture the essence of his paintings and the way in which he saw the world, the most striking moment being as he wanders through a field of dead sunflowers, calling to mind the vibrancy with which he captured them in his famous painting.

The vision of Van Gogh as some sort of proto-flower child hippy, suffused with happiness, high on painting while also a depressive estranged from and trying to make sense of the world around him (as Dafoe puts it, “When facing a landscape I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one to see it?”), captures the agony and the ecstasy of his life, even if it is a tad romanticised, but there’s no denying the impact of the final scenes of his body laid out in an open coffin surrounded by his paintings, still unenthusiastically dismissed by the few mourners. Not one for those who prefer more traditional biopics, but the textures here still have a mesmerising impact. (Electric)

Benjamin (15)

Written and directed by Simon Amstell, this is a bittersweet Woody Allen-tinged personal comedy that embraces both a hesitant romance and a satire on the self-absorbed, often pretentious world of the media and indie filmmaking. Colin Morgan is Benjamin, a gay fledgling auteur plagued by self-doubt who’s putting the finishing touches to his long overdue second film, No Self, exploring his own inability to love and deliberating with acerbic mother-figure producer Tessa (Anna Chancellor) whether to include scenes of a Buddhist monk imparting life wisdom. En route to the film’s showing at the LFF, Benjamin meets and gets involved with Noah (Phénix Brossard), a visiting French music student and aspiring singer. The problem the relationship has is in Benjamin being able to look beyond himself.

Adding to the merrygoround of crises is Joel Fry as Benjamin’s writing partner and would be stand-up who develops a puppy-dog romantic obsession with publicist Billie (a magnificently scenery-chewing Jessica Raine) after a one-night stand she’d rather forget and certainly doesn’t want to mention in front of her boyfriend, Harry (Jack Rowan), who stars in Benjamin’s film but is already earmarked for better things. There’s also two stand-out cameo turns from Ellie Kendrick as a pretentious performance artist and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Benjamin’s acidic bitter ex who puts in an inopportune appearance just as he’s having lunch with Noah’s parents. It doesn’t offer any surprises and comes with the inevitable anticipated epiphany, but, witty and at times touching, it’s an engaging diversion. And the monk? Well, let’s just say Mark Kermode has the last word on that. (Electric)

 

 

Missing Link (PG)

The latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and Kubo & The Two Strings, is a much more lighthearted affair, even it does come with some heavy duty messages.

Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, a self-absorbed English Victorian explorer who’s desperate to become part of an exclusive adventurers’ club of  ‘great men’ which, headed up by pompous braggart Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), treats his wild exploits to prove the existence of mythological creatures with disdain.

However, when, following his latest failure, he receives a letter offering to lead him to the fabled Sasquatch, he strikes a deal that, if he can provide proof, and as such validate Darwin’s theory of evolution, Piggot-Dunceby will let him join and duly sets of to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest where he does indeed meet up with the titular missing link (Zach Galifianakis). To his surprise, the hairy creature, is a charmingly affable fellow who speaks excellent English, even if he takes things overly literally, who, rather than wanting Frost to reveal his existence, wants him to help find his Asian cousins, the Yetis, as, one of his kind, he’s rather lonely.

Frost, reckoning he can prove two creatures at one go, agrees and, after some amusing plot padding concerning a map to the hidden city of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, sets off with Mr. Link (who later decides to name himself Susan) and Adelina Fortlight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his late partner and, apparently, an old flame.

However, Piggot-Dunceby is taking no chances on having to eat humble pie and has despatched moustachioed varmint Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), an infamous hunter of rare animals, to ensure he never returns.

Taking the form of a road movie involving various modes of transport, countries and run-ins with Stenk, it winds up in the Himalayas where the trio finally come face-to-face with the snow white Yetis, led by the long-haired matriachial Elder (Emma Thompson), only to find, in a comment about isolationism, that  not all dreams have happy endings before a literal cliffhanger as their enemies close in.

The backdrops adopt a fairly realistic look while the human characters are all highly stylised with big bellies, long spindly legs, angular features and either pointed or blobby pink glowing noses while Susan is covered in rust-coloured fur that looks like he’s been stitched with rubbery filaments, accentuating the sense of cartoonish fun. Written and directed by Chris Butler, who made ParaNorman, it deals with such familiar concerns as family, belonging, rejecting bigotry,  and doing the right thing as Frost offers up his own instance of evolution into a better person.

With David Walliams and Matt Lucas also adding their voices, the emphasis very much on colourful fun with physical comedy blending with fish out of water gags and jokes about wordplay and language, it wisely downplays the romantic interest angle the younger audience might find too soppy, but unerringly hits all the emotional notes. It ends back in London with  the promise of future adventures from this unlikely duo, a sort of adventurer version of Holmes and Watson. Get Linked in.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pet Sematary (15)

Given the success of It, it was inevitable that there would follow further big screen resurrections of Stephen King stories; however, as John Lithgow remarks here, “sometimes they don’t come back the same.” Published in 1983 and first adapted for the screen by King himself in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert, the book is generally regarded as one of King’s scariest, though the same can’t be said for the film. Co-directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch and paring the book to the bare bones, this is an improvement, but not a whole lot.

Arriving at their new country home in rural Maine (where a doctor’s salary apparently also buys you a sprawling forest backlot), Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) are looking for a less stressful life with more family time. Even if that does entail daddy discussing death and its finality with Ellie over bedtime.

Such hopes are soon dispelled.  First Ellie and Rachel stumble upon an animal graveyard in the woods where kids in scary masks go to bury their furry friends, Rachel starts again having visions of her dead sister Zelda who suffered from a severe spinal deformity, and, having failed to save a black student from a traffic accident is shocked when the kid apparently comes back to life on the gurney and delivers him a warning that “the ground is sour”. And reappears on several other occasions.

The horror firmly sets in when, after being killed by one of the speeding trucks that regularly flash by the house, kindly widowed neighbour Jud (Lithgow) takes Louis to bury Church, the family cat, in land beyond the pet semetary, giving him one of those wait and see explanations, And sure enough, the next day Church’s back as large as life, just not as friendly (cue some guff about the wendigo and cursed land). Louis resolves to dump the malicious moggy. But again it finds its way back, turning up on Ellie’s birthday and prompting her to rush out into the path of an articulated tanker. Needless to say, while Rachel takes Gage to her mother’s, drugging Jud, the hitherto rational Louis digs up Ellie’s body and takes it to the ancient tribal ground from where she too returns. And, like the cat, has developed a decidedly darker side, as Jud and mom soon discover to their cost. As Jud belatedly offers, “sometimes dead is better.”

While trading on well-worn boo moments not to mention a blood oozing nod to The Shining, the film does inject a novel twist in an ending that’s radical departure from the book, although, unfortunately, it comes across as more silly than scary, a sort of Walking Dead joke in which the family that dies together stays together. It’s atmospheric and it’s often very bloody, it’s just that it’s also a touch dull with an ending that feels indecently rushed, capped off by a terrible cover of the Ramones original title song. Impressive cat though. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rosie (15)

Working from a script by Roddy Doyle, Irish director Paddy Breathnach channels Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers with this grim social realist story of a family struggling to stay afloat in contemporary Dublin where demand has outstripped supply in the housing market, leaving those of limited means, the so-called working poor, with very few life choices.

Effectively rendered homeless, though she refuses to countenance the word (she prefers ‘lost’), when the landlord decides to sell the property, Rosie (Sarah Greene) and her four kids wind up living in the car while her husband (Moe Dunford) works in a local restaurant kitchen, working her way through a council list of possible temporary accommodation only to get the same reply.

They get to spend one night in a hotel before bundling their belongs into plastic bags and back into the car, she refuses to accept an offer to stay at her mother’s because of past bad blood with her dad, and at one point they end up getting the kids ready for bed at a takeaway.

Set over 36 hours, it adopts a low-key approach that matches the sense of resignation that Rosie’s situation evokes while always clinging to sparks of weary hope and trying to put on a brave face for the kids (who she insists still go to school and scrub up properly), the eldest of whom takes off at one point to move in with a friend without telling anyone, sparking a moment of real panic.

Driven by naturalistic performances and resisting any sentimentality, it laces the sombre mood with moments of disarming, unforced humour (such as a chip-spitting scene in the car) but refuses to leave on a false uplifting note. Powerful stuff. (Until Wed: MAC)

The Sisters Brothers (15)

An art-house Western, the first English language film by French director Jacques Audiard, set in 1850s Oregon it stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the bickering titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of bounty hunters come hitmen for hire who work for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) whose latest assignment is to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has somehow crossed their boss’s path.

They’re not the only ones on Warm’s trail, private investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is after him too, his task being to establish his location and let the brothers know. However, he links up with Warm, who has discovered a chemical formula that will make gold prospecting a lot easier, and is always a few days and at least one town ahead of the pair. On top of which, there’s a bunch of other mercenaries on their tail, unaware that Eli and Charlie despatched their brother-running boss a while back.

Although it climaxes in a brutal dramatic sequence before a low-key coda, getting there is slow-paced journey, punctuated with the more sensitive Eli regularly whingeing about how the louder-mouthed Charlie, who’s forever going on a bender, has been designated the lead killer. Along the way, the film also explains how their family background and abusive father led Charlie to being who and what he is.

There’s some excruciating moments, such as spider crawling up to Eli’s mouth as he sleeps, but also gentle humour such as in Eli, the more aspirational of the two, enthusiastically buying into the new invention of a toothbrush, while Audiard pointedly explores the theme of male loneliness, outsiders, the relationship with the environment and, as in There Will Be Blood, the toxic nature of ambition and obsession. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Wonder Park (PG)

From an early age, June (Brianna Denski) and her mom (Jennifer Garner) made up stories together about Wonderland (it’s never referred to as Wonder Park), a theme park packed with wild rides and run by talking animals, bear greeter Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), hyper beaver twins Gus (Joe Sugg) and Cooper (Caspar Lee), Steve (John Oliver), a neurotic but highly educated (parents should be prepared to explain existentialism to the kids)  porcupine who’s lovesick for Greta (Mila Kunis) the warthog who’s de facto in charge  and Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the chimp who magically creates the rides when June whispers into the ear of his cuddly toy counterpart.

From bedtime tales, Wonderland grows into a model made  up of, among other things, cardboard and drinking straws that takes over those house, June even builds a ramshackle thrill ride for real, causing chaos in her neighbourhood.

But then, suddenly, mom gets sick and disappears from the film, leaving an increasingly disconsolate June with her bumbling dad (Matthew Broderick) who, when she packs up her model, puts the toys in a box and burns the lay out plan decides the best thing is to pack her off to a math camp, Camp Awe+Sum (the film’s best gag), for the summer.  She never gets there. Instead, abandoning the bus, she heads into the wood planning to return home but a fragment of the burnt map lures her further on where she discovers the park of her imagination, except it’s fallen into disrepair and the animals are being besieged by toy monkeys that have  turned into Chimpan-Zombies and are tearing the place apart and feeding it into ‘the darkness’, a huge black cloud hovering over the park, Peanut having hidden himself away since he stopped getting those messages.

Suffice to say, June, realising she’s the source of the darkness in her anger and worry over mom’s illness, decides to fix things and restore Wonderland to its former glory, and, just in case you miss the message, healing herself in the process. But the sentiment is tepid, the laughs few and the emotion never comes near the depth of either A Monster Calls or Inside Out, both of which are obvious touchstones. It’s thrillingly animated and the physical action and animal antics  may engage a younger audience, but, despite the worthy idea about dealing with your feelings when someone you care for is ill, the execution is a confused jumble that never coherently hangs together, likely to leave older children and adults  wondering what it was all about. Despite the title, this is more a case of bemusement park. (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

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (15)

Hailing from Sale in Chesire, not far from Timperley, as frontman with late 70s pop outfit The Freshies, Chris Sievey had a minor hit with I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk (it would have been bigger had BBC crews not gone on strike the week it was due on Top of the Pops) and cult success with I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies by the Teardrop Explodes, but by far his biggest success came when he donned a papier mache head and created the character of Frank Sidebottom, becoming Manchester’s court jester for over 25 years until his death in 2010. The character even inspired Frank, a film starring Michael Fassbender inspired by his alter ego.

He’s also now the subject of this affectionate and illuminating bittersweet documentary by Steve Sullivan that documents his life from childhood, where even at an early age he clearly sought both the limelight and complete control, through his teenage years and Beatles obsession (he and his brother went to Apple looking for a record deal and  briefly met Ringo) and his formative bands, such as the deliberately bad but compelling Oh Blimey Big Band, before hitting on the concept of the Frank Sidebottom (originally called John Smith and created for a fancy dress party), a stalker-like Freshies fan,  who, despite his odd and frankly somewhat creepy nature (he had his own cardboard puppet, Little Frank), became a hit on children’s TV shows, improvising as he went,  and secured his own Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.

With a  day job working as an animator on the likes of Bob The Builder, the success of his character overwhelmed the man behind the mask who became lost, turning to drink and cocaine to numb the alienation he felt from himself.  Decline was inevitable,  Frank ending up playing Manchester clubs leading  karaoke version of Love Will Tear Us Apart and, when he dies, he would have had a pauper’s funeral had not his manager raised £21,000 from fans.

Clearly an eccentric on uncertain mental stability, Sievey was also an innovator, at one point devising a vinyl single that, on the B-side, had digital code to enable you to play a video game on a computer, while, ex-wife Paula reveals that his chat up approach was to push her into the canal.

As well as access to Sievey’s nitebooks, videos and recordings, the documentary also features interviews with friends and family, such as his former keyboard player Jon Ronson (who scripted Frank), comedians Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas, his three children (tragically the youngest, Harry, was killed in a motorbike accident not long after filming his contributions), revealing a brilliant but tormented creative genius who could have built himself a career as a visual artist had he not been so obsessed with finding music business success.  In many ways a parallel story to John Otway, who made a success out of being a failure, this doesn’t always dig as deeply as it might, but, for those who never knew about the band inside the head (and Sievey was fanatical about not being photographed without it), it’s a welcome insight into one of the great British eccentrics of our time who, may not have become a pop star but does have a bronze statue of  Frank erected in Timperely in tribute. (Mockingbird)

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls  and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thadie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand cause Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eaten By Lions (12A)

 Half-brothers, when their parents were eaten by lions on a safari holiday, shy charmer Omar (Antonio Askeel) and sly humoured cerebral palsy sufferer Pete (Jack Carroll) were taken in by their gran. However, now that she too has passed, they’re faced with having to live with their racist domineering aunt and submissive uncle (Vicki Pepperdine, Kevin Eldon), Omar being forced to sleep in the closet under the stairs. So, when the couple declare they intend to adopt Pete, but not Omar, because he’s not really proper family, the latter decides to leave Bradford and go in search of his biological father, one Malik Chaudhry (Nitin Ganatra). Not, as Pete hopes, in India, but rather Blackpool.

Arriving at the seaside resort, presumably off-season given how empty it is, losing all their belongings when the tide comes in, they get to stay in a dodgy B&B (with no door to their room) run by the no less dodgy Ray (Johnny Vegas, less annoying than usual), who also kits them out with some naff clothing left behind my previous guests, the cross-dressing gay uncle of Amy (Sarah Hoare), the mouthy pink-haired teen who works at Sea Planet and takes a shine to Omar. Given Malik’s address by a tacky camp fortune teller (a funny Tom Binns), they set off to confront Omar’s dad, one of a wealthy local Pakistani clan who, along with other guests, have all assembled for his eldest daughter’s wedding (“it’s a bit like Gremlins isn’t it, Ramadan, similar rules”, remarks Pete), and who, rather inevitably denies parentage.

Suffice to say, there’s an amusing – and ultimately touching – twist involving his jack-the-lad brother Irfan (Asim Chaudhry), who runs a seedy seafront gift shop (providing a great gag with a pen with a picture of a scantily clad woman which, when turned upside down, reveals her clad in a burka) and gifts the brothers with fake Rolexes.

Written and directed by Jason Wingard, the comedy of misadventures unfolds on a raft of one-liners and emotional swings along with Britcom moments involving a yellow Rolls Royce, the pride and joy of the family patriarch (Darshan Jariwala), that sits languishing in the garage and Malik’s younger daughter Parveen (Natalie Davies), who pretends to be mute and take a sexually predatory interest in Pete.

Never attaining the heights of East is East, the template for such multi-cultural comedies, there’s no riotously funny moments and it’s all a bit predictable, but it rolls along with an undeniable charm and there’s a warm heart to the bond between the brothers, Askeel an affable low-key presence while Carroll gets the bulk of the best lines as the cynical, quizzical and sarcastic Pete who unexpectedly finds himself out of his league when he meets Parveen. A minor treat, but a treat nonetheless. (Vue Star City)

 

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed, the goth-like Saraya stands out like sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; until Tue: MAC)

 

Five Feet Apart (12A) 

The latest addition to the fatally ill star-crossed lovers teenage romance subgenre, this stars  Haley Lu Richardson from the little seen Columbus and Cole Sprouse as two hospital patients with cystic fibrosis, which, as per the title  means they cannot come into close contact lest the one exacerbate the other’s illness. Stella (Richardson) is in hospital awaiting a lung transplant when. She meets the irreverent, cavalier cartoonist new arrival Will (Sprouse), who, enrolled in a clinical trial, carries a bacteria that would be dangerous to her and they’re told by the maternal head nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to stay six feet apart, the distance a germ can travel through the air. She suggests they make it five.

Initially mismatched, naturally love blooms and along with it all the inevitable obstacles, not to mention an obligatory fellow longtime patient gay best friend (Moises Arias) and survivor guilt about a dead sibling. But, naturally, very little by way of parental presence. Initially promising to offer insights into living with CF, it soon hurtles headlong into romantic melodrama clichés as we wait to see if they will risk death for a moment of life. Richardson reinforces the promise shown in previous films, but, paired with an actor of limited range and a script creaking under the weight of hackneyed dialogue. The Fault In Our Stars and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl showed just how high this sort of material can be elevated. This simply shows how far it can sink. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Lords Of Chaos (18)

Back in 1984, Mayhem became the controversial pioneers of Norway’s black metal scene, one which, associated with Satanic worship, spawned a string of church burnings and saw one of their singers commit suicide and a former member murder one of the band.  Adapting the biography of the same name, Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has a long history of music videos and founded black metal outfit Bathory, takes a gallows humour black absurdist comedy approach that doesn’t shrink from the dark, nihilistic aspects but which does have considerably more laughs (the bands’ actual answerphone message was “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re too busy sacrificing children”) than you might expect.

It stars and is narrated by Rory Culkin who brilliantly plays Oystein Aarseth, the band’s founder who originally called himself Destructor before settling on Euronymous, recruiting the unhinged Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who called himself Dead, worse corpse makeup and would frequently cut himself during gigs, as their vocalist, only for him to commit suicide by blowing his brains out in 1991, leaving behind a note saying “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” Aarseth immediately took photos of the body, one of which later ended up on the cover of a bootleg album.

Dead was replaced by Hungarian singer Attila Csihar while Aarseth also recruited bassist Varg Vikernes (a mesmerisingly unsettling Emory Cohen) on bass, a troubled neo-Nazi sympathiser who took the band into even more extreme territory than Aarseth who, the son of a middle-class family, was all theatrical front and pose rebellion rather than the real thing (he shut his shop when his parents complained), could handle. An argument between the two at Euronymous’s Oslo apartment in 1993 ended in Vang murdering him, allegedly stabbing him twenty-three times, and being subsequently imprisoned for murder and church arson.

Regardless of your feelings about the music and the death metal scene, this is considerably more fun than any film featuring severed pig heads, hung cats and hate-fuelled church burnings deserves to be. (Electric; Vue Star City)

Ray & Liz (15)

Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham makes his directorial debut with this grim and relentlessly depressing 16mm portrait of dysfunctional family life inspired by his own parents and upbringing, something he’d previously documented in his mid-1990s photos of his shiftless, spineless, alcoholic dad, Ray, obese, heavily tattooed chain-smoking, jigsaw puzzle obsessive mom, Liz, and younger brother, Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11, collected together for the book Ray’s a Laugh and featured in the same Sensation exhibition that included Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.

As you might imagine, there’s not a particularly upbeat vibe to the film, although there is rather more dark humour than you might expect, not least in how, left alone to care for  two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) while Ray (Justin Salinger), Liz (Ella Smith) and Richard (Jacob Tuton) go shoe-shopping, feeble- minded  Uncle Lol (Tony Way) is persuaded by Will (Sam Gittins), the family’s psychopathic tenant, to drink the hidden stash of booze, Ray and Liz returning home to find him senseless, drooling vomit and Jason playing with a kitchen knife.

Mostly though this is an unrelentingly grim working class portrait of appalling alcoholism, child neglect and poor hygiene, but one that observes rather than seeks to apportion blame and which often betrays a sneaky bittersweet affection for its horrendous subjects, even at their most grotesque.

Structurally it’s comprised of three shorts, one of which was released to attract crowdfunding, and with intense close-ups and sustained shots, the third section showing the now nine-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) and teenage Richard (Sam Plant) fending for themselves on bread and pickled cabbage in their cramped tower-block with their parents comatose in bed before social services finally intervene.

It also interlaces scenes of the now much older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose daily routine consists of waking up, staring out the window and drinking the homemade beer supplied by neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton), at one point visited by his now estranged wife (here played by Deirdre ‘White Dee’ Kelly). Strikingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Ladin with minute detail provided by production designer Beck Rainford, you’re given the feeling of watching the animal in the cages of a human zoo, horrified but transfixed. (MAC)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an oiver-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The White Crow (12A)

The third film to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, this meticulous if somewhat dry affair tells of how the legendary and intensely egotistical ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, born on a train in 1938, rose to fame and came to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961. Visiting the West for the first time with the Kirov Ballet, after not being allowed to dance on the opening night as punishment for disobedience, when the company arrived at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, the 23-year-old star refused orders from his Soviet minders to get on the plane home. Former dancer turned first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko wears Nureyev’s skin with ease while Fiennes takes on the role of his mentor, Alexander Pushkin, ballet master of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, and whose wife took an even greater interest in the young prodigy. Framing Nureyev’s childhood in black and white, the film, written by David Hare, is soaked in the paranoia and conspiracy of the Cold War period even if the narrative is often too extended rather than focusing on the core drama.

The title, as he tells sulky socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos) as they frolic around Paris, refers to his childhood nickname, a term for an outsider, prompting several flashbacks to his formative years in Ufa and Moscow and early signs of defiance of authority which tend to hinder rather than enhance the film’s momentum. (Electric)

 

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 Mar 29-Thu Apr 4

NEW RELEASES

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of  mother Thadie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires,  the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eaten By Lions (12A)

 

Half-brothers, when their parents were eaten by lions on a safari holiday, shy charmer Omar (Antonio Askeel) and sly humoured cerebral palsy sufferer Pete (Jack Carroll) were taken in by their gran. However, now that she too has passed, they’re faced with having to live with their racist domineering aunt and submissive uncle (Vicki Pepperdine, Kevin Eldon), Omar being forced to sleep in the closet under the stairs. So, when the couple declare they intend to adopt Pete, but not Omar, because he’s not really proper family, the latter decides to leave Bradford and go in search of his biological father, one Malik Chaudhry (Nitin Ganatra). Not, as Pete hopes, in India, but rather Blackpool.

Arriving at the seaside resort, presumably off-season given how empty it is, losing all their belongings when the tide comes in, they get to stay in a dodgy B&B (with no door to their room) run by the no less dodgy Ray (Johnny Vegas, less annoying than usual), who also kits them out with some naff clothing left behind my previous guests, the cross-dressing gay uncle of Amy (Sarah Hoare), the mouthy pink-haired teen who works at Sea Planet and takes a shine to Omar. Given Malik’s address by a tacky camp fortune teller (a funny Tom Binns), they set off to confront Omar’s dad, one of a wealthy local Pakistani clan who, along with other guests, have all assembled for his eldest daughter’s wedding (“it’s a bit like Gremlins isn’t it, Ramadan, similar rules”, remarks Pete), and who, rather inevitably denies parentage.

Suffice to say, there’s an amusing – and ultimately touching – twist involving his jack-the-lad brother Irfan (Asim Chaudhry), who runs a seedy seafront gift shop (providing a great gag with a pen with a picture of a scantily clad woman which, when turned upside down, reveals her clad in a burka) and gifts the brothers with fake Rolexes.

Written and directed by Jason Wingard, the comedy of misadventures unfolds on a raft of one-liners and emotional swings along with Britcom moments involving a yellow Rolls Royce, the pride and joy of the family patriarch (Darshan Jariwala), that sits languishing in the garage and Malik’s younger daughter Parveen (Natalie Davies), who pretends to be mute and take a sexually predatory interest in Pete.

Never attaining the heights of East is East, the template for such multi-cultural comedies, there’s no riotously funny moments and it’s all a bit predictable, but it rolls along with an undeniable charm and there’s a warm heart to the bond between the brothers, Askeel an affable low-key presence while Carroll gets the bulk of the best lines as the cynical, quizzical and sarcastic Pete who unexpectedly finds himself out of his league when he meets Parveen. A minor treat, but a treat nonetheless. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Everybody Knows (15)

A Spanish-language thriller by Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, this stars Penelope Cruz as Laura who arrives with her two kids, rebellious teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Iván Chavero), from Argentina for a family wedding, her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) reportedly staying at home for business reasons. Her return also brings her back in touch with Paco (Javier Bardem), a local wine grower who, as local admirer Felipe tells Irene during a tryst, that it’s an open secret that he was once her sweetheart and, as we later learn, bought the vineyard off her to help out with some financial issues, although the family, and especially her coarse, aged father (Ramón Barea), still harbour resentment over the price he paid.

It’s an issue that bubbles to the surface when, the night of the wedding celebrations, Irene disappears from her bedroom and Laura receives a text saying she’s been kidnapped, and not to tell the police or she’ll be killed, her bed strewn with newspaper clippings about a past incident in the area that ended badly. Intriguingly, Paco’s wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) gets the same texts as Laura. With no access to funds to pay the ransom demand, the only person who could possibly help is Paco who first suggests he spread the word that he’s willing to sell his share in the vineyard to stall for time, and then does exactly that, even though it will likely destroy him and his marriage.

In Christie and Hitchcock fashion, Farhadi’s screenplay hints at any number of possible suspects, the vineyard workers fearing for their jobs, Paco out of revenge for being jilted (a dramatic, though not surprising, revelation surfacing in the second act), Irene as a prank, or even Laura herself given that, we subsequently discover, Alejandro, who eventually turns up declaring he’ll put his trust in God, is a bankrupt, unemployed former alcoholic. Of course, veterans of the genre will know that narrative misdirection inevitably plays a key part in the real culprits.

Exploring the ramification of past events on present circumstances (cue a cracked clock face in the village church tower), although but the script keeps the tension taut up to the almost throwaway reveal, the film’s less concerned with the kidnapping, essentially a plot McGuffin, and more about festering family secrets with their simmering conflicts and resentments. The chemistry between them crackling, the performances may be sometimes a little showy, but, although Darín too has a compelling confessional moment, Cruz and Barden dominate the screen, keeping you absorbed in their entangled fates even as the kidnapping drama itself ends on a limp note. (MAC)

Lords Of Chaos (18)

Back in 1984, Mayhem became the controversial pioneers of Norway’s black metal scene, one which, associated with Satanic worship, spawned a string of church burnings and saw one of their singers commit suicide and a former member murder one of the band.  Adapting the biography of the same name, Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has a long history of music videos and founded black metal outfit Bathory, takes a gallows humour black absurdist comedy approach that doesn’t shrink from the dark, nihilistic aspects but which does have considerably more laughs (the bands’ actual answerphone message was “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re too busy sacrificing children”) than you might expect.

It stars and is narrated by Rory Culkin who brilliantly plays Oystein Aarseth, the band’s founder who originally called himself Destructor before settling on Euronymous, recruiting the unhinged Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who called himself Dead, worse corpse makeup and would frequently cut himself during gigs, as their vocalist, only for him to commit suicide by blowing his brains out in 1991, leaving behind a note saying “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” Aarseth immediately took photos of the body, one of which later ended up on the cover of a bootleg album.

Dead was replaced by Hungarian singer Attila Csihar while Aarseth also recruited bassist Varg Vikernes (a mesmerisingly unsettling Emory Cohen) on bass, a troubled neo-Nazi sympathiser who took the band into even more extreme territory than Aarseth who, the son of a middle-class family, was all theatrical front and pose rebellion rather than the real thing (he shut his shop when his parents complained), could handle. An argument between the two at Euronymous’s Oslo apartment in 1993 ended in Vang murdering him, allegedly stabbing him twenty-three times, and being subsequently imprisoned for murder and church arson.

Regardless of your feelings about the music and the death metal scene, this is considerably more fun than any film featuring severed pig heads, hung cats and hate-fuelled church burnings deserves to be. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Out of Blue (15)

Subject to some incredibly scathing reviews, British director Carol Morley’s police procedural follow up to the no less enigmatic The Falling may be overambitious not to say often baffling in its pursuit of existentialism and cosmic significance (references to quantum physics thought experiment Schrodinger’s Cat abound) and flirting with magic realism but it’s never boring.

Adapted from Martin Amis novel Night Train and influenced by Nic Roeg (whose son produces), set in New Orleans it stars Patricia Clarkson as Mike Hoolihan, an on the wagon alcoholic looking to solve the death of retro-obsessive Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), an astronomy professor and black holes expert at the local observatory who’s been found dead beside the telescope, the front of her face blown off.  Suspects involve her science lecturer boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), whose sock is found at the scene, and fellow astrophysicist and observer manager Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) who has a swollen jaw.

However, when Hoolihan realises this was suicide not murder, it switches from whodunit to whydunit, a mystery that pokes around dark family secrets involving her sinister Vietnam war hero father (James Caan) who walks with a cane, her oddball mother (Jackie Weaver) and obstructive brothers Walt and Bray, who run the family electronics company, neither of whom seem especially torn up about her death. Has this all got something to with the unsolved case of the .38 calibre killer to which it has many similarities, not least the appearance of the victim?

With Gummer spouting lines like “We are all stardust” to her students on the eve of her death, constant verbal and visual references to masks, Devyn A. Tyler as a fellow alcoholic TV reporter, Stella Honey, who seems to be constantly popping up and is responsible for  giving Mike a crucial file and Hoolihan’s assorted visions/hallucinations, it essentially deals with repressed memory all of which falls into place in the final moments as the clues dotted around the flashbacks and flashforwards finally cohere, albeit in a melodramatic collision. At the end of the day, it’s somewhat messy and abstract, but, atmospheric to a fault, it holds your attention and interest and Clarkson, who at one point drunkenly joins the dancers onstage at a strip club, is mesmerising. It may test your patience, but it also rewards it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Piercing (18)

Any film based on a novel byRyû Murakami, the author of Audition, is going to be challenging viewing with its S&M and extreme psychosexual themes. And, directed by Nicolas Pesce, this two-handed chamber drama certainly lives up to anticipations. Resisting the urge to stab his new baby with an ice pick, instead (imaging the kid is giving him instructions) closet psychopath Reed (Christopher Abbott) decides to satisfy his urges by killing a prostitute. Making meticulous notes in his diary, telling his wife (Laia Costa) that he’s going on a business trip, he rents a hotel room and orders up a call girl. While waiting for her, he wipes away his fingerprints and rehearses his moves, from greeting her, making small talk, pouncing and chloroforming her to dragging her imaginary body into the bathroom and dismembering her, all mimed with grisly sound effects.

However, things don’t go according to plan, the original girl being unavailable and Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) turning up in her place, a bob-cut blonde with her own kinky abuse predilections who, before he can do anything, takes herself off into the bathroom and starts stabbing her leg. Staunching the wound, he takes her to hospital and the film proceeds to play out a back and forth power game as each in turn takes the upper hand in this twisted traumas relationship while a sleazy sax wails in the background. Does Jackie want to die or is she playing a game of her own? Is Reed’s wife in on the plan, as is suggested by a phone call he makes to ask for advice, or is that just in his head?

Clearly sporting the influence of Italian horror in general and Dario Argento in particular, largely set in the confines of either his room or her apartment, it’s all extremely stylised, from the visual aesthetic to the performances, playing out a black comedy of psychosexual perversion that makes 50 Shades of Grey look like a missionary position handbook. It doesn’t fully work, a third act flashback to Reed’s violent past too cursory and Jackie’s backstory left unexplored, but, Wasikowska an enigmatic, unsettling blank who may or may not be psychopathically needy and whose mental processes remain unfathomable, and Reed a weak neurotic man increasingly confused about what’s going on as his attempts to exercise power over the helpless are upended and he gets a taste for being dominated, the meticulously choreographed performances keep you transfixed as it builds to its final punchline. (Sat-Thu:MAC)

 

 

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The White Crow (12A)

The third film to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, this meticulous if somewhat dry affair tells of how the legendary and intensely egotistical ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, born on a train in 1938, rose to fame and came to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961. Visiting the West for the first time with the Kirov Ballet, after not being allowed to dance on the opening night as punishment for disobedience, when the company arrived at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, the 23-year-old star refused orders from his Soviet minders to get on the plane home. Former dancer turned first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko wears Nureyev’s skin with ease while Fiennes takes on the role of his mentor, Alexander Pushkin, ballet master of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, and whose wife took an even greater interest in the young prodigy. Framing Nureyev’s childhood in black and white, the film, written by David Hare, is soaked in the paranoia and conspiracy of the Cold War period even if the narrative is often too extended rather than focusing on the core drama.

The title, as he tells sulky socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos) as they frolic around Paris, refers to his childhood nickname, a term for an outsider, prompting several flashbacks to his formative years in Ufa and Moscow and early signs of defiance of authority which tend to hinder rather than enhance the film’s momentum. (Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

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The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (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)

 

Cold Pursuit (15)

A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and  (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose.  Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when  a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss  with a  Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.

In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal  and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the  young boy with whom Viking shares custody  with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a  neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.

As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a  snowball fight before  the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.

There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde, mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring  Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Vue Star City)

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed, the goth-like Saraya stands out like sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Five Feet Apart (12A) 

The latest addition to the fatally ill star-crossed lovers teenage romance subgenre, this stars  Haley Lu Richardson from the little seen Columbus and Cole Sprouse as two hospital patients with cystic fibrosis, which, as per the title  means they cannot come into close contact lest the one exacerbate the other’s illness. Stella (Richardson) is in hospital awaiting a lung transplant when. She meets the irreverent, cavalier cartoonist new arrival Will (Sprouse), who, enrolled in a clinical trial, carries a bacteria that would be dangerous to her and they’re told by the maternal head nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to stay six feet apart, the distance a germ can travel through the air. She suggests they make it five.

Initially mismatched, naturally love blooms and along with it all the inevitable obstacles, not to mention an obligatory fellow longtime patient gay best friend (Moises Arias) and survivor guilt about a dead sibling. But, naturally, very little by way of parental presence. Initially promising to offer insights into living with CF, it soon hurtles headlong into romantic melodrama clichés as we wait to see if they will risk death for a moment of life. Richardson reinforces the promise shown in previous films, but, paired with an actor of limited range and a script creaking under the weight of hackneyed dialogue. The Fault In Our Stars and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl showed just how high this sort of material can be elevated. This simply shows how far it can sink. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

This inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship  is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe;Showcase Walsall)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

The Prodigy (15)

The latest contribution to the bad seed horror genre about creepy kids, this lays out its  narrative from the start when the cops gun down a Hungarian serial killer pervert (Paul Fauteux) in Ohio, who dies clutching the severed hand of the woman who just escaped him, and at the same moment, over in Pennsylvania, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to Miles, the child for which she and husband John  (Peter Mooney) have been trying for years. The baby’s chest has blood marks that correspond exactly to the bullet hole son the killer’s corpse.

As Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) grows, he proves, as the title suggests, to be a wunderkind, with an IQ that’s off the scale that sees him enrolled in a special school for gifted children. However, his eyes of different colours, he also begins to show disturbing and sometimes violent behaviour, such as taking a  monkey wrench to a classmate who wouldn’t share. He also speaks a strange language in his sleep which Sarah tapes and give to his shrink, who, in turn, calls in a behaviour specialist (Colm Feore), who tells her Miles is speaking  a rare Hungarian dialect and that he believes him to be inhabited by a reincarnated soul that has returned to complete unfinished business. Naturally neither she nor her husband take this seriously, until that is…

You can pretty much see where all this is heading, but while it does so in predictable  and inevitably often illogical fashion, it also crafts some satisfying scares and dread anticipation (did I mention the family dog?) as the third act throws in a  twist that builds to a shockingly unexpected payoff. The performances from the adult cast are pretty run of the mill, but Scott, who starred as an equally possessed child in It, is terrific in his nuanced shifting, both facially and in his physical performance, between Miles’ innocent and evil aspects (one telling Halloween scene has him sporting half skeleton face, half normal), perfectly complementing the film’s largely less is more approach to building the suspense. (Vue Star City)

Ray & Liz (15)

Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham makes his directorial debut with this grim and relentlessly depressing 16mm portrait of dysfunctional family life inspired by his own parents and upbringing, something he’d previously documented in his mid-1990s photos of his shiftless, spineless, alcoholic dad, Ray, obese, heavily tattooed chain-smoking, jigsaw puzzle obsessive mom, Liz, and younger brother, Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11, collected together for the book Ray’s a Laugh and featured in the same Sensation exhibition that included Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.

As you might imagine, there’s not a particularly upbeat vibe to the film, although there is rather more dark humour than you might expect, not least in how, left alone to care for  two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) while Ray (Justin Salinger), Liz (Ella Smith) and Richard (Jacob Tuton) go shoe-shopping, feeble- minded  Uncle Lol (Tony Way) is persuaded by Will (Sam Gittins), the family’s psychopathic tenant, to drink the hidden stash of booze, Ray and Liz returning home to find him senseless, drooling vomit and Jason playing with a kitchen knife.

Mostly though this is an unrelentingly grim working class portrait of appalling alcoholism, child neglect and poor hygiene, but one that observes rather than seeks to apportion blame and which often betrays a sneaky bittersweet affection for its horrendous subjects, even at their most grotesque.

Structurally it’s comprised of three shorts, one of which was released to attract crowdfunding, and with intense close-ups and sustained shots, the third section showing the now nine-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) and teenage Richard (Sam Plant) fending for themselves on bread and pickled cabbage in their cramped tower-block with their parents comatose in bed before social services finally intervene.

It also interlaces scenes of the now much older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose daily routine consists of waking up, staring out the window and drinking the homemade beer supplied by neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton), at one point visited by his now estranged wife (here played by Deirdre ‘White Dee’ Kelly). Strikingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Ladin with minute detail provided by production designer Beck Rainford, you’re given the feeling of watching the animal in the cages of a human zoo, horrified but transfixed. (MAC)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an oiver-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – 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

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