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MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri May 25-Thu May 31

 

NEW RELEASES

Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)

Make of this what you will, but I saw midday public screenings of  both this and Deadpool 2; the latter was packed out, for this, however, there were just two of us. Does this mean there’s Star Wars fatigue? Probably not, but it does suggest there’s considerably less anticipation for a Han Solo prequel than there was for Rogue One. Nor, playing it on a lighter note more along the lines of the Young Indiana Jones than its predecessor’s drama, is it as good a film.

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

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

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

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

Ehrenreich is hugely enjoyable channelling the young Han with his roguish smile, body language, gait, recklessness and charm, so it’s a bit unfortunate that he looks as though he’s more likely to grow up into Dennis Quaid than Harrison Ford. It’s also unfortunate that the chemistry between him and Clarke never fizzles, indeed there’s more spark between Lando and L3 (who reckons her boss has the hots for her). Everyone else is serviceable enough, though sadly Newton’s not round long enough to make good on her first impression, and, at the end of the day, it serves up a fun slice of big screen adventure in the tradition of those Saturday morning matinees that inspired Star Wars in the first place.  But whether there’s further adventures for the pre Mos Eisley Han  and Chewie rather depends on just how full those cinema seats get. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Breadwinner (12A)

Nominated for both the Golden Globes and Oscars, the solo debut of Nora Twomey, who co-directed The Secret of Kells is an animated adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ young adult book, based on interviews with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, about Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) an 11-year-old Afghan girl in 2001 Taliban-occupied Kabul who, when her disabled former teacher father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), is arrested (by a former pupil) and hauled off to prison,  takes it upon herself to keep the family, her mother, sister and baby brother fed. Rather this than see her sister married to as distant cousin offering to take them out of the city and abandon Nurullah,

However, given the Taliban’s brutal control over women’s lives, which forbids women to venture outside without male company and the fact that shopkeepers are too scared to sell to her for fear of retribution, in order to do so – and ultimately to go in search of her father and take him the crutch he need to walk- she has to disguise herself as a boy, because, as Shauzia (Soma Chhaya),  a kindred street smart spirit also passing as a boy, points out, boys can go anywhere.

So, she cuts her hair and wears her deceased older brother’s clothes (his story only revealed later) and ventures out into the city markets, earning money by selling what few goods the family has left and in using her literacy skills to read the letters of a friendly illiterate  customer (Kawa Ada), who will prove instrumental in her quest. Meanwhile, her mother is planning to escape to the sea.

Among the items for sale is an ornate tunic which, at the start of the film, her father employs to spin a story about Afghanistan’s history, a narrative conceit that develops further in the fables Parvana tells her baby brother and which form a central motif in the film’s message about the power of imagination and the value of traditional culture as the action is punctuated by her tales of a young boy’s courage in confronting and overcoming the terrifying Elephant King, the animation in these moments adopting a stylized and colourful cutout style as opposed to the simple line drawings elsewhere.

With careful attention to cultural accuracy, it balances its hard hitting political content with deep emotion as it recounts background stories alongside that of Paravana and her family, building to a powerful dramatic finale against a backdrop of renewed conflict, pitting the power of love and friendship against the power of hate and division. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Edie (12A)

When, after decades of incapability following a stroke that trapped her in a loveless marriage, her husband finally dies, rather than be dumped in the care home her daughter has in mind, and regretful at her ‘wasted years’, octogenarian Edie (Sheila Hancock, who is onscreen for most of the film) decides to fulfil a trip she and her father once vowed to undertake and heads to Suilven in the outer reaches of Scotland to climb its mountain. To which end, she is inveigled into hiring local camping equipment shop owner Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) to serve as her trainer. Initially in it for the money (his girlfriend and business partner wants to expand the shop), assuming she’ll never go through with it, and despite a somewhat prickly relationship,  the closer he becomes to Edie the more he’s inspired by her resolve and courage as a friend rather than a guide.

Directed by Simon Hunter and written by Elizabeth O’Halloran, it’s a fairly formulaic affair that would seem to have an air of Harold and Maude about it, but, thanks to the strength of the central performances, with Guthrie’s easy going charm and Hancock’s superbly nuanced ability to convey Edie’s turbulent emotions and the memories that drive her to rediscover her true self, it rises well above its Scottish Tourist Board picture postcard appearance. (Cineworld NEC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Little Vampire (U)

Previously adapted as a live action Uli Edel feature starring Richard E. Grant, Jonathan Lipnicki and Rollo Weeks, here Angela Sommer-Bodenburg’s children’s book gets the animation treatment. The set-up’s different, but the story’s pretty much the same.  Having been thirteen for three thousand years, Rudolph (Rasmer Haricker), the youngest of the aristocratic Sackville-Bagg vampire clan, wants to explore the world outside their crypts and coffins, something forbidden by his imperious father (Tim Piggott-Smith) because of the dangers it can present to the family. Such fears are quickly brought home when, secretly following his equally rebellious brother, he ends up having to save him from ruthless vampire hunter Rookery (Jim Carter reprising his role from the original film) and his new super-light weapon. Unfortunately, Rookery and Maney, his bumbling inventor assistant with a father complex, are now able to track them to the family’s lair in an attempt to kill or seal them away forever.

However, in fleeing from Rooker, Rudolph chances upon twelve-year-old Tony (Amy Saville), a young American vacationing in Transylvania with his mom and dad and who has a fascination for vampires. Offering to help Rudolph on condition there’s no neck-biting, the two become friends and, subsequently joined by the former’s sister, Anna (Phoebe Givron-Taylor), engage in a  race against the clock to stop Rookery from carrying out his dastardly plans.

The animation’s pretty basic with the figures having a plastic-like quality and the plotting overly repetitive as its goes from one Rookery scheme to the next (at one point involving a mid-air chase between the vampires and the former’s plane) and it rather indulges young children’s amusement at poo jokes by having one character being covered in dung from a vampire cow. That said, it flags up an always useful message about tolerance and understanding and has enough child-friendly humour and slapstick to keep  them entertained while the grown ups can appreciate Anna’s borrowing of Lauren Bacall’s classic line about whistling from To Have and Have Not. (Vue Star City)

On Chesil Beach (12A)

Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, set predominantly on one Dorset evening in 1962, punctuated  with flashbacks and moving on to codas in 1975 and 2007, and the feature debut of  theatre director Dominic Cooke, this tells of the wedding night of newlyweds, working class history graduate Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan), a graduate, CND activist and string quartet leader from a privileged background. It’s not a happy one. From the start, as they look across the table at each other in the honeymoon suite while two of the staff knowingly  exchange looks and make innuendo-laced comment as they serve dinner, it is clear there is tension between the pair. As the evening slowly moves towards consummating the marriage, the film flashes back to show how they met (at a CND meeting in Oxord, he anxious to tell someone, anyone, that he’s just got a first) as well as detailing their family settings. He lives in country village with his two younger sisters, his gentle primary shool headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) and artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who has brain damage after being struck by a moving train door, often can’t remember who he is  and has a tendency to wander around naked. She, on the other hand, comes from a wealthy family headed up by competitive, toxic male engineering factory owner Geoffrey (Samuel West), with a younger sister and an arrogant, snobbish Oxford don mother (Emily Watson)  given to chatting on the phone with  Iris Murdoch.

Both are virgins, lacking knowledge about sex (in one scene she reads about erections and penetrations with a sense of horror) and how to handle relationships, with no experience of physical intimacy beyond kissing. So, when they finally fumble their way round to it, it’s not too surprising that it ends in tears, he ejaculating prematurely, she fleeing the room in disgust. Meeting up on the pointedly pebble beach, confessions are made and a proposition of how to handle that side of things put forward. The love lasts forever. The marriage last six hours.

This is the film’s strongest part, a sympathetic and sensitive critique of the British way of love and sex prior to the Swinging Sixties and, dominating the screen, both Ronan and Howle give terrific, she adopting a perfectly clipped English accent and registering profound emotional depths with just an expression. Things are slightly less effective  and more narratively contrived in the later scenes, Ed running a record store in the 70s and part of the free love movement, and living by himself in 2007 when he hears of a farewell concert by Florence’s now famous quartet, respectively prompting both a Chuck Berry moment and a sentimental but nevertheless moving scene, each of which has been set up earlier in the film.

The problem is that it’s only in those final moments that the film really finds an emotional beat as opposed to the somewhat distanced gaze – and slightly mannered dialogue – that characterises the bulk of the narrative, even if it is supposed to echo the society of the time when sex wasn’t something discussed in polite families. Very much an art house offering, as underscored by its limited, selective release, it forgoes storms of passion  for  muted heartbreaks. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

 

Show Dogs (PG)

“No one’s making talking animals movies any more”, bemoans a white Chihuahua in an in-joke to director Raja Gosnel’s previous Beverly Hills Chihuahua. This interminable, mind-numbingly unfunny buddy cop comedy is a good reason why. A Rottweiller with the NYPD, Max (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) is on a stakeout involving a stolen baby panda only to accidentally foul-up an FBI sting leading to him and Frank (an understandably embarrassed-looking Will Arnett), the agent involved having to reluctantly work together posing as an owner and his dog entering the prestigious Canini Invitational show at Caesar’s Palace in L.A. to try and flush out the mastermind behind an international animal smuggling ring. Neither much wants to work with the other, and Max reckons the dog show world is full of fakes and poseurs; however, inevitably friendship and mutual respect blooms and Max learns, in the heavy-handedly spelled out message, to not judge others who have a different worldview. In-between there’s supposedly hilarious moments as Max has to submit to being groomed and having his testicles felt in the cause of the competition while having to use his street skills to win each round as they suspect the smugglers are planning to kidnap the eventual Best In Show. A four-pawed Miss Congeniality cross-bred with Tom Hanks’ Turner & Hooch (to which the references seemingly never end), it features an assortment of celebrity voices, among them Stanley Tucci as Max’s mentor, Philippe, an embittered former champion pampered Papillon who went a little crazy; Alan Cummings Dante, a self-important Yorkie who took Philippe’s place; Jordin Sparks as our hero’s romantic interest, Australian Shepherd Elizabeth, owned and entered by FBI grooming consultant Mattie (Natasha Lyonne); RuPaul as fashionista designer mixed breed Persephone; Shaquille O’Neal as Karma, the dreadlocked Zen-spouting Komondor belonging to prime suspect Gabriel (Omar Shaparo) ; and Gabriel Iglesias as Sprinkles, an overly enthusiastic Pug. There’s laboured in jokes (Arnett’s Lego Batman included) and pop culture references, a random Elton John show poster and three especially annoying comic relief pigeons and the whole thing creaks and groans it way to a spectacularly badly staged climax. In discussing Max’s chances as a show dog, although it does have the good grace to save the inevitable dog fart until midway. At one point, discussing Max going undercover as a show dog, someone says “I cannot polish the turd, but perhaps I can roll it in glitter.” Save for Max and Frank in an inspired recreation of that classic Dirty Dancing moment, glitter is in very short supply here. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Good Night (12A)

The late John Hurt gives a performance far better than the film it serves in this adaptation of director Eric Styles’ adaptation N.J Crisp’s stage play about a celebrated ageing screenwriter, Ralph (Hurt), living in the Algarve with his younger Portuguese wife and former nurse, Anna (Sofia Helin), who, diagnosed as a terminal case, wants to put his affairs in order and reconcile with his estranged son Michael (Max Brown) before he dies. However, he doesn’t want Anna to know and has made  enquiries to employ the discreet services of a mysterious assisted suicide agency so as to make it all look natural.

Matters are complicated, however, when Michael turns up with his no-nonsense American girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), infuriating the ever tetchy Ralph by not being able to get his son on his own for a heart to heart, although, even given the opportunity, he still prevaricates with resentment-fuelled arguments.

The title, of course, stems from Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, Dylan Thomas’s classic meditation on dying and whose poems are frequently references, but, while it manages to avoid  theatricality, it still has suffers from a sluggish pace, repetition  and contrived conversations and never successfully works the white suited Charles Dance, as the agency’s representative, into proceedings, seemingly unable to decide whether to present him as  flesh and blood or the symbolic pale rider figure he so clearly is.

The resonance of Hurt’s own imminent demise gives it an undeniable poignancy and he makes the most of his irascible, cantankerous, at times self-pitying at others profoundly generous character, but the film, parched by a decidedly dry tone, only skirts its deep themes about old age, creation, life, death and relationships on its way to Ralph’s obligatory redemption. As  a last hurrah, Hurt exits with memorable grace notes, but the film isn’t one for his enduring legacy. (MAC)

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A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

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

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

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

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

All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and sef-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises,  these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Breaking In (15)

A home invasion movie that places a strong woman fighting to protect her kids front and centre, director  James McTeigue may not offer any major twists on the well-worn set-up, but, anchored by a  powerful turn from Gabrielle Union,  this short and sharp thriller delivers solid tension and bursts of bloody action.

Returning to her estranged criminal father’s remote and fortress-like high-tech security mansion after he’s killed in a deliberate hit and run, Shaun (Union), who has had nothing to do with him for years, is just there for the weekend with her two kids, teen daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and younger son Glover (Seth Carr), to arrange the sale. However, she’s not the only one. Tipped off that there’s a safe packed with millions of dollars, four thieves, Eddie (Billy Burke) and his associates, tattooed psycho Duncan (Richard Cabral), nervy  Sam (Levi Meaden) and former military man Peter (Mark Furze), are determined to get their hands on it. However, they didn’t reckon on anyone else being there.

While Shaun’s outside, they take the kids hostage, setting in motion a taut game of cat and mouse as her maternal instincts take on a  Liam Neeson hue (tellingly, it’s written by Ryan Engle who also penned Non Stop and The Commuter), using whatever’s at hand, broken wine glass, toy drone,  to turn the tables and take the fight to the assailants who, in time-honoured tradition, prove to be conveniently inept.

Naturally, there’s plenty of sneaking round darkened corridors and lurking in shadows, punctuated by some bloodshedding via Duncan slitting the throat of the unfortunate estate agent and a remarkably resourceful Shaun doing a  number on Peter before engineering her way back inside the house.

It’s thinly written and fairly one-dimensional in terms of character, but, for disposable female empowerment action that serves up the payback without troubling the brain cells, this does its job in efficiently effective style.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

Deadpool 2 (15)

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

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

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

Bloodier, more visceral and far more foul-mouthed than the original, it sprays pop culture references and in-jokes like nail-bomb confetti, cameos including Alan Tudyk, a glimpse of three X-Men and a very surprising mid-credits appearance of a fourth, alongside returning characters Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), Weasel (T.J.Miller)  and taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) who wants in on the mercenary lark, not to mention Wade’s favourite  unstoppable villain from the X-Men comics. There’s also deluge of references to and quips about the DC Universe, the Avengers (at one point Deadpool calls Cable Thanos), Robocop, Canada, James Bond , Frozen (how come no one else drew the Yentl comparison!), Annie, Say Anything and a hysterical Green Lantern gag set to Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, plus dozens more you’ll have to catch on subsequent viewings as well as its brazen acknowledgement of  the plot holes. And the four post-credit scenes that change everything. Basically, it’s everything you loved about Deadpool – on Viagra. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Every Day (12A)

A novel spin on the body swap genre, and with an intelligence that belies its offbeat premise, based on David Levithan’s young-adult novel this entails a high school girl falling in love with a bodiless spirit that calls itself A who, every day, wakes up in a different person’s body, always of the same age and in the same area (most of them seem to go to the same school), but of different gender and race. However, Cinderella-like, at the stroke midnight, A has to leave ready to wake up in the next day’s body. A first shows up in the body of Justin (Justice Smith), the  mixed-race boyfriend of Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) who’s surprised to find he’s acting a lot nicer towards her as they skip school to spend the day together. The next day, however, he’s back to his old self and can’t remember anything about the previous 24 hours.  A, however, has been smitten and, breaking his own rule to never leave a trace,  over the course of the film and different bodies, among them a white cheerleader, a portly Asian boy (Jacob Batalon), a transgender student, a black boy (Rory McDonald) with a domineering mother and a dance happy guy at a party who turns out to be a devout Christian who subsequently believes he’s been possessed by the devil, he forms a friendship with an understandably initially sceptical Rhiannon. At one point, A even wakes up as Rhiannon. Having pushed himself (let’s assume A is male) to remain in the body of suicidal Asian girl long enough to get her (through ‘him’) to ask for help, he’s then able to extend his stay in  the body of another of  Rhiannon’s classmates, a shy but sensitive sort (Owen Teague) who is clearly a far more suitable match than Justin.

The subplot involving the troubled marriage of Rhiannon’s parents (Maria Bello, Michael Cram) following her father’s manic episode’ and subsequent depressive funk where he spends his time painting faces feels somewhat redundant other than in allowing for an epiphany, while her snooty but caring sister, Jo (Debbie Ryan) seems to have no story at all.

However, despite this, what emerges is a sweet, funny, tender fantasy about diversity, sexuality and pure romantic love, one which encourages its teenage audiences to look beyond the externals and find the soul of the person within. Ultimately, a sort of two-legged version of A Dog’s Purpose by way of Groundhog Day, it  ably compensates in originality and heart for what it lacks in depth. (Showcase Walsall)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (Vue Star City)

 

I Feel Pretty (12A)

While undeniably flawed, this Amy Schumer comedy, working a  similar riff to Trainwreck,   is far better than some of the scathing reviews would suggest and comes with book/cover and be who you are/self-esteem messages that would do Disney proud. Schumer plays New Yorker Renee Bennett who works for the online department of mega cosmetics company Lily LeClaire, albeit ferreted away in a  dingy Chinatown office with her slobby co-worker (Adrian Martinez) because the company only wants beautiful things in its Fifth Avenue HQ. She and her equally ‘ordinary’ friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) post photos on a dating site but get no views, further persuading Renee that looks are everything (though one wonders how, if they  get no views they can be rejected on their appearance) and, one night, after watching bodyswap comedy Big, fed up of being ignored in bars and stores, she impulsively rushes out into the rain and throws a coin into a wishing fountain asking to be beautiful.

The next day, attending Soul Cycle class (basically a keep fit workout on a fixed bike), she falls and bangs her head and, when she comes round and looks in the mirror she sees the figure she wants to be. Physically, she looks exactly the same, but persuaded she’s now drop dead gorgeous, her confidence crawls out from under its shell and she applies for the job of receptionist at Lily LeClaire. As the first face visitors see, she’s understandably not the sort of person the interviewing panel of CFO Helen  (Naomi Campbell) and squeaky-voiced CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams making the most of a gag that rapidly wears thin) are looking for. But, having been recently given an earful by her company founder grandmother (Lauren Hutton) about appealing to the ‘ordinary’ consumer in launching their new budget line, Avery, who has her own self-esteem issues, hires her. And, not only does she land a swanky job, but she also acquires a sensitive boyfriend in the shape of Ethan (Rory Scovel) following a  meet cute in the dry cleaners where she takes the initiative. On top of which, she’s also given the eye by Avery’s hunky brother Grant (Tom Hopper), although that subplot never really goes anywhere.

As per narrative requirements, Renee’s elevation to a new social circle, and the fact that the company call on her for her sensible marketing advice for the new product, means she shuts out her old friends (spelled out all too blatantly when she dumps them at a restaurant to gain access to an exclusive party). And, of course, there’s inevitably another bump to the head that removes the ‘magic’, right on the eve of a major conference where she’s supposed to deliver the important pitch. No longer thinking she looks the way she thought she did, she can’t bring herself to face LeClaire or, indeed, Ethan. She first has to realise who she was all along.

Given that  Vivian or Jane could easily point out she looks exactly the same despite her saying they probably don’t recognise who she is, it’s a somewhat flawed premise, but, even so, there’s an infectious sweetness to it with Renee a likeable character while Schumer, who has built a stand-up career on ironic self-deprecation and the superficiality of society, always shines when the material doesn’t. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who fared far better with He’s Just Not That Into You and How To Be Single, never seem quite sure how to get to the final destination of their positive body-image moral, such as Renee taking part in a bikini contest, which, while amusing, negates the admiration for her balls  since she’s oblivious to the fact that he clearly looks nothing like the other curvy contestants.

At the end of the day it’s basically Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Devil Wears Prada with a dressing of ‘magic’ and all too obvious soundtrack beats like Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire and Meghan Trainor’s Me Too to point the audience in the right direction, but you shouldn’t judge it just on how it looks.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Life of the Party (12A)

Following on from Amy Schumer’s underachieving I Feel Pretty, now it’s the turn of Melissa McCarthy to misfire in her third teaming with writer-director husband Ben Falcone. Pitched as a mother-daughter slash female buddy back to school comedy, McCarthy plays middle-aged mom Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) who, just minutes after dropping their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at Decatur University for her senior year, is told my hubbie Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce so he can marry high powered real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen).

Understandably depressed, back at her parents and confronted with a midlife crisis, Deanne resolves to finally complete her archaeology degree, enrolling at Decatur which she attended years back before dropping out 24 years ago after becoming pregnant. Initially not taken with the idea of having her doting, frumpy mom as a fellow student, Maddie’s soon persuaded, not least since her sorority sisters, most particularly insecure Debbie (Jessie Ennis) and snarky online celeb Helen (Gillian Jacobs), returning after eight years in a coma, think she’s just wonderful.

Before long Deanne’s the campus hit, albeit not with obligatory mean girl Jennifer (Debby Ryan) and her personality-free sidekick, to the extent of embarking on a sexual fling with a much younger fellow student, Jack (Luke Benward), the subject of an awkward reveal later in the movie (but which is never really followed through). Hopping between assorted scenes and set-ups involving parties, sorority initiations, a  dance-battle, a class presentation  meltdown (that, in character terms makes no sense) before a final fund raiser party top pay for Deanne’s fees which the girls claim Christina Aguilera is going to attend, it never really actually goes anywhere or gets beyond the basic find who you are, be true to yourself, self-reliance messages.

There are some decent moments, notably an 80s themed party at which McCarthy, in a  spangled blue jump suit, gives good dance moves and shows her physical comedy skills, but too much is driven by the script rather than the story. McCarthy is fluffily solid enough, but, given surprisingly few sharp one-liners,  she’s overshadowed throughout by Heidi Gardner as her weirdo dormmate Leonor, Maya Rudolph as sex-hungry best friend Christine and, especially Jacobs, scene stealing with just a  roll of her eyes or a facial expression. A film full of ideas but with no real clue what to do with them and with not enough jokes to satisfy trade descriptions, it flops along watchably enough until it simply runs out of steam and just stops. If you want a truly funny  house mother/sorority comedy, then search out Anna Faris in The House Bunny, meanwhile this is the sort of party where you make your excuses and leave early. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream. (Tue-Thu:MAC)

Sherlock Gnomes (U)

The original movie, Gnomeo & Juliet, was a playful, funny, inventive and charming rework of Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending. The sequel, which teams the now married lovers with a  gnome version of Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, is none of the above. Settling into their owners’ new London home, Juliet (Emily Blunt) is too busy working to get the garden right to give much time to Gnomeo (James McAvoy), who duly has a major sulk and tries to get her attention back on him. Meanwhile, some dastardly villain is kidnapping all of London’s gnomes, to which end master detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his assistant Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are on the trail, the former’s cruelly dismissive treatment of the latter mirroring the domestic disharmony in the garden. When their friends and relations also get snatched, Gnomeo and Juliet join forces with the detectives to track them down in what is a game of wits played out (Toy Story-like) across London between Holmes and his arch nemesis, the supposedly dead Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a garish yellow pie mascot in a purple nappy and bowtie, with just 24 hours before they’re smashed to pieces.

The film’s executive producer is Elton John and don’t you just know it, with an Elton lookalike gnome, either snatches of his songs or in-jokes references to them (Gnomeo’s codename is Tiny Dancer), while, with his teeth,  Moriaty even looks a bit like him. It’s well-animated with lots of detail, but unfortunately that attention doesn’t extend to the frantic but meandering plot (though it does have a clever twist) or the bland characters. Devoid of wit, the film thinks the sight of a gnome in a pink mankini flashing his buttocks is so hilarious it keeps returning to him while relegating Michael Caine and Maggie Smith to mere cameos as Lord Redbrick and Lady Blueberry. It also contrives to have a sequence set in a  doll museum as an excuse to wheel out Mary J Blige to perform a number as Holmes’ ex, Irene. It’s probably best summed up when, in a TV report about the gnome thefts, the announcer says “Some say it’s a job for Sherlock Gnomes!” before adding, “Others say it’s a slow news day!” Bored kids and adults are likely to opt for the latter.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Strangers: Prey at Night (15)

Ten years ago, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman played a couple terrorised by three strangers while staying in an isolated holiday home. Now, a decade later, comes this sequel in which, being reluctantly taken to boarding school after proving too much of a handful, stroppy teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison), her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks; Martin Henderson) and more conformist older Luke (Lewis Pullman), are taking a brief family vacation stopover at the trailer park run by her grandparents.

Arriving late at night, the place deserted, they settle into their cabin only to be disturbed by a knock at the door by some girl who’s apparently lost. Sulking, Kinsey takes off to explore the park, accompanied by Luke, and the pair wind up at their grandparents’ home only to find them butchered.  Racing home, Luke takes dad go off to show what they found and, while they’re away she and mom are attacked by a girl in a mask, Kinsey escaping and running of into the night to find the other two. And, with dad also soon despatched, the film grinds down into the siblings being hunted by the three silent, disguised killers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pinup Girl (Lea Enslin) and, sporting a sack over his head, Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), as they seek to survive.

A basic no frills slasher movie with a degree of sadistic nastiness that, back in the 70s would have seen it tagged a video nasty, it’s nihilistic and unpleasant, dwelling unnecessarily on the cruelty of the enigmatic assailants, the axe-wielding male proving inevitably almost unkillable in the final climax. 47 Metres Down director Johannes Roberts does a workmanlike job of assembling the characters and action, but fails to bring anything fresh to the genre or, indeed, much by the way of  scares, suspense or common sense.  Indeed, the scariest thing here is how Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, Kim Wilde’s Kids in America and  Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All seem to have wandered in from the soundtrack of another film entirely. When Kinsey asks Dollface why they’re doing all this she simply says “Why not?” A response that pretty much sums up the film’s own existence. (Vue Star City)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Vue Star City)

Tully  (15)

The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunites them with Young Adult star Charlize Theron as Marlo, a New York mother of two young kids, eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and the younger Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who’s about to give birth to a third. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works late and helps the kids with their homework before he goes to bed to play video games, but otherwise is oblivious to the demands of being a fulltime mother. On top of which, their son, Jonah, is demandingly ‘quirky’  (for which read autistic, though the film never uses the word) and his elite private school would really like him to have a private tutor (which the couple can’t afford) or place him elsewhere.

The arrival of baby Mia (though her name’s only revealed in passing) just adds to the pressures and, eventually, unable to cope any longer (cue a montage of nappy changing, feeding, etc.), and bearing in mind the never talked about depression she suffered after Jonah’s birth, she gives in and decides to take up the gift from her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) of a night nanny, someone who will come and take up the strain while she gets some sleep. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) a free spirit in the Juno mould who, Marlo’s very own Mary Poppins, not only looks after Mia at night between feeds but cleans the house, bakes cupcakes, offers a friendly ear and even helps reignite Marlo and Drew’s sex life. She’s well-read, well-informed, speaks different languages and dispenses words of wisdom  such as “She’ll grow a little overnight. And so will we!” She is, as Marlo puts it, “a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.”  She’s also welcomingly non-judgmental.

Marlo gets to have at least part of her life back (“It’s like I can see colour again”) and no longer feels wiped out every waking moment. But then, following a car accident after a girls’ night out in Marlo’s old stomping grounds, comes a reveal that forces you to reassess everything you’ve just seen, even if, logically, it doesn’t quite hang together.

Littered with Cody’s trademark snappy patter (Elaine Tan, as Craig’s spoiled wife Elyse, benefitting from some of the best) and driven by a raw-nerved, unglamorous  and fearless performance from Theron, drained of life through exhaustion one moment, verbally lashing out at the school principal the next, although the dreamlike imagery of mermaids doesn’t quite fit and it overstretches the metaphors in the final stretch, it’s an empathetic, intelligent and insightful examination of the darker side of motherhood they only tend to talk about in the problem pages while putting on that serene glow for the world. At the end of the day, it’s not as hilarious as Juno or as lacerating as Young Adult, but, constituted of a cocktail of ingredients from both,  it’s most definitely one that stressed-out moms should drag their husbands to see. (MAC)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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

Black Panther (12A)         

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Vue Star City)

 

Lean On Pete (15)

Making his American debut, British director Andrew Haigh’s adaption of the existential third novel by Willy Vlautin, frontman with alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine, with its heady Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy influences, the film shaping up as an episodic coming of age road movie that provides a contemporary snapshot of the American underclass as it and its young protagonist undertakes its slow-burning, if slightly overstretched journey.

Set in Portland, Oregon, it features a tour de force performance from Charlie Plummer, recently seen in All The Money in The World, as Charley, a 15-year-old from a broken home who, the air recently relocated from Washington,  lives with his good-hearted but irresponsible young father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley’s drawn to the local racetrack where, in the films longest section, he gets a job helping cantankerous horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) by looking after the horses and preparing them for the races as they travel the run down racetracks and carnies across the Pacific Northwest.

He forms a particular bond with Lean On Pete, a five-year-old sprinter coming to the end of his days on the track without ever fulfilling what Charley sees as his potential. He also strikes up a friendship with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a jockey who rides for Del and who has seen her own share of knockbacks, pointedly noting how “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.”  Charley wants her to ride Pete, to give him a chance, but she demurs, also warning him “You can’t think of them as pets.”

Two life-charging incidents set Charley on his journey, the death of his father following a run-in with a jealous husband and a hospital foul-up and Del’s decision to sell Pete after his last dismal race, to be shipped off to Mexico to become horsemeat. Faced with the prospect of being taken in by social services, with nothing to keep him in Portland and wanting to save Pete, he steals the horse and Del’s truck and hits the road, heading across the badlands to Wyoming in search of a new home to try and find his dad’s estranged sister, Aunt Margy.

Along the way, on a journey loitered with isolated truck stops and homes, his path variously crosses with a couple of chancers, a kindly waitress on whom he pulls a dine-and-dash, a sad, overweight girl stuck with her verbally abusive grandfather, itinerant  Mexican workers and, eventually, Silver (Steve Zahn), a trailer-living street smart guy whose seemingly easy-going nature hides a nastier side.

Directed in a stripped down style given to lingering widescreen vistas of the American West’s landscape, as the two down-on-their luck outcasts make their way together, Charley delivering confessional monologues to the horse as they wander the desert,  its narrative centres on one of characters’ remark that “When you don’t have anywhere to go, you’re kinda stuck.” Offering vignettes of small acts of human kindness alongside the harshness and trials that face society’s vulnerable members, it has a haunting poetic resonance and emotional power that, along with Plummer’s soulful, internalised performance sustains it through some of the longueurs as it heads to a redemptive finale, but not without a sudden unexpected shock moment that hits like a hammer blow. It’s a long haul, but the company it keeps make the journey worth it. (Electric)

 

 

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, while Alun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (Electric)

Redoubtable (15)

With iconic French auteur Jean-Luc Godard having just dazzled Cannes with his latest, The Image Book, Michel Hazanavicius’s timely biopic, its title a frequently alluded to reference to the French nuclear submarine launched in 1967, casts  back to 1968 when Godard and a group of other French directors got the festival cancelled  as a mark of solidarity with the Paris revolutionaries. Starring Louis Garrel as Godard, it recalls when, feeling that he’s getting old, becoming irrelevant and pricked by accusations that cinema hasn’t taken up the revolutionary fervour and nursing irritation that his Chairman Mao-extolling satire La Chinoise has had a critical and commercial drubbing, he renounces both the industry that made him a visionary legend and such feted past work as Breathless and Le Mepris, and, along with his new teenage wife and La Chinoise star Anne Wiazemsky  (Stacy Martin), on whose memoir the film is based, goes on a self-righteous political and artistically experimental bender. Increasingly churlish and embittered, he joins the protestors (cue a running joke about getting his glasses broken), insults and alienates old friends, indulges in fatuous shock tactics (the famous Jews are the new Nazis speech at a debate on Palestine)  and plunges into the realms of communal cinema and radical film-making, the marriage, ultimately, unable to take the strain.

Amusing and dramatic by turn, the film rather overdoes its affectionate Godardian pastiche with its intertitles, black and white moments, polarization, jazz  and nudity to the extent that style often comes at the expense of substance in its examination of his artistic crisis and the collapse of the marriage, although it’s never less than savagely unsentimental in portraying the nastier and narcissistic side of Godard during these times. You do, of course, have to have substantial working knowledge of Godard, French cinema and 60s politics to even think of buying  ticket, but those that do will be rewarded.

 

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 18-Thu May 24

 

NEW RELEASES

Deadpool 2 (15)

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

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

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

Bloodier, more visceral and far more foul-mouthed than the original, it sprays pop culture references and in-jokes like nail-bomb confetti, cameos including Alan Tudyk, a glimpse of three X-Men and a very surprising mid-credits appearance of a fourth, alongside returning characters Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), Weasel (T.J.Miller)  and taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) who wants in on the mercenary lark, not to mention Wade’s favourite  unstoppable villain from the X-Men comics. There’s also deluge of references to and quips about the DC Universe, the Avengers (at one point Deadpool calls Cable Thanos), Robocop, Canada, James Bond , Frozen (how come no one else drew the Yentl comparison!), Annie, Say Anything and a hysterical Green Lantern gag set to Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, plus dozens more you’ll have to catch on subsequent viewings as well as its brazen acknowledgement of  the plot holes. And the four post-credit scenes that change everything. Basically, it’s everything you loved about Deadpool – on Viagra. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Redoubtable (15)

With iconic French auteur Jean-Luc Godard having just dazzled Cannes with his latest, The Image Book, Michel Hazanavicius’s timely biopic, its title a frequently alluded to reference to the French nuclear submarine launched in 1967, casts  back to 1968 when Godard and a group of other French directors got the festival cancelled  as a mark of solidarity with the Paris revolutionaries. Starring Louis Garrel as Godard, it recalls when, feeling that he’s getting old, becoming irrelevant and pricked by accusations that cinema hasn’t taken up the revolutionary fervour and nursing irritation that his Chairman Mao-extolling satire La Chinoise has had a critical and commercial drubbing, he renounces both the industry that made him a visionary legend and such feted past work as Breathless and Le Mepris, and, along with his new teenage wife and La Chinoise star Anne Wiazemsky  (Stacy Martin), on whose memoir the film is based, goes on a self-righteous political and artistically experimental bender. Increasingly churlish and embittered, he joins the protestors (cue a running joke about getting his glasses broken), insults and alienates old friends, indulges in fatuous shock tactics (the famous Jews are the new Nazis speech at a debate on Palestine)  and plunges into the realms of communal cinema and radical film-making, the marriage, ultimately, unable to take the strain.

Amusing and dramatic by turn, the film rather overdoes its affectionate Godardian pastiche with its intertitles, black and white moments, polarization, jazz  and nudity to the extent that style often comes at the expense of substance in its examination of his artistic crisis and the collapse of the marriage, although it’s never less than savagely unsentimental in portraying the nastier and narcissistic side of Godard during these times. You do, of course, have to have substantial working knowledge of Godard, French cinema and 60s politics to even think of buying  ticket, but those that do will be rewarded.  (Fri-Sun/Wed: Electric)

 

NOW PLAYING

A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

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

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

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

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

All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and sef-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises,  these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Beast (15)

Very loosely inspired by the so-called Beast of Jersey, 60s sex offender Edward John Louis Paisnel,  first time writer/director Michael Pearce pulls off a tense and compelling psychological thriller that, despite some flaws, marks him out as a definite person of  Hollywood interest.

Set in present day Jersey, it stars Jessie Buckley (who co-starred in Taboo and is currently to be seen in the BBC’s The Woman In White) as tourist guide Moll, an intelligent but wild spirited red-head with a troubled past involving stabbing a school bully and a passive-aggressive mother (Geraldine James) who home schooled her and keeps her on a tight leash, making her look after her sickly father. When her 28th birthday celebrations are upstaged by her sister announcing she’s pregnant, Moll storms off in a strop and heads to a dance club where she hooks up with one of the locals who, on their way home in the early morning, comes on threateningly insistently until he’s scared off by a new arrival, a straggly-bearded and scarred but handsome gun-bearing poacher by the name of Pascal Renouf (folk musician Johnny Flynn) who gives her a lift home.

Much to her mother’s displeasure, Moll asks Pascal back to do some handyman jobs and is increasingly drawn to his air of mystery and danger, and perhaps, also his heady, musky smell. However,  she’s not long into the relationship when Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a local copper who has a thing for her, confides that Pascal, who, a native islander with a criminal record for underage sexual assault, is a bit of an outsider in the more judgemental British community, is on a short list of suspects (which, for some, also includes the influx of seasonal migrant workers)  as the potential serial killer who’s raping and murdering young women by shoving soil down their throats. Rebellious to a fault when challenged by authority, Moll gives him an alibi for the night they met, refusing to be shaken even when intimidatingly questioned by a detective (Olwen Fouere) shipped in from the mainland to take on the case. The fact is, Moll, who herself borders on the sociopathic, gets a kick out of the way her involvement with Pascal irritates her mother and her stuffy family circle and, even as she begins to question his innocence, she feels a powerful kinship of personality, one that could have dangerous consequences for them both.

The serial killer aspect is very much just a subplot here to the film’s examination of the characters’ dysfunctional dynamics and wilfully self-destructive rebellion and, while it climaxes with an unexpected and bloody disturbing jolt, it’s arguably stronger in the early going before Pearce starts playing with the audience’s assumptions  overstretching the plausibility with a convoluted narrative. Even so, he makes effective use of his Hitchcock influences (Suspicion and The Lodger to be precise) and is well served by big screen career boosting performances from Buckley and Flynn whose chemistry crackles like messing with gunpowder. It ultimately poses more questions than it has answers, but it remains a strikingly impressive debut. (MAC)

Black Panther (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Vue Star City)

 

Breaking In (15)

A home invasion movie that places a strong woman fighting to protect her kids front and centre, director  James McTeigue may not offer any major twists on the well-worn set-up, but, anchored by a  powerful turn from Gabrielle Union,  this short and sharp thriller delivers solid tension and bursts of bloody action.

Returning to her estranged criminal father’s remote and fortress-like high-tech security mansion after he’s killed in a deliberate hit and run, Shaun (Union), who has had nothing to do with him for years, is just there for the weekend with her two kids, teen daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and younger son Glover (Seth Carr), to arrange the sale. However, she’s not the only one. Tipped off that there’s a safe packed with millions of dollars, four thieves, Eddie (Billy Burke) and his associates, tattooed psycho Duncan (Richard Cabral), nervy  Sam (Levi Meaden) and former military man Peter (Mark Furze), are determined to get their hands on it. However, they didn’t reckon on anyone else being there.

While Shaun’s outside, they take the kids hostage, setting in motion a taut game of cat and mouse as her maternal instincts take on a  Liam Neeson hue (tellingly, it’s written by Ryan Engle who also penned Non Stop and The Commuter), using whatever’s at hand, broken wine glass, toy drone,  to turn the tables and take the fight to the assailants who, in time-honoured tradition, prove to be conveniently inept.

Naturally, there’s plenty of sneaking round darkened corridors and lurking in shadows, punctuated by some bloodshedding via Duncan slitting the throat of the unfortunate estate agent and a remarkably resourceful Shaun doing a  number on Peter before engineering her way back inside the house.

It’s thinly written and fairly one-dimensional in terms of character, but, for disposable female empowerment action that serves up the payback without troubling the brain cells, this does its job in efficiently effective style.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

Entebbe (12A)

Almost 42 years since the actual incident,  Brazilian director José Padilha offers a somewhat pointless revisiting of the attempt by Israeli commandos to rescue the 246, mostly Jewish, passengers from the Air France plane that, hijacked by left wing German radicals,  had  landed in Uganda, matters complicated by the fact that the country’s famously unstable dictator, Idi Amin, was acting as the go between in negotiations, threatening to kill hostages if no agreement was reached. Israel, of course, had already declared its refusal to negotiate with terrorists.

The incident spawned not one but three quickly made exploitative cash-ins immediately in its wake, variously featuring Anthony Hopkins Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster and Klaus Kinski. This time round, you get Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike as Revolutionary Cell members Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann who, along with two Palestinians, hijack the plane in support of the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine.

Told largely from the passengers;’ perspective, it’s a singularly unthrilling and sluggish affair, overburdened with huge chunks of exposition  as the radicals debate ideology (often in risible lines like “I want to throw bombs into the consciousness of the masses”) and the politicians explain things to one another.  Brühl is his usual reliable self in the sort of character he’s played countless time but Pike is and looks totally miscast, scenes of her losing it and hacking at her hair or delivering a distracted monologue over the phone convincing for all the wrong reasons. The cast list also wheels on Eddie Marsan as impressively eyebrowed Israeli defence minister, Shimon Peres, Lior Ashkenazi as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and, relishing the brief opportunity  to chew the scenery, Nonso Anozie as Amin, all three of them looking to exploit the situation to their political advantage.

The only thing that injects any interest is the bizarre decision to use the fact that an idealistic commando has a dancer girlfriend to interweave the hostage narrative with a modern dance piece set to a traditional Passover song featuring  black clad women and a lot of drumming and chanting. It’s designed to build the tension, but, while undeniably well executed and choreographed, is utterly deflated when the aforementioned soldier declares “I fight so you can dance!” (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park)

 

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, while Alun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (Electric)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (Cineworld Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I Feel Pretty (12A)

While undeniably flawed, this Amy Schumer comedy, working a  similar riff to Trainwreck,   is far better than some of the scathing reviews would suggest and comes with book/cover and be who you are/self-esteem messages that would do Disney proud. Schumer plays New Yorker Renee Bennett who works for the online department of mega cosmetics company Lily LeClaire, albeit ferreted away in a  dingy Chinatown office with her slobby co-worker (Adrian Martinez) because the company only wants beautiful things in its Fifth Avenue HQ. She and her equally ‘ordinary’ friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) post photos on a dating site but get no views, further persuading Renee that looks are everything (though one wonders how, if they  get no views they can be rejected on their appearance) and, one night, after watching bodyswap comedy Big, fed up of being ignored in bars and stores, she impulsively rushes out into the rain and throws a coin into a wishing fountain asking to be beautiful.

The next day, attending Soul Cycle class (basically a keep fit workout on a fixed bike), she falls and bangs her head and, when she comes round and looks in the mirror she sees the figure she wants to be. Physically, she looks exactly the same, but persuaded she’s now drop dead gorgeous, her confidence crawls out from under its shell and she applies for the job of receptionist at Lily LeClaire. As the first face visitors see, she’s understandably not the sort of person the interviewing panel of CFO Helen  (Naomi Campbell) and squeaky-voiced CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams making the most of a gag that rapidly wears thin) are looking for. But, having been recently given an earful by her company founder grandmother (Lauren Hutton) about appealing to the ‘ordinary’ consumer in launching their new budget line, Avery, who has her own self-esteem issues, hires her. And, not only does she land a swanky job, but she also acquires a sensitive boyfriend in the shape of Ethan (Rory Scovel) following a  meet cute in the dry cleaners where she takes the initiative. On top of which, she’s also given the eye by Avery’s hunky brother Grant (Tom Hopper), although that subplot never really goes anywhere.

As per narrative requirements, Renee’s elevation to a new social circle, and the fact that the company call on her for her sensible marketing advice for the new product, means she shuts out her old friends (spelled out all too blatantly when she dumps them at a restaurant to gain access to an exclusive party). And, of course, there’s inevitably another bump to the head that removes the ‘magic’, right on the eve of a major conference where she’s supposed to deliver the important pitch. No longer thinking she looks the way she thought she did, she can’t bring herself to face LeClaire or, indeed, Ethan. She first has to realise who she was all along.

Given that  Vivian or Jane could easily point out she looks exactly the same despite her saying they probably don’t recognise who she is, it’s a somewhat flawed premise, but, even so, there’s an infectious sweetness to it with Renee a likeable character while Schumer, who has built a stand-up career on ironic self-deprecation and the superficiality of society, always shines when the material doesn’t. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who fared far better with He’s Just Not That Into You and How To Be Single, never seem quite sure how to get to the final destination of their positive body-image moral, such as Renee taking part in a bikini contest, which, while amusing, negates the admiration for her balls  since she’s oblivious to the fact that he clearly looks nothing like the other curvy contestants.

At the end of the day it’s basically Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Devil Wears Prada with a dressing of ‘magic’ and all too obvious soundtrack beats like Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire and Meghan Trainor’s Me Too to point the audience in the right direction, but you shouldn’t judge it just on how it looks.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Lean On Pete (15)

Making his American debut, British director Andrew Haigh’s adaption of the existential third novel by Willy Vlautin, frontman with alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine, with its heady Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy influences, the film shaping up as an episodic coming of age road movie that provides a contemporary snapshot of the American underclass as it and its young protagonist undertakes its slow-burning, if slightly overstretched journey.

Set in Portland, Oregon, it features a tour de force performance from Charlie Plummer, recently seen in All The Money in The World, as Charley, a 15-year-old from a broken home who, the air recently relocated from Washington,  lives with his good-hearted but irresponsible young father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley’s drawn to the local racetrack where, in the films longest section, he gets a job helping cantankerous horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) by looking after the horses and preparing them for the races as they travel the run down racetracks and carnies across the Pacific Northwest.

He forms a particular bond with Lean On Pete, a five-year-old sprinter coming to the end of his days on the track without ever fulfilling what Charley sees as his potential. He also strikes up a friendship with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a jockey who rides for Del and who has seen her own share of knockbacks, pointedly noting how “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.”  Charley wants her to ride Pete, to give him a chance, but she demurs, also warning him “You can’t think of them as pets.”

Two life-charging incidents set Charley on his journey, the death of his father following a run-in with a jealous husband and a hospital foul-up and Del’s decision to sell Pete after his last dismal race, to be shipped off to Mexico to become horsemeat. Faced with the prospect of being taken in by social services, with nothing to keep him in Portland and wanting to save Pete, he steals the horse and Del’s truck and hits the road, heading across the badlands to Wyoming in search of a new home to try and find his dad’s estranged sister, Aunt Margy.

Along the way, on a journey loitered with isolated truck stops and homes, his path variously crosses with a couple of chancers, a kindly waitress on whom he pulls a dine-and-dash, a sad, overweight girl stuck with her verbally abusive grandfather, itinerant  Mexican workers and, eventually, Silver (Steve Zahn), a trailer-living street smart guy whose seemingly easy-going nature hides a nastier side.

Directed in a stripped down style given to lingering widescreen vistas of the American West’s landscape, as the two down-on-their luck outcasts make their way together, Charley delivering confessional monologues to the horse as they wander the desert,  its narrative centres on one of characters’ remark that “When you don’t have anywhere to go, you’re kinda stuck.” Offering vignettes of small acts of human kindness alongside the harshness and trials that face society’s vulnerable members, it has a haunting poetic resonance and emotional power that, along with Plummer’s soulful, internalised performance sustains it through some of the longueurs as it heads to a redemptive finale, but not without a sudden unexpected shock moment that hits like a hammer blow. It’s a long haul, but the company it keeps make the journey worth it. (Electric; MAC)

Life of the Party (12A)

Following on from Amy Schumer’s underachieving I Feel Pretty, now it’s the turn of Melissa McCarthy to misfire in her third teaming with writer-director husband Ben Falcone. Pitched as a mother-daughter slash female buddy back to school comedy, McCarthy plays middle-aged mom Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) who, just minutes after dropping their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at Decatur University for her senior year, is told my hubbie Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce so he can marry high powered real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen).

Understandably depressed, back at her parents and confronted with a midlife crisis, Deanne resolves to finally complete her archaeology degree, enrolling at Decatur which she attended years back before dropping out 24 years ago after becoming pregnant. Initially not taken with the idea of having her doting, frumpy mom as a fellow student, Maddie’s soon persuaded, not least since her sorority sisters, most particularly insecure Debbie (Jessie Ennis) and snarky online celeb Helen (Gillian Jacobs), returning after eight years in a coma, think she’s just wonderful.

Before long Deanne’s the campus hit, albeit not with obligatory mean girl Jennifer (Debby Ryan) and her personality-free sidekick, to the extent of embarking on a sexual fling with a much younger fellow student, Jack (Luke Benward), the subject of an awkward reveal later in the movie (but which is never really followed through). Hopping between assorted scenes and set-ups involving parties, sorority initiations, a  dance-battle, a class presentation  meltdown (that, in character terms makes no sense) before a final fund raiser party top pay for Deanne’s fees which the girls claim Christina Aguilera is going to attend, it never really actually goes anywhere or gets beyond the basic find who you are, be true to yourself, self-reliance messages.

There are some decent moments, notably an 80s themed party at which McCarthy, in a  spangled blue jump suit, gives good dance moves and shows her physical comedy skills, but too much is driven by the script rather than the story. McCarthy is fluffily solid enough, but, given surprisingly few sharp one-liners,  she’s overshadowed throughout by Heidi Gardner as her weirdo dormmate Leonor, Maya Rudolph as sex-hungry best friend Christine and, especially Jacobs, scene stealing with just a  roll of her eyes or a facial expression. A film full of ideas but with no real clue what to do with them and with not enough jokes to satisfy trade descriptions, it flops along watchably enough until it simply runs out of steam and just stops. If you want a truly funny  house mother/sorority comedy, then search out Anna Faris in The House Bunny, meanwhile this is the sort of party where you make your excuses and leave early. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Sherlock Gnomes (U)

The original movie, Gnomeo & Juliet, was a playful, funny, inventive and charming rework of Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending. The sequel, which teams the now married lovers with a  gnome version of Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, is none of the above. Settling into their owners’ new London home, Juliet (Emily Blunt) is too busy working to get the garden right to give much time to Gnomeo (James McAvoy), who duly has a major sulk and tries to get her attention back on him. Meanwhile, some dastardly villain is kidnapping all of London’s gnomes, to which end master detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his assistant Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are on the trail, the former’s cruelly dismissive treatment of the latter mirroring the domestic disharmony in the garden. When their friends and relations also get snatched, Gnomeo and Juliet join forces with the detectives to track them down in what is a game of wits played out (Toy Story-like) across London between Holmes and his arch nemesis, the supposedly dead Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a garish yellow pie mascot in a purple nappy and bowtie, with just 24 hours before they’re smashed to pieces.

The film’s executive producer is Elton John and don’t you just know it, with an Elton lookalike gnome, either snatches of his songs or in-jokes references to them (Gnomeo’s codename is Tiny Dancer), while, with his teeth,  Moriaty even looks a bit like him. It’s well-animated with lots of detail, but unfortunately that attention doesn’t extend to the frantic but meandering plot (though it does have a clever twist) or the bland characters. Devoid of wit, the film thinks the sight of a gnome in a pink mankini flashing his buttocks is so hilarious it keeps returning to him while relegating Michael Caine and Maggie Smith to mere cameos as Lord Redbrick and Lady Blueberry. It also contrives to have a sequence set in a  doll museum as an excuse to wheel out Mary J Blige to perform a number as Holmes’ ex, Irene. It’s probably best summed up when, in a TV report about the gnome thefts, the announcer says “Some say it’s a job for Sherlock Gnomes!” before adding, “Others say it’s a slow news day!” Bored kids and adults are likely to opt for the latter.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Strangers: Prey at Night (15)

Ten years ago, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman played a couple terrorised by three strangers while staying in an isolated holiday home. Now, a decade later, comes this sequel in which, being reluctantly taken to boarding school after proving too much of a handful, stroppy teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison), her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks; Martin Henderson) and more conformist older Luke (Lewis Pullman), are taking a brief family vacation stopover at the trailer park run by her grandparents.

Arriving late at night, the place deserted, they settle into their cabin only to be disturbed by a knock at the door by some girl who’s apparently lost. Sulking, Kinsey takes off to explore the park, accompanied by Luke, and the pair wind up at their grandparents’ home only to find them butchered.  Racing home, Luke takes dad go off to show what they found and, while they’re away she and mom are attacked by a girl in a mask, Kinsey escaping and running of into the night to find the other two. And, with dad also soon despatched, the film grinds down into the siblings being hunted by the three silent, disguised killers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pinup Girl (Lea Enslin) and, sporting a sack over his head, Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), as they seek to survive.

A basic no frills slasher movie with a degree of sadistic nastiness that, back in the 70s would have seen it tagged a video nasty, it’s nihilistic and unpleasant, dwelling unnecessarily on the cruelty of the enigmatic assailants, the axe-wielding male proving inevitably almost unkillable in the final climax. 47 Metres Down director Johannes Roberts does a workmanlike job of assembling the characters and action, but fails to bring anything fresh to the genre or, indeed, much by the way of  scares, suspense or common sense.  Indeed, the scariest thing here is how Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, Kim Wilde’s Kids in America and  Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All seem to have wandered in from the soundtrack of another film entirely. When Kinsey asks Dollface why they’re doing all this she simply says “Why not?” A response that pretty much sums up the film’s own existence. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Vue Star City)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Vue Star City)

Tully  (15)

The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunites them with Young Adult star Charlize Theron as Marlo, a New York mother of two young kids, eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and the younger Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who’s about to give birth to a third. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works late and helps the kids with their homework before he goes to bed to play video games, but otherwise is oblivious to the demands of being a fulltime mother. On top of which, their son, Jonah, is demandingly ‘quirky’  (for which read autistic, though the film never uses the word) and his elite private school would really like him to have a private tutor (which the couple can’t afford) or place him elsewhere.

The arrival of baby Mia (though her name’s only revealed in passing) just adds to the pressures and, eventually, unable to cope any longer (cue a montage of nappy changing, feeding, etc.), and bearing in mind the never talked about depression she suffered after Jonah’s birth, she gives in and decides to take up the gift from her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) of a night nanny, someone who will come and take up the strain while she gets some sleep. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) a free spirit in the Juno mould who, Marlo’s very own Mary Poppins, not only looks after Mia at night between feeds but cleans the house, bakes cupcakes, offers a friendly ear and even helps reignite Marlo and Drew’s sex life. She’s well-read, well-informed, speaks different languages and dispenses words of wisdom  such as “She’ll grow a little overnight. And so will we!” She is, as Marlo puts it, “a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.”  She’s also welcomingly non-judgmental.

Marlo gets to have at least part of her life back (“It’s like I can see colour again”) and no longer feels wiped out every waking moment. But then, following a car accident after a girls’ night out in Marlo’s old stomping grounds, comes a reveal that forces you to reassess everything you’ve just seen, even if, logically, it doesn’t quite hang together.

Littered with Cody’s trademark snappy patter (Elaine Tan, as Craig’s spoiled wife Elyse, benefitting from some of the best) and driven by a raw-nerved, unglamorous  and fearless performance from Theron, drained of life through exhaustion one moment, verbally lashing out at the school principal the next, although the dreamlike imagery of mermaids doesn’t quite fit and it overstretches the metaphors in the final stretch, it’s an empathetic, intelligent and insightful examination of the darker side of motherhood they only tend to talk about in the problem pages while putting on that serene glow for the world. At the end of the day, it’s not as hilarious as Juno or as lacerating as Young Adult, but, constituted of a cocktail of ingredients from both,  it’s most definitely one that stressed-out moms should drag their husbands to see. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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

 

Ensemble announce festival line-up

Conservatoire Folk Ensemble

The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble have announced the line-up for the fifth edition of their Power Folk mini-festival.

Taking place at The Spotted Dog in Digbeth, on Sunday 10 June 2018, the line-up includes The Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar Trio, Will Pound, Threaded, Punch The Sky, and Gathering Tides.

They’ll be performing alongside the 50-plus members of the ensemble.

Alongside the all-dayer, the group will also be releasing a new album, Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities, which features 10 tracks based around the lead track, Sleepy Maggie.

According to band founder and producer Joe Broughton, variations include “club remixes, Chinese groove-monsters, full on drum’n’bass” as well as a decade old live version.

The mini-album comes a year after the ensemble celebrated their 10th anniversary with the acclaimed long-player, Painted.

Alongside Power Folk the UK’s biggest folk big band – who hail from BCU’s Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – will be on tour, with dates including Leek Arts Festival, Staffs (24 May); Huntingdon Hall, Worcester (26 May); Kendal Calling (29 July), and Green Man Festival (19 Aug).

Sunday 10 June 2018
Power Folk 5
The Spotted Dog, 104 Warwick Street, Digbeth, Birmingham B12 0NH
£15 (VIP £30) – NB. tickets limited / advance purchase recommended as the event usually sells out in advance, see online for availability …
Doors 2pm; CFE on stage 6.30pm
powerfolk.co.uk

For more information on CFE see: www.folkensemble.co.uk

Standardized Napalm

UK grindcore pioneers Napalm Death have released a video for the opening track from their new compilation album, Coded Smears And More Uncommon Slurs.

Entitled Standardization, the video was created by Costin Chioreanu / Twilight 13 Media.

Discussing the clip, Naplam vocalist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway said: “Videos I find one of the trickiest mediums to make vibrant and impactful.

“Costin, the producer though, had a lot of stuff from our Roadburn Festival presentation which seemed to fit the music quite nicely and reflect the song’s subject matter about the utter despair of a colourless life and desire of more conservative forces for a homogenous world according to gender, sexuality, human habits and, well, generally everything. No thanks!”

Coded Smears And More Uncommon Slurs (Century Media) features 31 rarities and exclusives spanning the years 2004-2016.

Emerging out of Birmingham’s metal scene in the early 1980s, Napalm Death pioneered an extreme metal sound tagged, variously over the length of their long career, as trash and grindcore.

Tracklisting

Napalm Death: Coded Smears And More Uncommon Slurs:

1. Standardization (02:46) – LP-only bonus track from Utilitarian album sessions 2011.
2. Oh So Pseudo (02:36) – Bonus track from Apex Predator – Easy Meat album sessions 2014.
3. It Failed To Explode (03:38) – Japan-only bonus track from Utilitarian album sessions 2011.
4. Losers (04:22) – Bonus track from The Code Is Red…Long Live The Code album sessions 2004.
5. Call That An Option? (03:03) – Bonus track from Smear Campaign album sessions 2006.
6. Caste As Waste (03:06) – Japan-only bonus track from Apex Predator – Easy Meat album sessions 2014.
7. We Hunt In Packs (03:49) – Japan-only bonus track from Time Waits For No Slave album sessions 2008.
8. Oxygen Of Duplicity (03:30) – From Melvins Split EP, recorded 2013.
9. Paracide (01:39) – Gepopel cover / Japan-only bonus track from Apex Predator – Easy Meat album sessions 2014.
10. Critical Gluttonous Mass (02:26) – Bonus track from Apex Predator – Easy Meat album sessions 2014.
11. Aim Without An Aim (03:05) – Bonus track from Utilitarian album sessions 2011.
12. An Extract (Strip It Clean) (03:12) – From Split EP with Heaven Shall Burn, recorded 2014.
13. Phonetics For The Stupefied (03:29) – From Split EP with Voivod, recorded 2014.
14. Suppressed Hunger (03:09) – Bonus track from Time Waits For No Slave album sessions 2008.
15. To Go Off And Things (02:29) – Cardiacs cover / From Split EP with Melvins, recorded 2013.
16. Clouds of Cancer / Victims Of Ignorance (02:06) – G-ANX cover / Bonus track from Apex Predator – Easy Meat album sessions 2014.
17. What Is Past Is Prologue (02:57) – Bonus track from Apex Predator – Easy Meat album sessions 2014.
18. Like Piss To A Sting (01:31) – From Split EP with Melt Banana, recorded 2014.
19. Where The Barren Is Fertile (02:22) – From Split EP with Melt Banana, recorded 2014.
20. Crash The Pose (01:33) – Gauze cover / Japan-only bonus track from The Code Is Red…Long Live The Code album sessions 2004.
21. Earthwire (02:55) – Download only as DZI Foundation benefit following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, recorded 2014.
22. Will By Mouth (01:25) – From Split EP with Converge, recorded 2012.
23. Everything In Mono (02:48) – Bonus track from Utilitarian album sessions 2011.
24. Omnipresent Knife In Your Back (05:15) – Bonus track from Time Waits For No Slave album sessions 2008.
25. Lifeline (03:18) – Sacrilege cover / From Respect Your Roots Worldwide compilation, recorded 2011.
26. Youth Offender (02:07) – B-Side from Analysis Paralysis EP; recorded 2011.
27. No Impediment To Triumph (Bhopal) (03:02) – From Split EP with Converge, recorded 2012.
28. Legacy Was Yesterday (02:15) – From Decibel Magazine Flexi EP, recorded 2010.
29. Outconditioned (02:25) – Despair cover / From Covering 20 Years Of Extremes compilation, recorded 2008.
30. Atheist Runt (06:07) – Bonus track from Smear Campaign album sessions 2006.
31. Weltschmerz (Extended Apocalyptic Version) (04:05) – Bonus track from Smear Campaign album sessions 2006.

Napalm Death play the Dogtooth Stage at Download Festival on Friday 8 June 2018.

For more information, see: www.napalmdeath.org

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 11-Thu May 17

NEW RELEASES

Breaking In (15)

A home invasion movie that places a strong woman fighting to protect her kids front and centre, director  James McTeigue may not offer any major twists on the well-worn set-up, but, anchored by a  powerful turn from Gabrielle Union,  this short and sharp thriller delivers solid tension and bursts of bloody action.

Returning to her estranged criminal father’s remote and fortress-like high-tech security mansion after he’s killed in a deliberate hit and run, Shaun (Union), who has had nothing to do with him for years, is just there for the weekend with her two kids, teen daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and younger son Glover (Seth Carr), to arrange the sale. However, she’s not the only one. Tipped off that there’s a safe packed with millions of dollars, four thieves, Eddie (Billy Burke) and his associates, tattooed psycho Duncan (Richard Cabral), nervy  Sam (Levi Meaden) and former military man Peter (Mark Furze), are determined to get their hands on it. However, they didn’t reckon on anyone else being there.

While Shaun’s outside, they take the kids hostage, setting in motion a taut game of cat and mouse as her maternal instincts take on a  Liam Neeson hue (tellingly, it’s written by Ryan Engle who also penned Non Stop and The Commuter), using whatever’s at hand, broken wine glass, toy drone,  to turn the tables and take the fight to the assailants who, in time-honoured tradition, prove to be conveniently inept.

Naturally, there’s plenty of sneaking round darkened corridors and lurking in shadows, punctuated by some bloodshedding via Duncan slitting the throat of the unfortunate estate agent and a remarkably resourceful Shaun doing a  number on Peter before engineering her way back inside the house.

It’s thinly written and fairly one-dimensional in terms of character, but, for disposable female empowerment action that serves up the payback without troubling the brain cells, this does its job in efficiently effective style. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

Anon (15)

A Netflix production getting a simultaneous release via Sky Movies, writer-director Andrew Niccol’s’ latest excursion into dystopian sci fi noir parables is perhaps a little too convoluted for its own good. Set in a resolutely digital future where, ostensibly as a warped concept of security,  it’s possible to access a ‘record’ of everything the eye sees, data on people and objects popping up as you look at them. It’s a boon for the likes of loner divorcee detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) since it’s impossible to hide from any crime, murder included. As such, however, police work is all a bit dull really, his day usually comprising of things like showing a father enquiring about his missing son the moment before he stepped of a tall building. So, he’s particularly intrigued when, in a short space of time, he’s called to the scenes of several murders (death here is termed end of file) but from which all evidence of the killer has been removed, even looking at the recorded memories of the victims up to the moment of death, the record is from the killer’s p.o.v., meaning that they have the ability to hack into another person’s ‘mind’s eye’.

Prime suspect in all this is Anon (Anna Seyfried), a woman Sal registered on the street when she showed no data at all, a digital ghost, an error, off-grid. The only way to get to her is to go undercover and use himself as bait, asking for her services to remove compromising moments from his  record and replace them with doctored versions. The risk been that all her previous clients have wound up dead. To assist, what he sees is being monitored by a specialist team back at the station while another colleague tries to triangulate a fix on the suspect when she and Sal meet at his supposed apartment.

It’s an intriguing premise and, by and large, Niccol navigates the logic dexterously, layering the narrative by having Sal a troubled soul, haunted by guilt over the death of his young son and withholding any backstory regarding Anon until the end, further complicating matters by she and Sal having sex and then, after his cover’s blown, all of his precious memories being erased and he quite literally finds himself unable to believe what he’s seeing. To which end, he himself ends up as a suspect in another killing.

With Owen playing familiar hangdog deadpan, Seyfried doing enigmatic and the film carrying a  chilly atmosphere redolent of Niccol’s earlier Gattaca, it pulls you even if as it becomes increasingly difficult to follow. Unfortunately, it can’t sustain things to the end,  the relationship between Anon and Sal never rings true despite their edgy chemistry while a somewhat rushed last act introduces twists and turns from up Niccol’s sleeve that simply feel like a cheat. (Everyman)

 

Custody (15)

An emotionally brutal examination of a custody tug of war, French writer-director  Xavier Legrand’s debut feature is an uncomfortable watch.  It opens at a hearing as the attorneys for the mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker), and her ex-husband, Antoine (a physically imposing Denis Ménochet), make their cases to the judge as to what should the arrangements be regarding their 11-year-old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). The boy’s deposition makes it clear he never wants to see ‘that man’ again, but there’s always the possibility of coaching, while, rejecting accusations of domestic abuse, Antoine’s council makes the case that the boy needs a father’s guiding influence.

Suffice to say, the ruling is that he has access at weekends, though it’s clear that the sullen Julien would rather be anywhere else. Meanwhile, Miriam, gets an apartment in the projects for herself, Julien and his sister, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), who, about to turn 18, is not subject to custody, while still pretending to her ex that they’re living with her parents.  Needless to say, with Julien wanting to go to his sister’s birthday party, he becomes a means of each parent punishing the other while offloading the blame, while weighed down with the guilt at being unable to protect his mother and that this somehow all his fault.

While Miriam is no angel, willing to use her children to get her own back, you’re never in any doubt that Antoine, albeit a well-respected hospital administrator, is a malevolent, abusive force, short-fused and intimidating under the firm belief that he has been wronged by being deprive don wife and son, so it’s no real surprise when things eventually turn violent, though that in no way lessens the shock in watching events unfold. All of which firmly places Julien, played with palpable trepidation and a physical sense of real fear by first time actor Gioria, at the film’s emotional centre. Told with raw unsentimentality and a naturalistic approach that recalls the Dardenne brothers, it leaves you drained.  (Electric; Until Tue:  MAC)

Entebbe (12A)

Almost 42 years since the actual incident,  Brazilian director José Padilha offers a somewhat pointless revisiting of the attempt by Israeli commandos to rescue the 246, mostly Jewish, passengers from the Air France plane that, hijacked by left wing German radicals,  had  landed in Uganda, matters complicated by the fact that the country’s famously unstable dictator, Idi Amin, was acting as the go between in negotiations, threatening to kill hostages if no agreement was reached. Israel, of course, had already declared its refusal to negotiate with terrorists.

The incident spawned not one but three quickly made exploitative cash-ins immediately in its wake, variously featuring Anthony Hopkins Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster and Klaus Kinski. This time round, you get Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike as Revolutionary Cell members Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann who, along with two Palestinians, hijack the plane in support of the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine.

Told largely from the passengers;’ perspective, it’s a singularly unthrilling and sluggish affair, overburdened with huge chunks of exposition  as the radicals debate ideology (often in risible lines like “I want to throw bombs into the consciousness of the masses”) and the politicians explain things to one another.  Brühl is his usual reliable self in the sort of character he’s played countless time but Pike is and looks totally miscast, scenes of her losing it and hacking at her hair or delivering a distracted monologue over the phone convincing for all the wrong reasons. The cast list also wheels on Eddie Marsan as impressively eyebrowed Israeli defence minister, Shimon Peres, Lior Ashkenazi as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and, relishing the brief opportunity  to chew the scenery, Nonso Anozie as Amin, all three of them looking to exploit the situation to their political advantage.

The only thing that injects any interest is the bizarre decision to use the fact that an idealistic commando has a dancer girlfriend to interweave the hostage narrative with a modern dance piece set to a traditional Passover song featuring  black clad women and a lot of drumming and chanting. It’s designed to build the tension, but, while undeniably well executed and choreographed, is utterly deflated when the aforementioned soldier declares “I fight so you can dance!” (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Lean On Pete (15)

Making his American debut, British director Andrew Haigh’s adaption of the existential third novel by Willy Vlautin, frontman with alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine, with its heady Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy influences, the film shaping up as an episodic coming of age road movie that provides a contemporary snapshot of the American underclass as it and its young protagonist undertakes its slow-burning, if slightly overstretched journey.

Set in Portland, Oregon, it features a tour de force performance from Charlie Plummer, recently seen in All The Money in The World, as Charley, a 15-year-old from a broken home who, the air recently relocated from Washington,  lives with his good-hearted but irresponsible young father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley’s drawn to the local racetrack where, in the films longest section, he gets a job helping cantankerous horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) by looking after the horses and preparing them for the races as they travel the run down racetracks and carnies across the Pacific Northwest.

He forms a particular bond with Lean On Pete, a five-year-old sprinter coming to the end of his days on the track without ever fulfilling what Charley sees as his potential. He also strikes up a friendship with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a jockey who rides for Del and who has seen her own share of knockbacks, pointedly noting how “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.”  Charley wants her to ride Pete, to give him a chance, but she demurs, also warning him “You can’t think of them as pets.”

Two life-charging incidents set Charley on his journey, the death of his father following a run-in with a jealous husband and a hospital foul-up and Del’s decision to sell Pete after his last dismal race, to be shipped off to Mexico to become horsemeat. Faced with the prospect of being taken in by social services, with nothing to keep him in Portland and wanting to save Pete, he steals the horse and Del’s truck and hits the road, heading across the badlands to Wyoming in search of a new home to try and find his dad’s estranged sister, Aunt Margy.

Along the way, on a journey loitered with isolated truck stops and homes, his path variously crosses with a couple of chancers, a kindly waitress on whom he pulls a dine-and-dash, a sad, overweight girl stuck with her verbally abusive grandfather, itinerant  Mexican workers and, eventually, Silver (Steve Zahn), a trailer-living street smart guy whose seemingly easy-going nature hides a nastier side.

Directed in a stripped down style given to lingering widescreen vistas of the American West’s landscape, as the two down-on-their luck outcasts make their way together, Charley delivering confessional monologues to the horse as they wander the desert,  its narrative centres on one of characters’ remark that “When you don’t have anywhere to go, you’re kinda stuck.” Offering vignettes of small acts of human kindness alongside the harshness and trials that face society’s vulnerable members, it has a haunting poetic resonance and emotional power that, along with Plummer’s soulful, internalised performance sustains it through some of the longueurs as it heads to a redemptive finale, but not without a sudden unexpected shock moment that hits like a hammer blow. It’s a long haul, but the company it keeps make the journey worth it. (Electric)

Life of the Party (12A)

Following on from Amy Schumer’s underachieving I Feel Pretty, now it’s the turn of Melissa McCarthy to misfire in her third teaming with writer-director husband Ben Falcone. Pitched as a mother-daughter slash female buddy back to school comedy, McCarthy plays middle-aged mom Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) who, just minutes after dropping their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at Decatur University for her senior year, is told my hubbie Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce so he can marry high powered real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen).

Understandably depressed, back at her parents and confronted with a midlife crisis, Deanne resolves to finally complete her archaeology degree, enrolling at Decatur which she attended years back before dropping out 24 years ago after becoming pregnant. Initially not taken with the idea of having her doting, frumpy mom as a fellow student, Maddie’s soon persuaded, not least since her sorority sisters, most particularly insecure Debbie (Jessie Ennis) and snarky online celeb Helen (Gillian Jacobs), returning after eight years in a coma, think she’s just wonderful.

Before long Deanne’s the campus hit, albeit not with obligatory mean girl Jennifer (Debby Ryan) and her personality-free sidekick, to the extent of embarking on a sexual fling with a much younger fellow student, Jack (Luke Benward), the subject of an awkward reveal later in the movie (but which is never really followed through). Hopping between assorted scenes and set-ups involving parties, sorority initiations, a  dance-battle, a class presentation  meltdown (that, in character terms makes no sense) before a final fund raiser party top pay for Deanne’s fees which the girls claim Christina Aguilera is going to attend, it never really actually goes anywhere or gets beyond the basic find who you are, be true to yourself, self-reliance messages.

There are some decent moments, notably an 80s themed party at which McCarthy, in a  spangled blue jump suit, gives good dance moves and shows her physical comedy skills, but too much is driven by the script rather than the story. McCarthy is fluffily solid enough, but, given surprisingly few sharp one-liners,  she’s overshadowed throughout by Heidi Gardner as her weirdo dormmate Leonor, Maya Rudolph as sex-hungry best friend Christine and, especially Jacobs, scene stealing with just a  roll of her eyes or a facial expression. A film full of ideas but with no real clue what to do with them and with not enough jokes to satisfy trade descriptions, it flops along watchably enough until it simply runs out of steam and just stops. If you want a truly funny  house mother/sorority comedy, then search out Anna Faris in The House Bunny, meanwhile this is the sort of party where you make your excuses and leave early. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Revenge (18)

When  smug millionaire alpha male Richard  (Kevin Janssens) takes  his young, lollipop sucking Lolita-ish American mistress Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) to his luxury isolated desert retreat for the weekend, he’s looking forward to a couple of days of steamy sex before she ships back out and he heads off on his annual hunting trip. However, when his hunting buddies, insecure Stan (Vincent Colombe) and slobbish Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède)  arrive early, things take a dramatic turn when, having given him a somewhat intoxicated body grinding sexy dance the night before, with Richard away getting supplies, Stan corners her and demands to know why she now doesn’t find him attractive. When she  explains that he misread things, he brutally rapes her out of wounded male pride while Dimitri turns a blind eye. On his return, learning what’s happened, Richard tries to sweep it under the carpet, offering Jen a hefty pay off and a job in Canada for her silence. When she understandably refuses and threatens to call his wife, he slaps her. She runs off, they give chase and, ultimately, Richard shoves her off a mountain, leaving her impaled on a shrub below.

However, when they come to get the body en route to their hunting, it’s gone. Jen has survived, freed herself and taken off. Now the three have to find her and finish the job. Jen, however, proves far tougher and more resilient than they’d imagined, removing the stake in her stomach and cauterising the wound with a beer can while under the pain-killing influence of peyote (and ending up with a striking gut tattoo), and, eventually, tooled up with a high-powered rifle and knife relieved from one of the men, seeking bloody revenge. And bloody it most certainly is.

Bringing a potent theme of female empowerment  in confrontation with testosterone-charged toxic masculinity and its sense of entitlement, making her feature debut, while writer-director Corlaie Fargeat films the rape scene through suggestion and sound rather than explicitly, she doesn’t pull back from the subsequent intense graphic, visceral horror with close up shots of Jen’s blood splashing on to ants, gaping wounds gushing with blood (or indeed a mouth chewing a candy bar), the climax quite literally awash with the stuff.

There’s not too much of a plot once the hunter and prey narrative kicks in, but, while you might question how, given the blood she’s lost, Jen still manages to have such strength (the fire driving her on, one assumes)  and some excursions into gory hallucinations with heads being blown apart, Fageat keeps it reasonably well-grounded in realistic terms. That said, she does rather overdo the symbolism (a slowly rotting half-eaten apple, Jen hallucinating Stan as a lizard, the TV screen features macho wrestling and motor racing scenes until, in the final face-off, it switches playfully to a shopping channel) and accusations of fetishisation with a dirty and blood-caked Jen and her striking glowing pink earring are not without foundation.

Building to a tense, blood-soaked finale to a pulsing electro score and shot with intense saturation, Fageat offers up Jen as a reborn angel of retribution in a mysognistic hellish world, a role which Lutz pulls off with explosive charisma. What a pity no one saw this before they remade Tomb Raider. (Cineworld NEC; Thu: Mockingbird

 

Sherlock Gnomes (U)

The original movie, Gnomeo & Juliet, was a playful, funny, inventive and charming rework of Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending. The sequel, which teams the now married lovers with a  gnome version of Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, is none of the above. Settling into their owners’ new London home, Juliet (Emily Blunt) is too busy working to get the garden right to give much time to Gnomeo (James McAvoy), who duly has a major sulk and tries to get her attention back on him. Meanwhile, some dastardly villain is kidnapping all of London’s gnomes, to which end master detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his assistant Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are on the trail, the former’s cruelly dismissive treatment of the latter mirroring the domestic disharmony in the garden. When their friends and relations also get snatched, Gnomeo and Juliet join forces with the detectives to track them down in what is a game of wits played out (Toy Story-like) across London between Holmes and his arch nemesis, the supposedly dead Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a garish yellow pie mascot in a purple nappy and bowtie, with just 24 hours before they’re smashed to pieces.

The film’s executive producer is Elton John and don’t you just know it, with an Elton lookalike gnome, either snatches of his songs or in-jokes references to them (Gnomeo’s codename is Tiny Dancer), while, with his teeth,  Moriaty even looks a bit like him. It’s well-animated with lots of detail, but unfortunately that attention doesn’t extend to the frantic but meandering plot (though it does have a clever twist) or the bland characters. Devoid of wit, the film thinks the sight of a gnome in a pink mankini flashing his buttocks is so hilarious it keeps returning to him while relegating Michael Caine and Maggie Smith to mere cameos as Lord Redbrick and Lady Blueberry. It also contrives to have a sequence set in a  doll museum as an excuse to wheel out Mary J Blige to perform a number as Holmes’ ex, Irene. It’s probably best summed up when, in a TV report about the gnome thefts, the announcer says “Some say it’s a job for Sherlock Gnomes!” before adding, “Others say it’s a slow news day!” Bored kids and adults are likely to opt for the latter.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

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

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

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

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

All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and sef-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises,  these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Beast (15)

Very loosely inspired by the so called Beast of Jersey, 60s sex offender Edward John Louis Paisnel,  first time writer/director Michael Pearce pulls off a tense and compelling psychological thriller that, despite some flaws, marks him out as a definite person of  Hollywood interest.

Set in present day Jersey, it stars Jessie Buckley (who co-starred in Taboo and is currently to be seen in the BBC’s The Woman In White) as tourist guide Moll, an intelligent but wild spirited red-head with a troubled past involving stabbing a school bully and a passive-aggressive mother (Geraldine James) who home schooled her and keeps her on a tight leash, making her look after her sickly father. When her 28th birthday celebrations are upstaged by her sister announcing she’s pregnant, Moll storms off in a strop and heads to a dance club where she hooks up with one of the locals who, on their way home in the early morning, comes on threateningly insistently until he’s scared off by a new arrival, a straggly-bearded and scarred but handsome gun-bearing poacher by the name of Pascal Renouf (folk musician Johnny Flynn) who gives her a lift home.

Much to her mother’s displeasure, Moll asks Pascal back to do some handyman jobs and is increasingly drawn to his air of mystery and danger, and perhaps, also his heady, musky smell. However,  she’s not long into the relationship when Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a local copper who has a thing for her, confides that Pascal, who, a native islander with a criminal record for underage sexual assault, is a bit of an outsider in the more judgemental British community, is on a short list of suspects (which, for some, also includes the influx of seasonal migrant workers)  as the potential serial killer who’s raping and murdering young women by shoving soil down their throats. Rebellious to a fault when challenged by authority, Moll gives him an alibi for the night they met, refusing to be shaken even when intimidatingly questioned by a detective (Olwen Fouere) shipped in from the mainland to take on the case. The fact is, Moll, who herself borders on the sociopathic, gets a kick out of the way her involvement with Pascal irritates her mother and her stuffy family circle and, even as she begins to question his innocence, she feels a powerful kinship of personality, one that could have dangerous consequences for them both.

The serial killer aspect is very much just a subplot here to the film’s examination of the characters’ dysfunctional dynamics and wilfully self-destructive rebellion and, while it climaxes with an unexpected and bloody disturbing jolt, it’s arguably stronger in the early going before Pearce starts playing with the audience’s assumptions  overstretching the plausibility with a convoluted narrative. Even so, he makes effective use of his Hitchcock influences (Suspicion and The Lodger to be precise) and is well served by big screen career boosting performances from Buckley and Flynn whose chemistry crackles like messing with gunpowder. It ultimately poses more questions than it has answers, but it remains a strikingly impressive debut. (Everyman)

Black Panther (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, while Alun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (MAC)

 

 

Ghost Stories (15)

Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.

Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV  hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.

The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.

Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.

The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator,  is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and  a clever if illogical final reveal. (Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (Cineworld Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I Feel Pretty (12A)

While undeniably flawed, this Amy Schumer comedy, working a  similar riff to Trainwreck,   is far better than some of the scathing reviews would suggest and comes with book/cover and be who you are/self-esteem messages that would do Disney proud. Schumer plays New Yorker Renee Bennett who works for the online department of mega cosmetics company Lily LeClaire, albeit ferreted away in a  dingy Chinatown office with her slobby co-worker (Adrian Martinez) because the company only wants beautiful things in its Fifth Avenue HQ. She and her equally ‘ordinary’ friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) post photos on a dating site but get no views, further persuading Renee that looks are everything (though one wonders how, if they  get no views they can be rejected on their appearance) and, one night, after watching bodyswap comedy Big, fed up of being ignored in bars and stores, she impulsively rushes out into the rain and throws a coin into a wishing fountain asking to be beautiful.

The next day, attending Soul Cycle class (basically a keep fit workout on a fixed bike), she falls and bangs her head and, when she comes round and looks in the mirror she sees the figure she wants to be. Physically, she looks exactly the same, but persuaded she’s now drop dead gorgeous, her confidence crawls out from under its shell and she applies for the job of receptionist at Lily LeClaire. As the first face visitors see, she’s understandably not the sort of person the interviewing panel of CFO Helen  (Naomi Campbell) and squeaky-voiced CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams making the most of a gag that rapidly wears thin) are looking for. But, having been recently given an earful by her company founder grandmother (Lauren Hutton) about appealing to the ‘ordinary’ consumer in launching their new budget line, Avery, who has her own self-esteem issues, hires her. And, not only does she land a swanky job, but she also acquires a sensitive boyfriend in the shape of Ethan (Rory Scovel) following a  meet cute in the dry cleaners where she takes the initiative. On top of which, she’s also given the eye by Avery’s hunky brother Grant (Tom Hopper), although that subplot never really goes anywhere.

As per narrative requirements, Renee’s elevation to a new social circle, and the fact that the company call on her for her sensible marketing advice for the new product, means she shuts out her old friends (spelled out all too blatantly when she dumps them at a restaurant to gain access to an exclusive party). And, of course, there’s inevitably another bump to the head that removes the ‘magic’, right on the eve of a major conference where she’s supposed to deliver the important pitch. No longer thinking she looks the way she thought she did, she can’t bring herself to face LeClaire or, indeed, Ethan. She first has to realise who she was all along.

Given that  Vivian or Jane could easily point out she looks exactly the same despite her saying they probably don’t recognise who she is, it’s a somewhat flawed premise, but, even so, there’s an infectious sweetness to it with Renee a likeable character while Schumer, who has built a stand-up career on ironic self-deprecation and the superficiality of society, always shines when the material doesn’t. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who fared far better with He’s Just Not That Into You and How To Be Single, never seem quite sure how to get to the final destination of their positive body-image moral, such as Renee taking part in a bikini contest, which, while amusing, negates the admiration for her balls  since she’s oblivious to the fact that he clearly looks nothing like the other curvy contestants.

At the end of the day it’s basically Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Devil Wears Prada with a dressing of ‘magic’ and all too obvious soundtrack beats like Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire and Meghan Trainor’s Me Too to point the audience in the right direction, but you shouldn’t judge it just on how it looks.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary And The Witch’s Flower (U)

Although  Oscar-nominated Japanese animator and director Yonebayashi Hiromasa is working outside the Studio Ghibli set-up, his latest retains pretty much all the trademarks of his work on The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, but with a more light-hearted approach. Adapted from Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick, which, with its school of magic, predated Harry Potter by several decades, it’s set in Peter Rabbit-like English countryside where Mary (Ruby Barnhill), her parents away on business, is spending the last week of the summer holidays before starting at a new school with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) and the housekeeper (Morweena Banks). Bored with no friends and nothing to do, infuriated with her unmanageable mop of frizzy red hair, and infuriated by the mockery of local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), she takes off into the wood, led by a  couple of cats, Tib and Gib, where she chances upon a mysterious blue flower. According to the gardener, it’s a rare species called Fly By Night that was associated with witches. And sure enough, having been led by Tib to discover a broomstick in a tree, accidentally squeezing flower juice over it and her hands, it takes her and the cat off to Endor, a steampunk city in the clouds, where the College of Magic headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), impressed by Mary’s apparent super class magical skills, wants to enrol her. However, Mary’s a little disturbed by the transformation experiments her associate, Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) is carrying out and his talk of failures that he keeps hidden away in a locked vault, and resolves not to return.

But, when  Mumblechook learns Mary has found the flowers, a vital ingredient for the experiments (and which links back to the opening sequence of a young witch being chased after stealing gag of seeds), she and Dee kidnap Peter to force Mary to hand them over. Now, Mary has to draw on her own courage and her newfound magic to rescue Peter, save the transformed creatures and put an end to Mumblechook’s plans to create a world of magical beings.

Released in both dubbed and subtitled versions, again exploring the anime concept of the ‘magic girl’, it’s a colourful inventive and fast-paced adventure that carries familiar themes of self-confidence, female empowerment and the dangers of scientific excess that should delight its tweenage girl audience and Studio Ghibli devotees alike.  (Odeon Birmingham)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Strangers: Prey at Night (15)

Ten years ago, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman played a couple terrorised by three strangers while staying in an isolated holiday home. Now, a decade later, comes this sequel in which, being reluctantly taken to boarding school after proving too much of a handful, stroppy teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison), her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks; Martin Henderson) and more conformist older Luke (Lewis Pullman), are taking a brief family vacation stopover at the trailer park run by her grandparents.

Arriving late at night, the place deserted, they settle into their cabin only to be disturbed by a knock at the door by some girl who’s apparently lost. Sulking, Kinsey takes off to explore the park, accompanied by Luke, and the pair wind up at their grandparents’ home only to find them butchered.  Racing home, Luke takes dad go off to show what they found and, while they’re away she and mom are attacked by a girl in a mask, Kinsey escaping and running of into the night to find the other two. And, with dad also soon despatched, the film grinds down into the siblings being hunted by the three silent, disguised killers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pinup Girl (Lea Enslin) and, sporting a sack over his head, Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), as they seek to survive.

A basic no frills slasher movie with a degree of sadistic nastiness that, back in the 70s would have seen it tagged a video nasty, it’s nihilistic and unpleasant, dwelling unnecessarily on the cruelty of the enigmatic assailants, the axe-wielding male proving inevitably almost unkillable in the final climax. 47 Metres Down director Johannes Roberts does a workmanlike job of assembling the characters and action, but fails to bring anything fresh to the genre or, indeed, much by the way of  scares, suspense or common sense.  Indeed, the scariest thing here is how Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, Kim Wilde’s Kids in America and  Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All seem to have wandered in from the soundtrack of another film entirely. When Kinsey asks Dollface why they’re doing all this she simply says “Why not?” A response that pretty much sums up the film’s own existence. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tully  (15)

The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunites them with Young Adult star Charlize Theron as Marlo, a New York mother of two young kids, eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and the younger Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who’s about to give birth to a third. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works late and helps the kids with their homework before he goes to bed to play video games, but otherwise is oblivious to the demands of being a fulltime mother. On top of which, their son, Jonah, is demandingly ‘quirky’  (for which read autistic, though the film never uses the word) and his elite private school would really like him to have a private tutor (which the couple can’t afford) or place him elsewhere.

The arrival of baby Mia (though her name’s only revealed in passing) just adds to the pressures and, eventually, unable to cope any longer (cue a montage of nappy changing, feeding, etc.), and bearing in mind the never talked about depression she suffered after Jonah’s birth, she gives in and decides to take up the gift from her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) of a night nanny, someone who will come and take up the strain while she gets some sleep. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) a free spirit in the Juno mould who, Marlo’s very own Mary Poppins, not only looks after Mia at night between feeds but cleans the house, bakes cupcakes, offers a friendly ear and even helps reignite Marlo and Drew’s sex life. She’s well-read, well-informed, speaks different languages and dispenses words of wisdom  such as “She’ll grow a little overnight. And so will we!” She is, as Marlo puts it, “a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.”  She’s also welcomingly non-judgmental.

Marlo gets to have at least part of her life back (“It’s like I can see colour again”) and no longer feels wiped out every waking moment. But then, following a car accident after a girls’ night out in Marlo’s old stomping grounds, comes a reveal that forces you to reassess everything you’ve just seen, even if, logically, it doesn’t quite hang together.

Littered with Cody’s trademark snappy patter (Elaine Tan, as Craig’s spoiled wife Elyse, benefitting from some of the best) and driven by a raw-nerved, unglamorous  and fearless performance from Theron, drained of life through exhaustion one moment, verbally lashing out at the school principal the next, although the dreamlike imagery of mermaids doesn’t quite fit and it overstretches the metaphors in the final stretch, it’s an empathetic, intelligent and insightful examination of the darker side of motherhood they only tend to talk about in the problem pages while putting on that serene glow for the world. At the end of the day, it’s not as hilarious as Juno or as lacerating as Young Adult, but, constituted of a cocktail of ingredients from both,  it’s most definitely one that stressed-out moms should drag their husbands to see. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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 4-Thu May 10

NEW RELEASES

Tully  (15)

The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunites them with Young Adult star Charlize Theron as Marlo, a New York mother of two young kids, eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and the younger Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who’s about to give birth to a third. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works late and helps the kids with their homework before he goes to bed to play video games, but otherwise is oblivious to the demands of being a fulltime mother. On top of which, their son, Jonah, is demandingly ‘quirky’  (for which read autistic, though the film never uses the word) and his elite private school would really like him to have a private tutor (which the couple can’t afford) or place him elsewhere.

The arrival of baby Mia (though her name’s only revealed in passing) just adds to the pressures and, eventually, unable to cope any longer (cue a montage of nappy changing, feeding, etc.), and bearing in mind the never talked about depression she suffered after Jonah’s birth, she gives in and decides to take up the gift from her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) of a night nanny, someone who will come and take up the strain while she gets some sleep. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) a free spirit in the Juno mould who, Marlo’s very own Mary Poppins, not only looks after Mia at night between feeds but cleans the house, bakes cupcakes, offers a friendly ear and even helps reignite Marlo and Drew’s sex life. She’s well-read, well-informed, speaks different languages and dispenses words of wisdom  such as “She’ll grow a little overnight. And so will we!” She is, as Marlo puts it, “a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.”  She’s also welcomingly non-judgmental.

Marlo gets to have at least part of her life back (“It’s like I can see colour again”) and no longer feels wiped out every waking moment. But then, following a car accident after a girls’ night out in Marlo’s old stomping grounds, comes a reveal that forces you to reassess everything you’ve just seen, even if, logically, it doesn’t quite hang together.

Littered with Cody’s trademark snappy patter (Elaine Tan, as Craig’s spoiled wife Elyse, benefitting from some of the best) and driven by a raw-nerved, unglamorous  and fearless performance from Theron, drained of life through exhaustion one moment, verbally lashing out at the school principal the next, although the dreamlike imagery of mermaids doesn’t quite fit and it overstretches the metaphors in the final stretch, it’s an empathetic, intelligent and insightful examination of the darker side of motherhood they only tend to talk about in the problem pages while putting on that serene glow for the world. At the end of the day, it’s not as hilarious as Juno or as lacerating as Young Adult, but, constituted of a cocktail of ingredients from both,  it’s most definitely one that stressed-out moms should drag their husbands to see. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

I Feel Pretty (12A)

While undeniably flawed, this Amy Schumer comedy, working a  similar riff to Trainwreck,   is far better than some of the scathing reviews would suggest and comes with book/cover and be who you are/self-esteem messages that would do Disney proud. Schumer plays New Yorker Renee Bennett who works for the online department of mega cosmetics company Lily LeClaire, albeit ferreted away in a  dingy Chinatown office with her slobby co-worker (Adrian Martinez) because the company only wants beautiful things in its Fifth Avenue HQ. She and her equally ‘ordinary’ friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) post photos on a dating site but get no views, further persuading Renee that looks are everything (though one wonders how, if they  get no views they can be rejected on their appearance) and, one night, after watching bodyswap comedy Big, fed up of being ignored in bars and stores, she impulsively rushes out into the rain and throws a coin into a wishing fountain asking to be beautiful.

The next day, attending Soul Cycle class (basically a keep fit workout on a fixed bike), she falls and bangs her head and, when she comes round and looks in the mirror she sees the figure she wants to be. Physically, she looks exactly the same, but persuaded she’s now drop dead gorgeous, her confidence crawls out from under its shell and she applies for the job of receptionist at Lily LeClaire. As the first face visitors see, she’s understandably not the sort of person the interviewing panel of CFO Helen  (Naomi Campbell) and squeaky-voiced CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams making the most of a gag that rapidly wears thin) are looking for. But, having been recently given an earful by her company founder grandmother (Lauren Hutton) about appealing to the ‘ordinary’ consumer in launching their new budget line, Avery, who has her own self-esteem issues, hires her. And, not only does she land a swanky job, but she also acquires a sensitive boyfriend in the shape of Ethan (Rory Scovel) following a  meet cute in the dry cleaners where she takes the initiative. On top of which, she’s also given the eye by Avery’s hunky brother Grant (Tom Hopper), although that subplot never really goes anywhere.

As per narrative requirements, Renee’s elevation to a new social circle, and the fact that the company call on her for her sensible marketing advice for the new product, means she shuts out her old friends (spelled out all too blatantly when she dumps them at a restaurant to gain access to an exclusive party). And, of course, there’s inevitably another bump to the head that removes the ‘magic’, right on the eve of a major conference where she’s supposed to deliver the important pitch. No longer thinking she looks the way she thought she did, she can’t bring herself to face LeClaire or, indeed, Ethan. She first has to realise who she was all along.

Given that  Vivian or Jane could easily point out she looks exactly the same despite her saying they probably don’t recognise who she is, it’s a somewhat flawed premise, but, even so, there’s an infectious sweetness to it with Renee a likeable character while Schumer, who has built a stand-up career on ironic self-deprecation and the superficiality of society, always shines when the material doesn’t. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who fared far better with He’s Just Not That Into You and How To Be Single, never seem quite sure how to get to the final destination of their positive body-image moral, such as Renee taking part in a bikini contest, which, while amusing, negates the admiration for her balls  since she’s oblivious to the fact that he clearly looks nothing like the other curvy contestants.

At the end of the day it’s basically Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Devil Wears Prada with a dressing of ‘magic’ and all too obvious soundtrack beats like Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire and Meghan Trainor’s Me Too to point the audience in the right direction, but you shouldn’t judge it just on how it looks.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mary And The Witch’s Flower (U)

Although  Oscar-nominated Japanese animator and director Yonebayashi Hiromasa is working outside the Studio Ghibli set-up, his latest retains pretty much all the trademarks of his work on The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, but with a more light-hearted approach. Adapted from Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick, which, with its school of magic, predated Harry Potter by several decades, it’s set in Peter Rabbit-like English countryside where Mary (Ruby Barnhill), her parents away on business, is spending the last week of the summer holidays before starting at a new school with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) and the housekeeper (Morweena Banks). Bored with no friends and nothing to do, infuriated with her unmanageable mop of frizzy red hair and the mockery of local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), she takes off into the wood, led by a  couple of cats, Tib and Gib, where she chances upon a mysterious blue flower. According to the gardener, it’s a rare species called Fly By Night that was associated with witches. And sure enough, having been led by Tib to discover a broomstick in a tree, accidentally squeezing flower juice over it and her hands, it takes her and the cat off to Endor, a steampunk city in the clouds, where the College of Magic headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), impressed by Mary’s apparent super class magical skills, wants to enrol her. However, Mary’s a little disturbed by the transformation experiments her associate, Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) is carrying out and his talk of failures that he keeps hidden away in a locked vault, and resolves not to return.

But, when  Mumblechook learns Mary has found the flowers, a vital ingredient for the experiments (and which links back to the opening sequence of a young witch being chased after stealing gag of seeds), she and Dee kidnap Peter to force Mary to hand them over. Now, Mary has to draw on her own courage and her newfound magic to rescue Peter, save the transformed creatures and put an end to Mumblechook’s plans to create a world of magical beings.

Released in both dubbed and subtitled versions, again exploring the anime concept of the ‘magic girl’, it’s a colourful inventive and fast-paced adventure that carries familiar themes of self-confidence, female empowerment and the dangers of scientific excess that should delight its tweenage girl audience and Studio Ghibli devotees alike.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham)

 

 

The Strangers: Prey at Night (15)

Ten years ago, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman played a couple terrorised by three strangers while staying in an isolated holiday home. Now, a decade later, comes this sequel in which, being reluctantly taken to boarding school after proving too much of a handful, stroppy teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison), her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks; Martin Henderson) and more conformist older Luke (Lewis Pullman), are taking a brief family vacation stopover at the trailer park run by her grandparents.

Arriving late at night, the place deserted, they settle into their cabin only to be disturbed by a knock at the door by some girl who’s apparently lost. Sulking, Kinsey takes off to explore the park, accompanied by Luke, and the pair wind up at their grandparents’ home only to find them butchered.  Racing home, Luke takes dad go off to show what they found and, while they’re away she and mom are attacked by a girl in a mask, Kinsey escaping and running of into the night to find the other two. And, with dad also soon despatched, the film grinds down into the siblings being hunted by the three silent, disguised killers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pinup Girl (Lea Enslin) and, sporting a sack over his head, Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), as they seek to survive.

A basic no frills slasher movie with a degree of sadistic nastiness that, back in the 70s would have seen it tagged a video nasty, it’s nihilistic and unpleasant, dwelling unnecessarily on the cruelty of the enigmatic assailants, the axe-wielding male proving inevitably almost unkillable in the final climax. 47 Metres Down director Johannes Roberts does a workmanlike job of assembling the characters and action, but fails to bring anything fresh to the genre or, indeed, much by the way of  scares, suspense or common sense.  Indeed, the scariest thing here is how Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, Kim Wilde’s Kids in America and  Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All seem to have wandered in from the soundtrack of another film entirely. When Kinsey asks Dollface why they’re doing all this she simply says “Why not?” A response that pretty much sums up the film’s own existence. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Also Opening

I Got Life (Aurore) (15)

A French menopause-based dramady  from director Blandine Lenoir, this stars Agnès Jaoui  as Aurore who, as middle-age sets in finds herself adrift in life and, expierencing those hot flushes, reassessing her ideas about  age, race, social status and the importance of sex, compounded by the fact that one of her daughters announces she’s pregnant. She quits her job as a waitress after one too many rows with the boss,  works with an elderly community where she gets a few lessons about how society view men and women’s accomplishments differently as they approach the end of their lives and runs into an old flame (Thibault de Montalembert) and rekindles the spark. Chiming effectively with the #TimesUp movement, it’s a witty and affecting celebration of femininity.  (Fri-Wed: MAC)

NOW PLAYING

Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

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

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

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

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

All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and sef-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises,  these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Beast (15)

Very loosely inspired by the so called Beast of Jersey, 60s sex offender Edward John Louis Paisnel,  first time writer/director Michael Pearce pulls off a tense and compelling psychological thriller that, despite some flaws, marks him out as a definite person of  Hollywood interest.

Set in present day Jersey, it stars Jessie Buckley (who co-starred in Taboo and is currently to be seen in the BBC’s The Woman In White) as tourist guide Moll, an intelligent but wild spirited red-head with a troubled past involving stabbing a school bully and a passive-aggressive mother (Geraldine James) who home schooled her and keeps her on a tight leash, making her look after her sickly father. When her 28th birthday celebrations are upstaged by her sister announcing she’s pregnant, Molls storms off in a strop and heads to a dance club where she hooks up with one of the locals who, on their way home in the early morning, comes on threateningly insistently until he’s scared off by a new arrival, a straggly-bearded and scarred but handsome gun-bearing poacher by the name of Pascal Renouf (folk musician Johnny Flynn) who gives her a lift home.

Much to her mother’s displeasure, Moll asks Pascal back to do some handyman jobs and is increasingly drawn to his air of mystery and danger, and perhaps, also his heady, musky smell. However,  she’s not long into the relationship when Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a local copper who has a thing for her, confides that Pascal, who, a native islander with a criminal record for underage sexual assault, is a bit of an outsider in the more judgemental British community, is on a short list of suspects (which, for some, also includes the influx of seasonal migrant workers)  as the potential serial killer who’s raping and murdering young women by shoving soil down their throats. Rebellious to a fault when challenged by authority, Moll gives him an alibi for the night they met, refusing to be shaken even when intimidatingly questioned by a detective (Olwen Fouere) shipped in from the mainland to take on the case. The fact is, Moll, who herself borders on the sociopathic, gets a kick out of the way her involvement with Pascal irritates her mother and her stuffy family circle and, even as she begins to question his innocence, she feels a powerful kinship of personality, one that could have dangerous consequences for them both.

The serial killer aspect is very much just a subplot here to the film’s examination of the characters’ dysfunctional dynamics and wilfully self-destructive rebellion and, while it climaxes with an unexpected and bloody disturbing jolt, it’s arguably stronger in the early going before Pearce starts playing with the audience’s assumptions  overstretching the plausibility with a convoluted narrative. Even so, he makes effective use of his Hitchcock influences (Suspicion and The Lodger to be precise) and is well served by big screen career boosting performances from Buckley and Flynn whose chemistry crackles like messing with gunpowder. It ultimately poses more questions than it has answers, but it remains a strikingly impressive debut. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Black Panther (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, while Alun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (Cineworld 5 Ways; MAC)

 

 

Ghost Stories (15)

Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.

Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV  hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.

The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.

Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.

The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator,  is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and  a clever if illogical final reveal. (Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Isle Of Dogs (PG)

Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees. (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.

Following a  Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever  threaten to cross species and infect humans,.  With elections looming,  Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical  and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of  Science Party political rival  Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking  a cure.

However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.

Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast  that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and  Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart,  who is instrumental in prompting  his  eventual bond with Atari, alongside  Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant  called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English.  With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!),  thrilling and at times very  touching, this is an absolute mutts see  (Mockingbird)

Journeyman (15)

Paddy Considine both directs and stars as Matty Burton, a  world middleweight champion from Sheffield who probably has one last fight left in him. That turns out to be the defence of his title, which he gained by default, against mouthy young rival Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh) who, baiting him in the run-up to the fight, keeps declaring himself to be the future and that, for Matty, it will be a life-changer. As indeed it turns out to be, but in a far darker way than anyone might have imagined. Burton wins on points but, no sooner does he get home than he collapses with a  pain in the head which proves to be a serious cranial trauma that leaves him uncoordinated, his speech slow and slurred, his memory such that he has trouble placing his wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker) or remembering his baby daughter, Mia.

As  his frustrations increase, and with it his rage, a disturbing incident sees Emma, unable to cope,  leave home with her daughter, at which point Matty’s former team who, through a combination of fear, awkwardness and, perhaps, guilt, having shunned him since the incident, step up try and help nurse him back to health as he battles to regain his identity and sense of masculinity.

It’s not, as you might have assumed, an anti-boxing film, indeed, in one moving movement Matty declares he doesn’t blame Andre or the sport, but rather it’s about his struggle for recovery, about overcoming suicidal despair and being rescued by the power of love, of his team, of Emma and even of Andre, but, more importantly, his own burning desire not to lose that which he values most.

Considine directs at a measured pace, the fairly simple plot punctuated by a  couple of uppercut moments, and delivers a deeply felt, internalised, underplayed but profoundly expressive performance, imbuing the simplest of physical gestures with resonance as he embarks on a gruelling journey to reconnect with who he was. In this, he’s superbly complemented by Whittaker, Walsh and, as his trainer,  Tony Pitts and, if it gathers to a somewhat sentimentally cathartic  last round, it scores enough points along the way to be awarded the match. (Mockingbird)

Love, Simon (12A)

The first teenage gay coming out movie for mainstream audiences, adapted from a young adult novel, director Greg Berlanti strikes a pioneering moment for cinema. And, even if it lacks the emotional nuances of something like Call Me By Your Name it also happens to be very good. As the opening voice over (subsequently revisited later in the film) announces,  Simon (Nick Robinson) is your average all round decent high school teenage son of white liberal middle-class professionals (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and supportive brother to his younger sister. The only person he’s told is another anonymous gay classmate calling himself Blue, who’s been posting on a school blog and with whom he he’s virtually fallen in love, except, of course, he’s not used his real name either, calling himself Jacques. Intrigued and looking for clues, Simon starts fantasising who Blue might be – school jock Bram (Kelynan Lonsdale), soulful Cal (Miles Heizer) or perhaps Lyle (Joey Pollari), the ex-student who now works down the local burger joint, but ultimately none seem to fit the bill.

Simon’s also one of a quartet of best buddies that includes Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), feisty recent school transfer Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and doting childhood chum Leah (Katherine Langford). It’s pretty clear from the start that she has a secret crush on him, while Nick would like his relationship with Abby to be more than platonic. However, she’s also the object of affection for opportunistic show-off weirdo, Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers Simon’s secret when he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer and threatens to out him unless he helps him get close to her. Naturally, when that doesn’t work out (in a gloriously romantic but excruciatingly embarrassing public declaration of his feelings), in a fit of pique he posts Simon’s and Blue’s emails, leading the latter to block communication and Simon’s lies to and manipulations of his friends to be exposed. And, while his folks are hugely supportive, it does of course, make him a target to the school’s resident homophobes.

Since this is a standard high school romcom feelgood funny and poignant crowd pleaser but given a gay slant, it’ll be no surprise that it all ends happily, gently massaging in messages about friendship and having the courage to be who you are along the way. Robinson is slightly bland for a central character, but nevertheless endearingly likeable while the supporting cast are solid, and, if a little of Tony Hale goes a long way as the wannabe down with the kids cool Vice Principal, Clark Moore as Ethan, the only openly out student, a flamboyant cross dresser with a sharp line in put downs, and Natasha Rothwell as the no bullshit drama teacher in charge of the school’s production of Cabaret are both scene stealers. The film’s been previewed to death, but, with its strong repeat watch factor (even when you know who Blue actually is), this should easily pull in both new and returning audiences, of all sexual orientations, to prove one of the year’s biggest hits. (Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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

 

 

 

Peace release third LP

Peace, Kindness Is The New Rock'n'RollPeace release their third album, Kindness Is The New Rock And Roll, today (4 May 2018).

Tracks include From Under Liquid Glass, Power and You Don’t Walk Away From Love, which frontman Harry Koisser describes as a song “about the colours of the heart that live under the cool pastels and monochrome chequers. It’s about the bright primary stubbornness and unsophisticated optimism that won’t stop squirming toward true love. It’s a 100% real life true human emotional time capsule being unearthed for me. It was something I was desperate to say to somebody but obviously didn’t have the courage.”

The album is available on digital, vinyl, CD and limited-edition cassette formats, with various bundles also on offer.

Peace follow their recent sell-out intimate show at The Sunflower Lounge with a sell-out appearance at Birmingham’s O2 Academy (24 May 2018), as part of their UK tour.

Festival dates include Truck (19 July), Y Not festival (29 July) and 110 Above (3-5 Aug 2018).

Stream: Kindness Is The New Rock’n’Roll

Tracklisting:

PEACE: Kindness Is The New Rock’n’Roll

  1. Power
  2. Kindness Is The New Rock And Roll
  3. Silverlined
  4. You Don’t Walk Away From Love
  5. From Under Liquid Glass [Explicit]
  6. Magnificent
  7. Angel [Explicit]
  8. Shotgun Hallelujah [Explicit]
  9. Just A Ride
  10. Choose Love

More details: peaceforeverever.co.uk

Black Country rockers return with second album

Stone Broken

West Midlands rock act Stone Broken release their second studio album, Ain’t Always Easy, on 15 May 2018.

The new album was produced and mixed by Romesh Dodangoda (Motorhead, Bring Me The Horizon, Twin Atlantic) at Long Wave Recording Studios in South Wales and is released via Spinefarm Records.

Album tracks include the recent single Heartbeat Away – described as a deeply personal song for Stone Broken front-person and lyricist, Rich Moss; the single tackles the subject of domestic abuse, suggesting that the realities need to be discussed more openly and addressed immediately.

Wolverhampton-born Moss says: “The subject of ‘Heartbeat Away’ is a little closer to home than most of the other songs I have written… seeing the impact that domestic violence has on a person you are close to and the way it affects the people around them isn’t a very nice thing to experience. I thought it was time to shine a light on something that usually happens behind closed doors, hidden away from the rest of the world. When people listen to this song I think they will know that it’s personal and that I mean every word.”

The now Walsall based, Stone Broken were formed in 2013 after Moss effectively quit music, releasing their self-financed debut EP, The Crow Flies, the following year. Their debut album, All In Time, followed in 2016. Inspired by the likes of Shinedown, Black Stone Cherry, Halestorm and Alter Bridge, it become something of a cult hit.

“The success of the first album took us by surprise, but we always wanted the follow-up to break down more barriers and get us to the next level where we can step up on a global scale,” says Moss. “We’ve already got fans in the US, and they tell us they can easily imagine us on the radio there. Every rock band dreams of success in America, but we feel we’re ready.”

That cult success looks to grow with the release of Ain’t Always Easy.

“Among our fans – The Broken Army – there’s a massive buzz around everything we’re doing at the moment,” the vocalist/ guitarist adds. “This is a really good time to be in this band, and now we just want everyone to hear exactly why.”

Currently in Europe playing sold-out dates with Ugly Kid Joe, the band return for an already sold out show at the O2 Academy Birmingham on Saturday 19 May 2018. Festival dates, including a headline slot at South Wales’ Steelhouse, follow.

Tracklisting
Stone Broken: Ain’t Always Easy

  1. Worth Fighting For 03:20
  2. Let Me See It All 03:33
  3. Heartbeat Away 03:41
  4. Home 03:39
  5. Follow Me 04:24
  6. I Believe 03:47
  7. Doesn’t Matter 03:52
  8. Anyone 03:19
  9. Just A Memory 03:39
  10. Otherside Of Me 03:36
  11. The Only Thing 03:49

For more details, see: www.stonebroken.com

Singers unite for Human Rights

A Change is Gonna Come

Four gifted soul, jazz and hip hop artists explore the power of protest songs in a new collaboration entitled A Change Is Gonna Come (Music For Human Rights).

The project is let by Carleen Anderson the former member of Acid Jazz act Young Disciples whose many collaborations include Paul Weller and Dr John.

She’s joined by jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh, JazzFM Award-winning sax player Nubya Garcia and Mercury Prize-Winning rapper Speech Debelle. On stage together for the first time, they will perform unique interpretations of iconic songs from the time of the civil rights through to today.

Alongside such classics as A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke) and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Gill-Scott Heron) this special concert also features powerful new compositions by Anderson and Yeoh, highlighting the ongoing fight for equal human rights.

“Life translated in art throughout the ages, in Greek Mythology, Shakespeare and various expressionistic forms have always addressed the issues of the inequities in social and political power,” says Carleen Anderson. “Whilst contemporary creatives who speak out against injustice are sometimes influenced by a commercially beneficial objective, in grateful contrast are those artists who, as ever, are compelled by a universal incentive to be a reminder of the equal opportunities yet to be addressed and achieved.”

Says Nikki Yeoh: “Art must not be anodyne, culture cannot be decorative, artists should challenge the most powerful in our society; if we do not, we are not doing our job properly. We often associate the protest song with the civil rights movement and the 60’s counter-culture, however its roots stem from injustice and inequality which manifests its self indiscriminately across all borders and cultures, it never seems to fade from the human condition.”

A Change Is Gonna Come is at Birmingham’s Town Hall on Tuesday 29 May 2018.

For more information and tickets see: www.thsh.co.uk

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Apr 27-Thu May 3

NEW RELEASES

Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

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

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

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

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

All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and self-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises,  these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all-knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Beast (15)

Very loosely inspired by the so called Beast of Jersey, 60s sex offender Edward John Louis Paisnel, first time writer/director Michael Pearce pulls off a tense and compelling psychological thriller that, despite some flaws, marks him out as a definite person of  Hollywood interest.

Set in contemporary Jersey, it stars Jessie Buckley (who co-starred in Taboo and is currently to be seen in the BBC’s The Woman In White) as tourist guide Moll, an intelligent but wild spirited red-head with a troubled past involving stabbing a school bully and a passive-aggressive mother (Geraldine James) who home schooled her and keeps her on a tight leash, making her look after her sickly father. When her 28th birthday celebrations are upstaged by her sister announcing she’s pregnant, Molls storms off in a strop and heads to a dance club where she hooks up with one of the locals who, on their way home in the early morning, comes on threateningly insistently until he’s scared off by a new arrival, a straggly-bearded and scarred but handsome gun-bearing poacher by the name of Pascal Renouf (folk musician Johnny Flynn) who gives her a lift home.

Much to her mother’s displeasure, Moll asks Pascal back to do some handyman jobs and is increasingly drawn to his air of mystery and danger, and perhaps, also his heady, musky smell. However,  she’s not long into the relationship when Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a local copper who has a thing for her, confides that Pascal, who, a native islander with a criminal record for underage sexual assault, is a bit of an outsider in the more judgemental British community, is on a short list of suspects (which, for some, also includes the influx of seasonal migrant workers)  as the potential serial killer who’s raping and murdering young women by shoving soil down their throats. Rebellious to a fault when challenged by authority, Moll gives him an alibi for the night they met, refusing to be shaken even when intimidatingly questioned by a detective (Olwen Fouere) shipped in from the mainland to take on the case. The fact is, Moll, who herself borders on the sociopathic, gets a kick out of the way her involvement with Pascal irritates her mother and her stuffy family circle and, even as she begins to question his innocence, she feels a powerful kinship of personality, one that could have dangerous consequences for them both.

The serial killer aspect is very much just a subplot here to the film’s examination of the characters’ dysfunctional dynamics and wilfully self-destructive rebellion and, while it climaxes with an unexpected and bloody disturbing jolt, it’s arguably stronger in the early going before Pearce starts playing with the audience’s assumptions  overstretching the plausibility with a convoluted narrative. Even so, he makes effective use of his Hitchcock influences (Suspicion and The Lodger to be precise) and is well served by big screen career boosting performances from Buckley and Flynn whose chemistry crackles like messing with gunpowder. It ultimately poses more questions than it has answers, but it remains a strikingly impressive debut. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric)

Journeyman (15)

Paddy Considine both directs and stars as Matty Burton, a  world middleweight champion from Sheffield who probably has one last fight left in him. That turns out to be the defence of his title, which he gained by default, against mouthy young rival Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh) who, baiting him in the run-up to the fight, keeps declaring himself to be the future and that, for Matty, it will be a life-changer. As indeed it turns out to be, but in a far darker way than anyone might have imagined. Burton wins on points but, no sooner does he get home than he collapses with a  pain in the head which proves to be a serious cranial trauma that leaves him uncoordinated, his speech slow and slurred, his memory such that he has trouble placing his wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker) or remembering his baby daughter, Mia.

As  his frustrations increase, and with it his rage, a disturbing incident sees Emma, unable to cope,  leave home with her daughter, at which point Matty’s former team who, through a combination of fear, awkwardness and, perhaps, guilt, having shunned him since the incident, step up try and help nurse him back to health as he battles to regain his identity and sense of masculinity.

It’s not, as you might have assumed, an anti-boxing film, indeed, in one moving movement Matty declares he doesn’t blame Andre or the sport, but rather it’s about his struggle for recovery, about overcoming suicidal despair and being rescued by the power of love, of his team, of Emma and even of Andre, but, more importantly, his own burning desire not to lose that which he values most.

Considine directs at a measured pace, the fairly simple plot punctuated by a  couple of uppercut moments, and delivers a deeply felt, internalised, underplayed but profoundly expressive performance, imbuing the simplest of physical gestures with resonance as he embarks on a gruelling journey to reconnect with who he was. In this, he’s superbly complemented by Whittaker, Walsh and, as his trainer,  Tony Pitts and, if it gathers to a somewhat sentimentally cathartic  last round, it scores enough points along the way to be awarded the match. (Electric)

Also Opening

Western (15)

When a bunch of German construction workers, headed up by lone wolf  former legionnaire  Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) arrive to start work on a water power plant  at a remote Bulgarian countryside site, rather inevitably language barriers and cultural differences mean tensions and rivalries arise between them and the locals as well as within the group itself, not least of which involves the white horse owned by the village village big shot, as masculinity is challenged. Striking a timely note about the fear of the other amid post-Brexit EU turmoil and migrant issues, it comes with strong performances from its non-professional blue collar cast and a  definite air of John Ford Westerns. (Fri-Mon: MAC)

 

NOW PLAYING

Black Panther (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blockers (15)

The directorial debut  of  Pitch Perfect co-writer Kay Cannon,  the title a cinema billboard friendly  shortening of Cock Blockers, this slots comfortably into the same crude rude but funny box in a line that stretches back from  Bridesmaid and  Trainwreck  to  Porkys and American Pie.   Meeting on their first day at a Chicago primary  school,  preppy Julie (Kathryn Newton),  socially awkward  Sam (Gideon Adlon) and acerbic athlete Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) become inseparable friends, although their respective parents, clingy single mom (Leslie Mann), ultra-sensitive overprotective jock Mitchell (John Cena) and  disreputable absent father divorcee  Hunter (Ike Barinholtz channelling Mark Whalberg) haven’t maintained the same bonds.

Prom Night is looming and  Julie (who’s not told mom she’s moving to college in a different state) has determined to lose her virginity to nice guy boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) and, having detailed how this is going to happen, Kayla decides she’s going to pop her cherry too, targeting the school’s gourmet drugs chemist Connor (Miles Robbins) as the lucky recipient.  Despite being secretly gay, with a  crush on Japanese lesbian, Sam signs up for the sex pact too, her prom date being her friend Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a chubby dork in a  pork pie hat.

Unfortunately,  Julie accidentally leaves her message app running on her  tablet and all their texts  are read by her mother who immediately enlists Mitchell in her mission to prevent her daughter making a mistake she’ll regret (cue echoes of her own life). Mitchell’s wife (Sarayu Blue) tells them they should be ashamed of themselves while Hunter, who’s unexpectedly turned up for the get together to mark  the girls’ graduations, also  reckons this is a bad idea but, on learning Sam’s in on it, and aware that she’s gay, enthusiastically  tags along to stop her doing something she doesn’t want to do.

Of course daughters and parents all get to learn life lessons about themselves and each other, about responsibility, trust and letting go, but not before a series of hilarious moments that range from the parents crashing a prom party and Mitchell chugging beer through his arse (don’t ask), a disastrous car chase and  Lisa finding herself trapped in a hotel bedroom with Julie and Austin as they get frisky to Kayla  getting out of her head on Connor’s concoctions and Mitchell and Hunter caught up in Connor’s parents naked, blindfold sex  games.

Hopping between parents and daughters, there’s some unnecessary vulgarity, scrotum  clutching included, barfing but also considerable more sweetness and observations about parents’ paranoia  about their daughters’ sex lives and the need to let them make their own decisions. The leads are all terrific, Mann getting to show off her physical comedy skills. And there’s real chemistry between the three girls but, a combination of some of the best line, her delivery, timing and facial expressions, it’s  Viswanathan  who steals the film and clearly has a very bright comedy future ahead of her.  (Cineworld NEC;  Showcase Walsall)

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, while Alun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Ghost Stories (15)

Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.

Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV  hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.

The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.

Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.

The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator,  is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and  a clever if illogical final reveal. (MAC; Showcase Walsall)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Isle Of Dogs (PG)

Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees. (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.

Following a  Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever  threaten to cross species and infect humans,.  With elections looming,  Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical  and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of  Science Party political rival  Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking  a cure.

However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.

Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast  that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and  Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart,  who is instrumental in prompting  his  eventual bond with Atari, alongside  Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant  called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English.  With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!),  thrilling and at times very  touching, this is an absolute mutts see  (Empire Great Park)

The Leisure Seeker (15)

The title refers to an ancient Winnebago camper van in which an elderly married Massachusetts couple, southern belle Ella and her distinguished husband John Spencer (Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland), he a retired English professor, she, well it’s never really clear what she did, take off for a nostalgic cross state road trip, much to the consternation of their  son  and daughter (Christian McKay, Janel Moloney). That’ll be because dad has advancing Alzheimer’s and mom is in the late stages of terminal cancer, and she wants them to take one last trip together to finally visit the  Hemingway house (John’s an Ernest Hemingway obsessive) in Key West before it’s too late.

Making his English language debut, Italian director Paolo Virzi’s tragicomedy piles on the sentimentality and nostalgia  (the soundtrack includes Dylan, Carol King and Joplin) while largely soft-pedalling the physical pain (Mirren spews on a  couple of occasions) and anguished frustration of having your loved one’s memories of the kids or awareness of who you are come and go as lucid moments give way to the fog.   Inevitably episodic as the pair have assorted encounters and incidents along the way (a Syrian couple running a gas station, a traffic cop, an ex-pupil, being held up by two chancers when they get a  flat and, in a throwaway political comment, a Trump election rally by a bunch of rednecks calling to make America  great again), John constantly returning to his nagging belief that Ellen still has a thing for an old boyfriend, the film delivering an ironic twist when he inadvertently reveals something during a dementia event. Mirren and Sutherland deliver decent enough performances that resist overplaying the drama, a particularly amusing moment coming when she, touting a shotgun, sends the two muggers packing and he tells them to take lessons in grammar, but as it winds its way to the fairly predictable finale, you feel yourself wishing they’d taken a much shorter route.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Reel)

Love, Simon (12A)

The first teenage gay coming out movie for mainstream audience, adapted from a young adult novel, director Greg Berlanti strikes a pioneering moment for cinema. And, even if it lacks the emotional nuances of something like Call Me By Your Name it also happens to be very good. As the opening voice over (subsequently revisited later in the film) announces,  Simon (Nick Robinson) is your average all round decent high school teenage son of white liberal middle-class professionals (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and supportive brother to his younger sister. The only person he’s told is another anonymous gay classmate calling himself Blue, who’s been posting on a school blog and with whom he he’s virtually fallen in love, except, of course, he’s not used his real name either, calling himself Jacques. Intrigued and looking for clues, Simon starts fantasising who Blue might be – school jock Bram (Kelynan Lonsdale), soulful Cal (Miles Heizer) or perhaps Lyle (Joey Pollari), the ex-student who now works down the local burger joint, but ultimately none seem to fit the bill.

Simon’s also one of a quartet of best buddies that includes Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), feisty recent school transfer Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and doting childhood chum Leah (Katherine Langford). It’s pretty clear from the start that she has a secret crush on him, while Nick would like his relationship with Abby to be more than platonic. However, she’s also the object of affection for opportunistic show-off weirdo, Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers Simon’s secret when he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer and threatens to out him unless he helps him get close to her. Naturally, when that doesn’t work out (in a gloriously romantic but excruciatingly embarrassing public declaration of his feelings), in a fit of pique he posts Simon’s and Blue’s emails, leading the latter to block communication and Simon’s lies to and manipulations of his friends to be exposed. And, while his folks are hugely supportive, it does of course, make him a target to the school’s resident homophobes.

Since this is a standard high school romcom feelgood funny and poignant crowd pleaser but given a gay slant, it’ll be no surprise that it all ends happily, gently massaging in messages about friendship and having the courage to be who you are along the way. Robinson is slightly bland for a central character, but nevertheless endearingly likeable while the supporting cast are solid, and, if a little of Tony Hale goes a long way as the wannabe down with the kids cool Vice Principal, Clark Moore as Ethan, the only openly out student, a flamboyant cross dresser with a sharp line in put downs, and Natasha Rothwell as the no bullshit drama teacher in charge of the school’s production of Cabaret are both scene stealers. The film’s been previewed to death, but, with its strong repeat watch factor (even when you know who Blue actually is), this should easily pull in both new and returning audiences, of all sexual orientations, to prove one of the year’s biggest hits. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

Pacific Rim Uprising (12A)

Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a  sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director  Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.

Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a  living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan  urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper,  the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.

The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton  Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.

It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s  former lab partner  Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them  last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either  film  seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote.  (Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Quiet Place (15)

After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.

Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father  Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching  deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.

There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.

Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.

Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures  and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own  logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Everyman; Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

Dwayne Johnson scores  two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species,  and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.

The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until  later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the  formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.

On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”

So, there you have it. Driven by a  beserker spirit,  George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander  calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.

The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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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