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Dear Esther Live

BAFTA-winning composer Jessica Curry’s powerful score for the ground-breaking video game Dear Esther is to be recreated for a live audio-visual performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall on Tuesday 28 November 2017.

Produced by independent studio The Chinese Room, and originally released in 2012, Dear Esther earned huge critical acclaim for abandoning traditional gameplay in favour of atmosphere, rich storytelling and extraordinary visuals. With a Landmark Edition published in 2016, it’s cited as a perfect example of how the medium is capable of the same musical, narrative and artistic expression as film, visual art, literature and classical music.

“A beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work,” declared the Telegraph. “It is oil painting, poetry, eulogy and video game all at once. And it’s never less than fascinating.”

Utilising a 10 metre screen, the immersive audio-visual live experience sees narrator Oliver Dimsdale and gamer Thomas McMullan take audiences through the game, journeying from a desolate Scottish island, to a car crash on the M5, to a crisis of faith, to the lost shores of a dreamed coastline, into a final ascent through the waters of madness …

The stunning score is presented by a full complement of musicians including a string quartet and famed sound artist Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud), whose CV includes collaborations with Bryan Ferry, Danger Mouse, Coil, Laurie Anderson, The Royal Ballet and Merce Cunningham.

A rising star of the contemporary classical scene, Jessica Curry is a composer and co-founder of games company The Chinese Room. Her BAFTA-winning music for acclaimed PS4 title Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was named Soundtrack Of The Year by MOJO magazine and picked up multiple awards. She also presents ClassicFM’s popular Saturday night show devoted to video game music, High Score.

Dear Esther Live can be experienced at Town Hall, Birmingham, on Tuesday 28 November 2017.

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

JazzFM Innovation Award winners head to H&H

Jaimeo Brown Transcendence

Combining historic audio samples with contemporary sonic textures, Jaimeo Brown Transcendence creates music that celebrates the human spirit.

Their latest recording, Work Songs, samples the unknown labourer, the jailhouse, the coal miner, gandy dancer (railway worker), and stonemason, resonating with echoes of protest and a call to freedom

With live performances set against a mesmerising visual backdrop, drummer Jaimeo Brown’s trio is the product of long-time collaboration between Brown and co-producer/ guitarist Chris Sholar (who won a Grammy for his work on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne).

Both emerging from a generation that appreciates the jazz in hip hop, the duo have collaborated with Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, Q-Tip, Geri Allen, Bobby Hutcherson, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Robert Glasper, and D’Angelo.

Completing the trio is saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, who adds a passionate solo voice to music that is sung with fire, healed with love, and immersed in the echoes of protest, freedom and solidarity; at once ancient and modern.

Says Jaimeo: “The album illuminates music that has been tied to great struggle, perseverance, ingenuity, and courage. From Mississippi to Yamagata, Japan, work songs have been a way that humans have been able to transcend the overwhelming hardships of life.”

Winner of Jazz FM’s Jazz Innovation Of The Year Award 2017, Jaimeo Brown Transcendence make a rare UK appearance at The Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, on Monday 13 November 2017.

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

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

NEW RELEASES

Geostorm (12A)

Having written and directed both Independence Day movies, Dean Devlin now gets to direct his own disaster blockbuster, one firmly in the tradition of such things as Armageddon, Volcano,  Deep Impact, The Core and The Day After Tomorrow. Like the latter, this has a weather-centred plot as well as trotting out a familiar message about man playing God.

Set just a few years hence, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is the engineer who designed and led the international team that, in response to disasters triggered by climate change, built a space station and a network of satellites dubbed Dutchboy, able to control Earth’s weather. Now, three years later, his now estranged younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), who has some sort of senior position in DC and   was forced to fire him for insubordination following a senate hearing into his management of the project,  has been ordered by the Secretary of State (Ed Harris) to get him to go back into space and investigate what caused a malfunction that turned an Afghan village into popsicles,

While up at the station, another disaster occurs as Hong Kong is ripped apart by what is officially reported as a gas mains explosion. However, it soon becomes clear that these, along with the death of one of the station crew, were no accidents or glitches in the system, but were deliberately designed. With just a couple of weeks before American officially cedes control of Dutchboy to the international community, it seems as though some is sabotaging things and as weaponised the satellites, Jake recovering data that suggests that this might go all the way to the top of the White House and President Palma (Andy Garcia), who also just happens to be the only one who possesses the kill codes to shut the station down.

Given that both NASA and the station crew have been locked out of the system, that Dutchboy’s auto-destruct has been triggered and the world’s experiencing a series of natural disasters that range from heatwaves in Moscow and typhoons in Mumbai to a tidal wave in Dubai (curiously, Great Britain seems to escape catastrophe this time around)  and the clock’s ticking to a  geostorm that will wipe out most of the planet’s population, there’s only one thing Max and his Secret Service girlfriend Sarah (Abbie Cornish) can do, and that’s kidnap Potus and get the codes to Jake who, along with station commander Ute Fassbinder (Alexandra Maria Lara) is still up there in space as the seconds tick away.

It’s all pretty generic stuff with its mix of mass city destruction, conspiracy theories, resolute action man sacrifices, the murders of those who get too close, and even the young daughter Jake (who’s divorced) has promised he’ll return safely. Naturally, only a small fraction of the budget went on the dialogue, the rest being lavished on an array of impressive special effects. Likewise, discovering  just who’s behind it all won’t come as any surprise at all.

The performances are adequate to requirements, though Cornish is especially impressive with a character that deserves her own spin-off, and while Butler never really convinces as a genius scientist, he does the action man stuff well enough and it all  zips along entertainingly enough, punctuating the multiple set-pieces with its  writ-large environmental messages and the need for global cooperation. And at least, this President does seem to take the matter seriously. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Death of Stalin (12A)

As the writer of The Thick of It and its film spin-off, In The Loop, as well as the American version, Veep, Armando Iannucci is unquestionably the sharpest and funniest political satirist of the 21st century, added to which he also wrote and directed numerous episodes of I’m Alan Partridge and the subsequent feature Alpha Papa. So, you should know that his latest, a comedy set around the power struggle to fill the shoes of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin following his death, an adaptation of the French graphic novels, is going to be caustically hilarious. Unlike the inexplicably limited release, it does not disappoint.

It opens  in 1953 with Paddy Considine as Andreyev, a radio producer who’s just broadcast a live  piano concerto, featuring soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), when he gets a call from Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) demanding to a copy of the recording. Unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded. So, he has to prevent the audience from leaving, round up some people from the streets to fill the empty seats, bring in a replacement conductor and tell the musicians to do it again, assuring them that no one’s going to get killed.

The disc is duly collected and taken  to Stalin (along with a hidden note from Yudina), who’s just finished a tense dinner and a screening of a John Ford Western with the inner circle, among them preposterous, pompous and somewhat oblivious deputy leader Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in his bad wig, Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), secret police  chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and foreign affairs minister Molotov (Michael Palin) whose just been added to Beria’s new list of ‘traitors’ to be eliminated, as was his wife, he himself, an avowed Stalinist, condemning  her supposed treachery.

But then, returning to his office, Stalin reads Yudina’s note, promptly has a seizure. When his not quite yet dead body is discovered the next day everyone vacillates over calling whatever doctors haven’t been exiled from Moscow and, when he finally pops his clogs, sparking a power struggle to take over with everyone scurrying around like headless chickens. Malenkov becomes the de facto new leader, closely manipulated by the Machiavellian Beria who, for his own duplicitous reasons,  immediately sets about ‘pausing’ the executions and freeing prisoners, pre-empting an increasingly frustratyed Khrushchev who sees this as a chance for reform and ends up being assigned the thankless  job of arranging the funeral.

They also have to deal with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) who’s been driven to distraction by the death and his embarrassing deadbeat drunkard son Vasily (Rupert Friend) who insists on speaking at the funeral. And, as the plotting grows more intense between the rivals to the throne, enter Jason Isaacs giving a scene-stealing Yorkshire-accented turn as the truculent bully boy war hero Zhukov, enlisted by Khrushchev to scupper Beria’s plans.

You  might want to brush up on your Soviet Who’s Who first, bu although Iannucci does play fast and loose with the facts and chronology, this is comedy not a history lesson (though it clearly has contemporary resosnances), and, as with his past work, power and incompetence go hand in hand with political stupidity, mining laughs from one of the most brutal periods in Soviet history and playing it  out as a farce peppered with lines like “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.”  Malcolm Tucker would have been right at home.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric)

 

Happy Death Day (15)

In a nutshell, this is Groundhog Day meets Scream as Theresa, aka Tree (Jessica Rothe), a somewhat catty college medical student wakes up in the room of fellow student  Carter (Israel Broussard) with a massive hangover from getting wasted. It’s her birthday, but, for reasons we learn later,  that;s something she’d rather not think about. The day continues to get worse, until, finally, someone stabs her to death. Then she wakes up again and it starts all over and, with small variations (and some added extra victims),  will continue to do so until she works out who the murderer in the plastic baby  mask is, compiling a  list of suspects that include  the sorority’s bitchy queen bee (Rachel Matthews), her diffident  roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine) and  even her married lecturer lover (Charles Aitken). Oh and then there’s also that newsflash about some serial killer who’s in the local hospital.

Like Scream, it has a knowing self-awareness of the slasher genre and constantly winks and calls attention to itself, but as well as a horror it also works as a film about self-discovery and maturity as each time Tree is murdered and wakes up again, as well as being increasingly weaker she also learns a little more about herself and changes her attitudes and the way she treats others, which is, essentially, the film’s underlying moral. On screen throughout, Rothe in her first major lead role is impressive, displaying  wide range of increasingly intense emotions (and a nice line in humour) as she moves from being somewhat unlikeable to a character you really root for and, having already proven a massive US hit, while this is, on its own terms, great fun, it will also surely catapult her to far better movies. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Marshall (15)

Screenings were unavailable, and it’s playing a very limited release, but those with an interest in the history of African Americans’ struggle to overcome prejudice and inequality should try and catch this biopic of the early years of Thurgood Marshall, a young civil rights attorney who went  on to become the first African-American associate justice named to the highest court in the land. Set in 1940, it concerns one of his earliest cases,  Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in which he defended a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown), accused of the rape and attempted murder of his white employer (Kate Hudson), a case that brought him up against the white establishment and put pressure on his marriage, not helped by his sense of self-righteous pride. Or the fact that evidence against his client was particularly strong.

Director Reginald Hudlin, it stars Chadwick Boseman, soon to be seen in  the Black Panther, as Marshall with an air that calls to mind Denzel Washington while the courtroom drama itself has clear echoes of To Kill A Mockingbird. Josh Gad plays Marshall’s  Jewish white co-counsel Sam Friedman, in his first criminal case, while James Cromwell is the forbidding judge who refused to allow Marshall, who was from New York,  to speak in court because he wasn’t  a member of the Connecticut bar. That task fell to  the inexperienced Friedman, including the closing argument dictated by his partner who, reassigned to another case,  didn’t actually  stay to hear the verdict. While unlikely to actually win, it’s a good bet to find this among next year’s Oscar nominations.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

My Little Pony  (U)

It may be cantering for the preschool girl audience, but that’s surely no excuse for the uninspired animation and the plodding story for this big screen extension to the hugely successful TV series. But, if they adore it on TV, why bother upping production values if you don’t need to. As far as the story goes, the Mane 6, Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball again), Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), Pinkie Pie and Shutterfly  (both Andrea Libman) are getting ready for Equestria’s  annual Festival of Friendship when along comes the villainous Storm King (Liev Schreiber), his hedgehog sidekick Grubber and Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), an embittered unicorn with a broken horn,  to spoil everything, looking  to kidnap the  princesses and steal their power for themselves. The ponies escape, and go off in search of Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba) for help, a  journey that  involves them with a pirate captain (Zoe Saldana), a con-artist cat (Taye Diggs), an over-excitable  seapony (Kristin Chenoweth). It’s good to see some girl power, friendship, kindness and  self-reliance messages being trotted out while the song by Sia (who also voices  pop star Songbird Serenade) isn’t bad, but, while all those uncritical  little girls will be love it, faced with almost 100 minutes of bland sugary sweetness, grown-ups might well sympathise with the Storm King when he says  “I’m so totally over the cute pony thing!”   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Black International Film Festival

Mon

The Global Village:

Full Service

An exploration of the effects of globalisation on local economies and culture, our propensity to stereotype others, and the fact that we are all more complex than we seem.

Homelands

Terri Walker, Shakka, Diztortion and Saskilla, return to their parents’ homelands – Jamaica, Senegal, Suriname and Dominica where they connect with local artists and reflect on the pieces of their own personal puzzle. (Mockingbird)

Tue

In Her Shoes:

We Love Moses

Now eighteen, Ella reflects on how her obsession with Moses, her older brother Michael’s best friend, left her with a secret she still carries.

Proclamation Punctuation

A fashion film centred on a woman reciting a short soliloquy paying homage to her love for using exclamation points with a message about the underrepresentation of Black beauty in the media.

Nkosi Coiffure  

Following a fight with her boyfriend in Brussels’ Congolese neighbourhood, Eva  takes refuge in a hair salon. The African women wokers initially support her, but when they find out what the fight is about, opinions differ

1745

Two sisters torn from their home in Nigeria and sold into slavery try to retake their freedom in the Scottish Highlands.

One Drop of Love

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni’s woman show tells the story of how the notion of ‘race’ came to be in the United States and how it affects our most intimate relationships. (MAC)

Wed

No Visa Required:

See You Yesterday

Two Brooklyn teenage prodigies, C.J. Walker and Sebastian Thomas build make-shift time machines to save CJ’s brother, Calvin, from being wrongfully killed by a police officer.

Blake’s World

A fish-out-of-water short about an inner city football star highlights the accusation of rape and how important it is to tread lightly.

To Those With Good Intent  

An insecure thirty-something college graduate, still living with his mother and always  left disappointed by opportunities that arise, is reunited with an old friend, which leads him into an unforeseen dilemma.

Rolling In The Deep

A young African American man travels home to South Carolina  to pay tribute to his late father by having a meal at a famous Whites Only Diner.

noma (forgiving apartheid)  A Black South African stage actress accepts  the role of a legendary South African psychologist famous for her interviews with convicted apartheid-fuelled mass murderer Eugene De Kock and is forced to reconnect with her past and a father she’s not seen in 30 years. (MAC)

What Is A Man?

Graycon

An inventor and his assistant start work on a time device hoping to change a tragic event in his past life.

Art of Love

A young couple  express the meanings of love from their own unique perspectives.

Broken

A young woman has her world turned upside down when she becomes involved in a relationship that has both a physical and mental grip over her.

Hands Up Don’t Shoot

A young African American in South Central Los Angeles is having trouble finding work, . with gang-members, shop assistants and the police and  is eventually driven to take  a stand in trying to bring peace.

A Man Called Dad

Documentary challenged the  challenges the ‘absent black baby-father’ stereotype through profiles and interviews with four men about the children.

Reverie

A  film exploring  the thoughts and feelings of young Londoners and fragile dreams undefined by daily reality.

Thu

We Are One:

Voice from 10,000 Miles

A Nigerian international student studying in Australia struggles to remain faithful to his belief in hope for a better future for his country after receiving a phone call from his sister back home.

C’est Moi

Set in modern day Montréal, the story of Marie-Josèphe Angélique, a figure of Black Canadian History and her efforts to fight against slavery in 18th Century New France.

AFRO PUNK GIRL

Inspired by a Guy De Maupassant story, the Syrian crisis and the notion of a ‘free’ West,a   Dystopian Sci-Fi drama set in a post apocalyptic Britain, where a militia government enforces its “Happiness Agenda” upon its citizens, as a young punk, meets the radical Mr Dandy and discovers the importance of true rebellion.

Six Rounds

A former boxer has to choose between his past and his future to the backdrop of the 2011 London riots when an old acquaintance asks him for a favour.  (Mockingbird)

 

NOW PLAYING

 

American Made (15)

In 1978, tapped for smuggling illegal Cuban cigars, TWA pilot Barry Seal was approached by the CIA to run secret surveillance missions over Colombia, a success that, through the early 80s,  led to him becoming a bag man between the CIA and Nicaragua’s General Noriega, delivering pay offs in return for information on Communist operations in South America. Then, he was approached by the Medelin Cartel, the biggest drugs operation in Colombia, headed up by Pablo Escobar, who recruited him to transport their cocaine to  the United States. Then, further concerned about the Communist-run Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA got him to fly arms to the supposedly opposing Contras, except instead, he ended up flying the guns to the Cartel  who armed their forces and  then got the Contras to smuggle cocaine into America. Before long Seal, who by now had been relocated by the CIA from Louisiana to Mena in smalltown Arkansas  was making so much money he was having to set up any number of front businesses to launder it, and even then he was still burying it in the garden and stuffing it into cupboards. And even when it went pear-shaped, and he was being pursued variously by state police, the FBI, CIA  and the DEA, he was still able to come out on top.

Unfolding between 1985 top 1986, it was one of the biggest covert operations ever run by the US government. His story’s been told before, but, screenwriter Gary Spinelli taking a cue from GoodFellas,  never as well or as entertainingly as here by director Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) with a permagrin Tom Cruise donning the aviator sunglasses as Seals. Played with an eye on the comedic element in the whole situation (rather akin to the recent similarly-themed War Dogs), it romps from one implausible but real scenario to the next as Seal’s ‘business’ empire continues to expand. Although initially wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) is oblivious to Barry’s double life, but when you’ve got wads of dollar bills all over the house, it’s hard to keep things that secret and she readily takes to the  wealth and the life, although things almost come crashing down thanks her to her self-serving slacker brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons he can deal himself an easy hand in the cash flow.

Not until the final act when, now working for the White House and Colonel Oliver North, he’s inadvertently outed as betraying the Cartel and becomes a marked man, while the Iran-Contra scandal blows up in the government’s face does it really involve any real tension, and even then, as he moves from motel to motel, recording the videotapes that would eventually reveal his story (and provide the film’s to camera framing device), it still manages to play for  edgy laughs as, each morning, he wonders if his car will explode.

Following the disappointment of The Mummy and a series of autopilot Jack Reacher  turns, Cruise is on peak form here, bringing a winning charm and charisma to the film’s anti-hero embodiment of the American Dream on speed. Liman’s also well served by a solid supporting turn from Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler Monty Shafer who gets to bask in the reflected glory of his protégé’s successes while turning a knowing blind eye to extracurricular activities as long as they serve to further the political agenda, and burning any trail when compromised. There’s evidence of some edit room chops (Jesse Plemons’ local sheriff and his suspicious wife  seemingly the biggest victims), but even so the film flows at an exhilarating rush, making it easily Cruise’s best since Collateral.  (Vue Star City)

 

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s iconic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, director Denis Villeneuve, DoP Roger Deakin and screenwriters Michael Green and  Hampton Fancher (the latter co-wrote the original), deliver a  haunting sequel which, set thirty years on in an forbidding LA some years after the Black Out that wiped all digital records and where it’s  always snowing or raining, both honours Scott’s vision and deepens its meditation on the nature of the soul.

Following the collapse of the Tyrell Corporation as a result of replicant rebellions, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) rose to power after his synthetic agriculture saved the world from famine, acquiring the remnants of Tyrell and producing a new model of replicants, with a  shorter life span.

However, there are still some extended life Nexus 8 models out there and it’s the task of LAPD replicants such as K (Ryan Gosling)  to track down these ;skin jobs’ and ‘retire’ them. His latest mission brings him to one of Wallace’s old farming facilities and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) who, after a bone crunching fight, he eventually shoots. However, in scouting the area a box is discovered buried beneath a tree, in it a box of bones and, carved nearby, a date. The bones turn out to be that of a woman, a replicant, but the staggering revelation is that she died giving birth, apparently to twins and that, while the girl died,  the boy, who would now be thirty, is still out there. As such, Lieutenant Joshi (an imposingly severe Robin Wright), K’s boss, orders him to find and eliminate the last remaining evidence so as to prevent the revolution that would surely ensue should such knowledge about the ability to reproduce become known and the fragile balance between the controlling humans and the ‘submissive’  replicants be overthrown.

As to the date, this resonates with a childhood memory K has about being chased by some other kids and hiding his wooden carving of a horse in an  abandoned furnace, the date being carved on the base of the toy. Thoughts of Pinocchio are not without foundation.

Meanwhile, he’s not the only one with an interest in the case, Wallace having despatched his cold and lethal replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, mesmerising) to acquire the evidence and to find the child. All of which leads K, first to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juni) who, forever trapped inside an hermetically sealed environment on account of her weak immune system, crafts memories for Wallace’s replicants and assures K that his is real not an implant. And from there, accompanied by his hologram girlfriend Joi (a terrific Ana de Armas), essentially a souped up and sexy version of Siri, in search of Rick Deckard (a pleasingly gruff Harrison Ford), the long missing former Blade Runner, whom, it would seem, may have the connections and answers K is seeking.

It would be unfair to reveal much more of the plot, but suffice to say there’s a clever narrative sleight of hand designed to have audiences jumping to conclusions while, through cues such as Joi’s boot up melody, a snatch from Peter and the Wolf,  the film cleverly weaves in notions of simulation and questions of what is real or just seems to be.

Visually it is an astonishing piece of work with inspired use of light and outstanding set design and CGI that include an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Las Vegas with a casino and holograms of Elvis and Sinatra, Wallace’s impressive but soulless headquarters,  the sometimes transparent Joi’s transformations of appearance (in a remarkable ménage a trois she merges with a replicant sex worker to make love to K) and the few but riveting action sequences.

The performances are suitably dialled down and reined in, giving rise to many a moody inscrutable Gosling stare and the film often uses silence for effect, building both the emotional intensity and the suspense. On the other hand, the soundtrack can also be brutally extreme, Not all of it is clear, and intentionally so, though Wallace’s motives and plans are, perhaps, a little too obscure, but that is part and parcel of its allure – and the reason you’ll need to see it more and, while you don’t necessarily have to have seen Scott’s film, those who have will relish a startling final act nod to one of that film’s pivotal moments. At 164 minutes, it’s a touch overlong and it’s certainly not some popcorn sci fi, but, as with Villeneuve’s Arrival, it assumes an intelligence in its audience that Hollywood far too often assumes to be absent. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Detroit (15)

In the early hours of Sunday, July 23, during the hot summer of 1967, the police raided an all-black after-hours club in Detroit. Unable to access the rear of the building, the  men and women were taken out the front to be loaded into the police wagons. A crowd gathered and, despite pleas by the local Congressman for calm, the already brittle racial tension swiftly escalated into riots and looting, setting the almost exclusively African-American neighbourhood ablaze. A curfew was imposed and members of Michigan’s National Guard were brought in to help restore order.

Across town, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer with aspiring unsigned R&B outfit The Dramatics, smarting at having the group’s big-break at a show featuring Martha & The Vandellas cut short on account of the riots, takes a room at the Algiers Motel, and he and his younger friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), hook up with a couple of white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) looking to experience the sexual revolution. They  all go up to a room for drinks where, illustrating a familiar white cop black guy scenario,  one of the guests Carl (Jason Mitchell) pulls a prank with a starting pistol and then thinks it might be fun to shoot it out of the window at the National Guard. At this point everything goes to shit, as, believing there to be a sniper in the motel, bigot cops Krauss (a terrifyingly chilling Will Poulter) and Demens (Jack Reynor), storm the place and line all the guests, among them a Vietnam veteran , (Anthony Mackie), against the wall demanding to know who fired the gun and where it is. Before long, Carl is lying dead and things are going from bad to worse as Krauss, a baby-faced  bullying racist with a power complex, who’s already shot one looter in the back and is disgusted at what he assumes to be miscegenation,  seeks to torture and terrorise the others into giving up the shooter. Inevitably, either because they don’t know or are unwilling to talk, no one is saying anything. Also involved in this increasingly tense situation is Melvin Dismukes (a magnetically underplaying John Boyega), a black security guard who seeks to try and diffuse things, but  also wary of getting too involved.

Based on historical records, including news reports, eye-witness testimonies and the subsequent murder trials of  Krauss and his two fellow officers, albeit with a fair dose of dramatic licence, working from a  screenplay Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), director Kathryn Bigelow has crafted an electrifying and often uncomfortable drama about racial divides and police terrorism that, adopting documentary style techniques, both turns a spotlight on largely forgotten events and the domestic terrorism power keg that is a divided America today.

Combining archival footage with dramatic recreation, Bigelow gradually ratchets up the claustrophobia and horror until it explodes in sudden harrowing violence before the judicial proceedings aftermath that made a mockery of justice. It will, no doubt, be held up as an example of the police brutality that has ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, but, as a microcosm of racial violence and prejudices embracing the fears and attitudes of whites and blacks alike, it’s about far more than that.  (Sat-Tue, MAC)

 

Dunkirk  (12A)

His shortest feature at a concise 106 mins, Christopher Nolan has executed a technical if not necessarily emotional triumph in his account of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940 with the help of a flotilla of small privately-owned vessels, dubbed Operation Dynamo,  following their collapse under the German offensive.

Essentially, this is more about the operation itself, and splitting the narrative into three interconnected stories (and, indeed, time frames), on land, sea and air, means there’s only limited engagement with  any of the characters involved. Unfolding over the course of a week, we’re first introduced to one of the soldiers, the generically named teenage Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he narrowly escapes German bullets (in a departure from the usual war films, the enemy are never seen other than as aircraft and two blurry figures in the final scene) to make it to the beach where the British Expeditionary Force  troops (some 400,000 in all) are awaiting a miracle. Hooking up with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard), they initially manage to get aboard a rescue ship berthed at the jetty by stretchering a wounded soldier, only for the ship to be sunk, leaving them back where they started.

Very much evoking 40s wartime features, the sea section, which takes place over one day,  begins back in England with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a local civilian skipper, his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, seeking to prove himself,  enthusiastic schoolfriend  George (Barry Keoghan) setting sail for Dunkirk to help with the rescue. En route they rescue an unnamed shellshocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) from  the wreck of his torpedoed ship, his reluctance to return to Dunkirk setting up a subsequent tragedy.

The air section, which covers just one hour, involves two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as. mostly behind oxygen masks, they take on the Messerschmitts and Heinkels wreaking havoc on the troops and ships, the three time scales coming together for the final moments as Dawson’s boat heads towards a bombed minesweeper while Tommy and a fellow soldier (singer Harry Styles acquitting himself well) flounder in the sea after their appropriated trawler, strafed by the unseen enemy as target practice, sinks. Rounding out the cast, Kenneth Branagh gives a quietly impressive performance as the highest-ranking naval offer at the scene, while James D’Arcy is his opposite number in the Army

As ever, making very effective use of sound design, especially in the opening gunshot moments, and keeping the dialogue sparse and to the point, Nolan delivers massive spectacle (no less than three ships sink, spewing survivors into the waves), but without feeling the need to offer the visceral graphics of a Saving Private Ryan (indeed, there’s almost no blood to be seen), tightly winding up the tension which, even if it circumvents the heart, has a firm grip on the nerves.

The film is largely shot in 70mm which, should you be fortunate to have a cinema capable of screening it as such, gives it an extra sense of immersion and depth, but whatever the format, this is the work of a master, if perhaps slightly clinical,  filmmaker and stunning stuff. (Vue Star City)

Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG)

Voted the favourite children’s story of all time, Winnie the Pooh, written by Alan Milne, brought the world a sense of happiness and innocence following the dark days of WWI. One person it didn’t bring happiness, however, was Christopher Robin Milne, the little boy who, the son of  the author, featured in the stories along with his toys, Pooh, Tigger and the others. Opening with Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) receiving news that his son is missing presumed dead in WWII, it flashes back to the author’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme and his return home, traumatised by what he went through, with even a champagne cork popping triggering  traumatic memories. Already a successful writer for Punch magazine, determined to write a book about ending wars, he decamps to the country with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), their  cherubic-looking young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whom they’ve nicknamed Billy Moon, and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), to whom they virtually hand over all parental duties.  When he fails to bring himself to put pen to paper, Daphne takes off back to London, declaring she won’t return until he’s written something.  Eventually, this turns out to be Vespers, the famous poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers. It proves to be a huge success and, in response to his son’s request to write him a  book, he embarks on the tales of the 100 Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eyeore, Piglet and the others, all based on where they live and his son’s stuffed animals. And of course, on Christopher Robin himself.

The books fly off the shelves, but it’s not Milne for whom the fan letters come and who is in demand for interviews, it’s his son and he and Daphne duly wheel him out on the celebrity circuit, even, at one, point, as the prize in  toy manufacturer’s  competition, oblivious, unlike Olive, to the effect it’s having on the boy. Grown up to resent the books’ success, as the teenage Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther)  remarks to his father before he sets off to war,  his childhood was happy enough, it was the growing up that was a misery, the stories’ make-believe version in the stories making him the source of constant bullying.

Directed by Simon Curtis, it’s a hugely melancholic work that slots comfortably into the long line of literary biopics such as Finding Neverland and Shadowlands and the shortcoming of the writers concerned. Certainly, neither of them caring that much for kids, Milne comes across as a slightly priggish figure, while Daphne seems to have no maternal instincts whatsoever, leaving it to Olive to be the only one that shows the boy any actual love. On the other hand, the scenes where father and son are forced to spend time together alone are rather sweet and show the side to Milne that allowed him to create such tender tales.

However, while handsomely photographed and finely acted (with a cast that also includes Stephen Campbell Moore and Richard McCabe), despite the commentary on the destructive, exploitative  fall out of fame, Christopher Robin robbed of the intimate moments of his childhood as well as his very identity, it never quite manages to be as dramatic as it ought. Nonetheless, there’ll be few dry eyes by the end.  (Empire Great Park; MAC; Vue Star City)

 

Home Again (12A)

This finds Reese Witherspoon back in familiar romcom mode  as 40-year-old Alice, who, recently divorced from her record producer husband, takes her two young daughters, hypochondriac  Isobel (Lola Flanery) and  snarky Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), moves from New York back to her late filmmaker father’s sprawling estate in L.A. and sets up a decorating business, the girls spending time hanging out with their  retired actress grandma (Candice Bergen).

Meeting up with Harry (Pico Alexander) while quietly celebrating her fortieth, things end up  with  her agreeing to let him and his mates, George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff), all of whom are trying to make it in the movie business,  live in  the guest house, and also starts dating Harry.  Then along comes the ex ((Michael Sheen), trying to worm his way back in their lives.  Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Something’s Gotta Give director Nancy Meyers, who produced,  don’t expect anything original, but fans of Witherspoon’s comedic cuteness likely won’t be disappointed. (Vue Star City)

It (15)

Originally adapted as a mini-series back in 1990, Stephen King’s mammoth novel gets a  feature-length outing under  director Andy Muschietti.  Creepy without ever being as scary as it should, events spread over nine months, it’s been updated to the late 1980s and opens in smalltown Derry in Maine as young Georgie runs outside into the rain to float the paper boat made by his by his stutter-afflicted older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the boat drops into a culvert, he looks into it and is confronted by the face of a clown (Bill Skarsgarg), calling himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who lures him closer, bites off an arm and the drags the boy into the sewers.

A year later, Bill still believes his brother is alive, enlisting three  schoolfriends, know-it-all wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sceptical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), to explore the sewer system looking for him. Bullied at school by the psychotic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, they’re the self-styled Losers Club, their number eventually swelled by shy chubby new kid Ben and homeschooled black kid Mike  (Chosen Jacobs), both of whom are also targeted by Bowers, and  the supposedly promiscuous tomboy  Beverly (Sophia Lillis), another bullied outsider.

All have their own terrifying encounters with It, as the film gradually reveals the shapeshifting monster preys on his victims’ fears and Ben’s research uncovers that it appears every 27 years, each period characterised by children going missing, something the town  seems unwilling to confront.

Naturally, all the kids (Bowers included) have their own torments, among them abusive or demanding fathers, an overprotective mother, guilt and, for Richie, a fear of clowns. But, while individually vulnerable, as Beverly points out, by staying together they may have a chance of surviving and destroying their nemesis.

Echoing the themes of friendship  and coming of age on which Stand By Me was founded (along with the cruelty of the adult world) with an added serving of horror, following various individual close calls, they all head to the decrepit old house they’ve identified as the clown’s lair.

The film makes effective use of its haunting imagery, most especially the red balloon while, although bereft of backstory,  Skarsgard’s white-faced monster, whispering “you’ll float too”, is a striking visual presence. However, while the opening is especially striking,  the more set pieces that are introduced to give each youngster a turn in the spotlight, the more repetitive  and the less effective they become. Likewise, the romantic rivalry between Bill and Ben over Beverly is never  developed.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective  piece of work and the young cast acquit themselves well, Lillis ably living up to the Molly Ringwald reference tossed her way by Richie. Of course, however, with the film closing on their vow to return in 27 years time to take on It once again, the best they can look forward to in Chapter Two are some fleeting flashbacks. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (12A)

Cheerfully  contriving to bring back not one but two characters who were clearly killed off in the first film, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek secret agent romp resurrects both failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), respectively head blown off and shot through the eye. Charlie returns in the kinetic opening sequence, a frantic car chase through the streets of London, as, now equipped with a bionic arm,  he and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) battle it out in the latter’s souped up taxi. He’s now in the employ of Poppy (Julianne Moore), deranged CEO of the world’s biggest – but secret – drugs cartel, the Golden Circle, who’s holed up in her own 50s-styled Poppyland theme park in Cambodia who, Charlie’s arm having hacked into Eggy’s computer, then sets about blowing up every Kingsman establishment in the country.

This leaves just two survivors, gadget-man Victor aka Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who, since we last saw him, has, in contradiction to Kingsman rules, acquired a Swedish Princess girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom); indeed, he’s at dinner with her and her parents, the  King and Queen, when  Poppy strikes, also taking out one his mates and his dog in the process.

Falling back on the Doomsday Protocol leads them to a secrets safe containing  a bottle of bourbon and, from there, to Kentucky and  an American secret  agent organisation, Statesman, operating  a distillery as a front as opposed to a gentleman’s tailors.  Named after drinks rather than Knights of the Round Table, they’re headed up by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) whose team includes wildcard Tequila (Channing Tatum), electric lasso-wielding Whisky (Pedro Pascal) and gadget girl Ginger (Halle Berry) and, after clearing up an initial misunderstanding, the team join forces. It also turns out they also have in their keeping Harry, who, revived but now suffering from amnesia, thinks he’s a butterfly collector.

The plot per se finally kicks in when Poppy announces on television that she’s infected millions of drug users with a  toxin that causes a blue rash and eventual death and demands the President abandon the war on drugs so she and her empire can go legit. Needless to say, Tilde winds up as one of the afflicted, making it personal for Eggsy while the President (Bruce Greenwood)  reckons Poppy would be doing him a favour, much to the horror of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson). All of which, after a set piece on a cable car in the Italian alps, climaxes with Victor, Harry and Eggsy invading Poppy’s hide-out for the big shoot-out finale.

All of which serves to throw in an inordinate amount of silliness to go with the carnage, ranging from Poppy quite literally making mincemeat of Circle member Keith Allen and then serving him up as a burger, Eggsy having to implant a tracer on Charlie’s girlfriend (Poppy Delavigne) via a condom on his finger and, topping out her obsession with Elton John (she has robot dogs named Bennie and Jets), Poppy kidnapping the man himself for  private performances, though turning Elton into an action man may be pushing suspension of disbelief a touch too far. Playing deadpan, no one’s taking this seriously, which, of course adds to the fun and Vaughn rattles it along at a cracking pace, with some stylish suits and a couple of cute puppies along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end credits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be back for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Logan Lucky (12A)

The return of director Steven Soderbergh to feature filmmaking should be cause for celebration, but instead what you get is a rather lacklustre and flat blue collar  retread of his Oceans’s trilogy, one which may have a cleverly intricate plot mechanism to the heist, but lacks any of those previous films’ fluidity,  comedic spark and banter. For reasons never quite made clear (but presumably involve being able to afford to follow his ex-wife –Katie Holmes – from Virginia  to Pittsburgh so he can still see his young daughter),  recently let go from a construction company on account of his insurance risk dodgy knee, former high school football star Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), persuades his one-armed Iraq-veteran bar tender brother  Clyde (Adam Driver) to join him in a  plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, to which end, with their flaky hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) already onboard, they enlist the services of  celebrated safecracker Jo Bang (a scenery-chewing Daniel Craig with a white buzzcut); they just have to get him out of jail to do the job and back again before he’s missed. Which means they also need the assistance of his two dimwit brothers (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson).

Unfortunately, there’s a hiccup that means they have to bring the plan forward a week, which means that, instead of some low profile race meet, they’re hitting the NASCAR Coca -Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend. And, on top of which, after they pull the job, Jimmy’s got to get to his daughter’s pageant show.

It’s the first screenplay by Rebecca Blunt and, as such, you can often hear the gears grinding while things like the running gags about the supposed Logan family curse, Clyde’s hand  and John Denver’s music feel like Blunt being consciously ‘eccentric’ rather than an organic part of the plot. Likewise scenes involving Seth McFarlane’s loudmouth British energy drink creator race driver Max Chilblain which could have been cut without any loss to the narrative.

Admittedly, the way it all falls into place is well-handled and ( as with the Oceans films), there’s the inevitable reveals of things you didn’t see in the main narrative, but even so the late arrival of Hilary Swank’s FBI agent means the film has to try and crank things up again just after they’ve wound down post heist, something it never quite manages to do.  The cast are game enough, but never quite sparks in the way that Clooney et al. did and, while there’s some amusing touches, not least an amusing Game of Thrones gag as part of a prison riot demands and a witty background reference to Ocean’s Eleven,  ultimately this is enjoyable but forgettable fare. (Fri-Sun: MAC)

The Lego Ninjago Movie (U)

The third in the big screen Lego adventures, this is a martial arts mirror of the  Luke/Darth Vader relationship in Star Wars with a helping of Power Rangers about  high schooler Lloyd (Dave Franco), the son of supervillain Garmadon (Justin Theroux) whose base is an offshore volcano. Understandably ostracised, no one knows that, along with  four of his  schoolmates, Lloyd is secretly the Green Ninja, one of a team of element-powered heroes (including Ice, Fire, Water, and Lightning) who, under the mentorship of his uncle, Mr Liu (Jackie Chan), battle Garmadon and his forces in their battle suits to keep the city of Ninjago safe. Framed by flimsy live action sequences as a shopkeeper (Chan) recounts the story to a young boy, there’s a lot of estranged father/son sentiment to go with the action as the pair are forced to team up to fight an ever greater Godzilla-style threat (a live action cat, actually), but, despite some sly touches and the familiar self-awareness, cobbled together by nine writers with an uneven plot about Lloyd’s journey from self-doubt to confidence and the predictable reconciliation (both father and son have unresolved family issues), not to mention the fact that these Japanese characters all speak with white American accents, it falls  several bricks  of the Emmett and Batman Lego movies. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Loving Vincent  (15) 

The live action filmed against green screen and then rendered as handpainted animation in the style of van Gogh, taking some seven years and 200 artists  to bring to fruition this is a work of impressive ambition and visual brilliance. Although opening with the legendary ear severing of 1888 following a tempestuous visit to Arles by Gauguin, the events unfold  in 1891, a year after the painter shot himself, dying two days later. Adopting a whodunnit narrative, charged by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd), an old friend of Van Gogh, to deliver  a recently discovered last letter bv the artist to his brother Theo (the film title inspired by the way he signed them), Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), like Roulin Snr. a subject  of Vincent’s paintings, travels from Arles to Paris to talk to Impressionist paint supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), only to discover Theo too has passed on.

Returning to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died, with the intention of delivering it to  Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who treated him in  his final months, unable to understand why van Gogh would kill himself just six weeks after declaring himself calm, Roulin, sporting the yellow jacket from his portrait,  does some digging round. In the process, talking to Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), whose family ran the inn where van Gogh stayed and  died, Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) with whom, the local boatman (Aidan Turner) implies,  he may have had a liaison, their prickly housekeeper (Helen McCrory), various villagers and Dr. Mazery  (Bill Thomas), who disputes the official coroner’s findings, he’s persuaded that van Gogh was  shot by someone unknown rather than committed suicide.

The plot itself is somewhat slight, but provides sufficient intrigue to keep the narrative going while the Polish directors, Dorota Kobiela and  Hugh Welchman, focus on rendering the scenes in van Gogh’s familiar impressionist technique (although the black and white flashbacks – with Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent – have a more ‘realistic’ look), including recreating the settings of almost 130 of the paintings themselves, among them The Night Cafe, Wheatfield with Crows, and Starry Night Over the Rhone. Clint Mansell’s score adding to the mood and with a piercing poignancy when the contents of the letter are finally read, it’s an impressive and often illuminating insight into a genius who, more than 200 years after his death, still remains an enigma. (Electric; Empire Great Park)

The Mountain Between Us (12A)

Neurosurgeon Ben (Idris Elba) and photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) both have to be somewhere the next day, he for important surgery, she for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But storms have grounded all planes. So, she hits on the ideas of the two of them sharing a private charter plane. However, enroute, over the mountains, the pilot (Beau Bridges), who hasn’t filed a flight plan,  has a stroke and the plane crashes. He’s killed but Ben and Alex both survive, although she has an injured leg, as does the pilot’s dog. Now, stuck ona mountain with no phone signal they can either wait in the wreckage and hope the emergency beacon, which fell off with the plane’s tail, is working and people will come looking, or they can try and make it out together.

And that’s pretty much it as far as plot goes as the couple slowly make it down the mountain, hitting and few obstacles and brought together through the determination to survive,falling in love along the way. There’s some moments of suspense and some character development regarding why buttoned-up Ben’s wife left him, though rather less insight into Alex, but mostly this is a simple romantic adventure love story, told in a  direct, light and unfussy manner by Abu-Assad, making his English language debut

A two-hander for  the bulk of its running time, Winslet and Elba, in his first romantic lead,  have a genuine chemistry and spark, their characters are likeable  and Chris Weitz’s screenplay avoids melodrama for a natural rhythm and a sense of wit, as well as upending stereotypes by making him the cautious one and she more inclined to take risks.

There’s a lot of walking through snow, a post survival coda that makes a last minute bid for the tissues and the message that love gives you something to live for. It’s not deep, there’s no action, but while the scenery make be cold, the film delivers a warm glow. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

The Party (15) 

Shot in black and white, as written and directed by Sally Potter, her first since 2012’s Ginger & Rosa,  with its single location and one-act structure, this has a decidedly  theatrical feel to its brief running time, calling to mind the caustic but equally comedic  work of such names as Tom Stoppard,  Harold Pinter and Joe Orton channelled through a dark variation of a Feydeau farce.

Set in indeterminate (but post-Thatcher) period, the action unfolds in a London townhouse where Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a small soiree to celebrate having been made Health Minister, a springboard to becoming prime minister. As she prepares the canapés in the kitchen, fielding congratulatory phone calls, her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall),  a former Yale classic professor, is slumped in an armchair, listening to music, drinking wine and with a catatonic thousand yard stare that suggests he’s probably not entering into the excitement.

The first of the guests to arrive are Janet’s cynical old friend April  (Patricia Clarkson) with her acerbic one-liner put-downs  and her on-off  touchy-feely new-agey life coach German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), followed by American academic Martha (Cherry Jones), an old colleague of Bill’s (and, according to April “a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker”) and her pregnant younger partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer).

The last to arrive is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker who’s been working with Janet on private-sector partnership initiatives. Like Godot his wife, Marianne,  one of Bill’s former students, has yet to arrive, he’s clearly agitated, taking to bathroom to snort cocaine; he also happens to be carrying a gun in a  shoulder holster. The one we see Janet holding she answers the door in the film’s flashforward opening scene.

From her phone calls, it is clear that Janet is having an affair, but, while you’re wondering whether that little secret will get outed, Bill delivers not one but two shockers of his own, one involving his health and the other concerning why Tom is in such a state.

Indeed, everyone here has relationship issues as, in a manner that recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, repressed secrets boil to the surface for a series of turbulent catharses that will affect the lives of all concerned.

While it has serious and often sharply satirical undercurrent, ramped up with ominous foreshadowings,  this is an unexpectedly funny film from a director not best known for her laugh-a-minute work, the cast’s deadpan performances (particularly fine turns from Scott Thomas and Spall) finely honed and realised as the barbed dialogue unpicks such topic as the NHS, idealism vs. pragmatic reality and betrayal with deliciously nasty relish.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

The Ritual (15)

When their friend Rob (Paul Reid) is killed in a store robbery, Luke (Rafe Spall), who was with him at the time, but hiding out of sight, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Dom (Sam Troughton) decide to commemorate him by going hiking in Sweden, a trip he’d suggested before his death. With Dom injuring his ankle, deciding to take a short cut, they head into the woods. Not all of them come out again.

A British horror movie that variously borrows  The Blair Witch, The Hills Have Eyes and The Wicker Man, the four first stumble upon an eviscerated stag hanging in a tree, a series of enigmatic symbols carved into the trees and then an abandoned cabin with some sort of witchcraft wicker effigy upstairs where they all have decidedly bad dreams. Luke is, of course, haunted by the guilt of not trying to help his mate (with several hallucinatory flashbacks), while, whatever they may say, the others clearly see him as responsible. They too have buried fears that manifest in their nightmares, and it soon turns out that they’re being stalked by the woods’ mysterious inhabitants and some unseen creature for paganistic purposes.

Mining themes of guilt and redemption, director  David Brukner does a good job in establishing an initial suspense, but the further it journeys into familiar territory the less involving and the more ponderous it gets, the bickering between the four, and especially Troughton’s judgemental Dom, becoming repetitive, winding up with a third act that’s so dimly lit it’s hard to work out what’s going on, not to mention and features a particularly underwhelming CGI ancient monster.  Spall’s fevered performance is far better than the material or his co-stars, but it’s still not enough to sacrifice your time for.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Snowman (15)

As a huge fan of Scandinavian crime author Jo Nesbø and his Harry Hole novels, the prospect of the character finally being brought to the screen with an adaptation of arguably the best in the series and with the inspired casting of Michael Fassbender and Let The Right One In director Tomas Anderson at the helm, anticipation was high. However, while by no means a disaster, this is disappointingly underwhelming.

It doesn’t help that the book is the seventh, by which time Hole’s character is firmly established, a celebrated Oslo detective who came to fame after cracking an Australian serial killer case, but also a self-destructive, chain-smoking alcoholic with a dysfunctional private life, and the screenplay struggles to provide much by way of background, characters such as former girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her hero-worshipping son Oleg and his boss  DCI Hagen are only lightly sketched.  And just who Toby Jones is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. On top of which, the film makes some radical departures from the book’s plot, including the fate of one of the major characters, but does at least stick to the basic set up that someone is abducting and killing (generally decapitating them with an electric noose) women (the latest being Chloe Sevigny)  and leaving a snowman at the site, the evidence suggesting that it may have something to do with them having children by unknown fathers.

Working alongside  Hole investigating the missing women before it becomes a homicide case is a new arrival from Bergen, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s got her own agenda involving wealthy but corrupt businessman  Arve Støp (JK Simmons). The disappearances also trace back to a case many years earlier, shown in flashbacks (although it takes a while to realise this), in which another disgraced  alcoholic cop (a bizarrely badly dubbed Val Kilmer) has been asked by a Bergen businessman (Adrian Dunbar) to investigate his wife’s disappearance.

Disjointed, the direction and the screenplay fumble joining the dots and, while the snow landscapes are impressively shot, there’s rarely any real sense of tension and certainly none of the bleakness of the novel, although the opening sequence as a fatherless young boy watches his mother drown herself in her car on a  frozen lake is undeniably chilling.

Still, as I say, on its own terms, it’s a reasonable enough crime thriller, suitably grisly in places and Fassbender does that world weary, hangdog thing well, but it simply lacks the essence of Jo Nesbø’s book. And, to crown it all, they don’t even get his name right. It’s pronounced Hu-ley not Hole. A bit of a snowballsup .  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Victoria and Abdul  (PG)

An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown,  Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship.  This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.

Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the  many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers.  Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her  “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.

As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the  Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant,  bringing over his wife and mother-in-law  (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery,  the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby   (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor  (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.

Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed  all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal  any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot.   It’s pleasant and, once or twice  quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Snowman (15)

As a huge fan of Scandinavian crime author Jo Nesbø and having read all of the Harry Hole novels, the prospect of finally seeing the character brought to the screen with an adaptation of arguably the best in the series and with the inspired casting of Michael Fassbender and Let The Right One In director Tomas Anderson at the helm, anticipation was high. However, while by no means a disaster, this is disappointingly underwhelming.

It doesn’t help that the book is the seventh, by which time Hole’s character is firmly established, a celebrated Oslo detective who came to fame after cracking an Australian serial killer case, but also a self-destructive, chain-smoking alcoholic with a dysfunctional private life, and the screenplay struggles to provide much by way of background, characters such as former girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her hero-worshipping son Oleg and his boss  DCI Hagen are only lightly sketched.  And just who Toby Jones is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. On top of which, the film makes some radical departures from the book’s plot, including the fate of one of the major characters, but does at least stick to the basic set up that someone is abducting and killing (generally decapitating them with an electric noose) women (the latest being Chloe Sevigny)  and leaving a snowman at the site, the evidence suggesting that it may have something to do with them having children by unknown fathers.

Working alongside  Hole investigating the missing women before it becomes a homicide case is a new arrival from Bergen, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s got her own agenda involving wealthy but corrupt businessman  Arve Støp (JK Simmons). The disappearances also trace back to a case many years earlier, shown in flashbacks (although it takes a while to realise this), in which another disgraced  alcoholic cop (a bizarrely badly dubbed Val Kilmer) has been asked by a Bergen businessman (Adrian Dunbar) to investigate his wife’s disappearance.

Disjointed, the direction and the screenplay fumble joining the dots and, while the snow landscapes are impressively shot, there’s rarely any real sense of tension and certainly none of the bleakness of the novel, although the opening sequence as a fatherless young boy watches his mother drown herself in her car on a  frozen lake is undeniably chilling.

Still, as I say, on its own terms, it’s a reasonable enough crime thriller, suitably grisly in places and Fassbender does that world weary, hangdog thing well, but it simply lacks the essence of Jo Nesbø’s book. And, to crown it all, they don’t even get his name right. It’s pronounced Hu-ley not Hole. That’s just what they dug themselves into. (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 Lego Ninjago Movie (U)

The third in the big screen Lego adventures, this is a martial arts mirror of the  Luke/Darth Vader relationship in Star Wars with a helping of Power Rangers about  high schooler Lloyd (Dave Franco), the son of supervillain Garmadon (Justin Theroux) whose base is an offshore volcano. Understandably ostracised, no one knows that, along with  four of his  schoolmates, Lloyd is secretly the Green Ninja, one of a team of element-powered heroes (including Ice, Fire, Water, and Lightning) who, under the mentorship of his uncle, Mr Liu (Jackie Chan), battle Garmadon and his forces in their battle suits to keep the city of Ninjago safe. Framed by flimsy live action sequences as a shopkeeper (Chan) recounts the story to a young boy, there’s a lot of estranged father/son sentiment to go with the action as the pair are forced to team up to fight an ever greater Godzilla-style threat (a live action cat, actually), but, despite some sly touches and the familiar self-awareness, cobbled together by nine writers with an uneven plot about Lloyd’s journey from self-doubt to confidence and the predictable reconciliation (both father and son have unresolved family issues), not to mention the fact that these Japanese characters all speak with white American accents, it falls  several bricks  of the Emmett and Batman Lego movies. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Loving Vincent  (15) 

The live action filmed against green screen and then both that and the backgrounds  rendered as handpainted animation in the style of van Gogh, taking some seven years and 200 artists  to bring to fruition this is a work of impressive ambition and visual brilliance. Although opening with the legendary ear severing of 1888 following a tempestuous visit to Arles by Gauguin, the events unfold  in 1891, a year after the painter shot himself, dying two days later. Adopting a whodunnit narrative, charged by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd), an old friend of Van Gogh, to deliver  a recently discovered last letter bv the artist to his brother Theo (the film title inspired by the way he signed them), Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), like Roulin Snr. a subject  of Vincent’s paintings, travels from Arles to Paris to talk to Impressionist paint supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), only to discover Theo too has passed on.

Returning to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died, with the intention of delivering it to  Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who treated him in  his final months, unable to understand why van Gogh would kill himself just six weeks after declaring himself calm, Roulin, sporting the yellow jacket from his portrait,  does some digging round. In the process, talking to Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), whose family ran the inn where van Gogh stayed and  died, Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) with whom, the local boatman (Aidan Turner) implies,  he may have had a liaison, their prickly housekeeper (Helen McCrory), various villagers and Dr. Mazery  (Bill Thomas), who disputes the official coroner’s findings, he’s persuaded that van Gogh was  shot by someone unknown rather than committed suicide.

The plot itself is somewhat slight, but provides sufficient intrigue to keep the narrative going while the Polish directors, Dorota Kobiela and  Hugh Welchman, focus on rendering the scenes in van Gogh’s familiar impressionist technique (although the black and white flashbacks – with Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent – have a more ‘realistic’ look), including recreating the settings of almost 130 of the paintings themselves, among them The Night Cafe, Wheatfield with Crows, and Starry Night Over the Rhone. Clint Mansell’s score adding to the mood and with a piercing poignancy when the contents of the letter are finally read, it’s an impressive and often illuminating insight into a genius who, more than 200 years after his death, still remains an enigma. (Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

The Party (15) 

Shot in black and white, as written and directed by Sally Potter, her first since 2012’s Ginger & Rosa,  with its single location and one-act structure, this has a decidedly  theatrical feel to its brief running time, calling to mind the caustic but equally comedic  work of such names as Tom Stoppard,  Harold Pinter and Joe Orton channelled through a dark variation of a Feydeau farce.

Set in indeterminate (but post-Thatcher) period, the action unfolds in a London townhouse where Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a small soiree to celebrate having been made Health Minister, a springboard to becoming prime minister. As she prepares the canapés in the kitchen, fielding congratulatory phone calls, her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall),  a former Yale classic professor, is slumped in an armchair, listening to music, drinking wine and with a catatonic thousand yard stare that suggests he’s probably not entering into the excitement.

The first of the guests to arrive are Janet’s cynical old friend April  (Patricia Clarkson) with her acerbic one-liner put-downs  and her on-off  touchy-feely new-agey life coach German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), followed by American academic Martha (Cherry Jones), an old colleague of Bill’s (and, according to April “a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker”) and her pregnant younger partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer).

The last to arrive is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker who’s been working with Janet on private-sector partnership initiatives. Like Godot his wife, Marianne,  one of Bill’s former students, has yet to arrive, he’s clearly agitated, taking to bathroom to snort cocaine; he also happens to be carrying a gun in a  shoulder holster. The one we see Janet holding she answers the door in the film’s flashforward opening scene.

From her phone calls, it is clear that Janet is having an affair, but, while you’re wondering whether that little secret will get outed, Bill delivers not one but two shockers of his own, one involving his health and the other concerning why Tom is in such a state.

Indeed, everyone here has relationship issues as, in a manner that recalls Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, repressed secrets boil to the surface for a series of turbulent catharses that will affect the lives of all concerned.

While it has serious and often sharply satirical undercurrent,ramped up with ominous foreshadowings,  this is an unexpectedly funny film from a director not best known for her laugh-a-minute work, the cast’s deadpan performances (particularly fine turns from Scott Thomas and Spall) finely honed and realised as the barbed dialogue unpicks such topic as the NHS, idealism vs. pragmatic reality and betrayal with deliciously nasty relish.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

The Ritual (15)

When their friend Rob (Paul Reid) is killed in a store robbery, Luke (Rafe Spall), who was with him at the time, but hiding out of sight, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Dom (Sam Troughton) decide to commemorate him by going hiking in Sweden, a trip he’d suggested before his death. With Dom injuring his ankle, deciding to take a short cut, they head into the woods. Not all of them come out again.

A British horror movie that variously borrows  The Blair Witch, The Hills Have Eyes and The Wicker Man, the four first stumble upon an eviscerated stag hanging in a tree, a series of enigmatic symbols carved into the trees and then an abandoned cabin with some sort of witchcraft wicker effigy upstairs where they all have decidedly bad dreams. Luke is, of course, haunted by the guilt of not trying to help his mate (with several hallucinatory flashbacks), while, whatever they may say, the others clearly see him as responsible. They too have buried fears that manifest in their nightmares, and it soon turns out that they’re being stalked by the woods’ mysterious inhabitants and some unseen creature for paganistic purposes.

Mining themes of guilt and redemption, director  David Brukner does a good job in establishing an initial suspense, but the further it journeys into familiar territory the less involving and the more ponderous it gets, the bickering between the four, and especially Troughton’s judgemental Dom, becoming repetitive, winding up with a third act that’s so dimly lit it’s hard to work out what’s going on, not to mention and features a particularly underwhelming CGI ancient monster.  Spall’s fevered performance is far better than the material or his co-stars, but it’s still not enough to sacrifice your time for.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

American Assassin (18)

With the established stars of action movies now starting to get on a bit, Hollywood’s becoming increasingly desperate to find new and younger blood on whom to build franchises. Hence Michal Cuesta’s adaptation of Vince Flynn’s airport lounge pulp page turner knocking a decade or two off  its hero, Mitch Rapp, so as to cast Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien.

Opening with a scene that’s likely to be something of  raw nerve for many, Rapp is wounded and sees his girlfriend, to whom he’s just proposed, murdered when a bunch of armed Islamist terrorists start shooting up the Ibiza beach where they’re holidaying.  Fast forward 18 months and, recovered but seething with barely repressed rage, now sporting healthy face fuzz, Rapp has mastered  gun and martial arts skills  and learned Arabic so that he can infiltrate the Libyan terrorist cell responsible and take out them and their leader.  What he doesn’t know is that he’s being monitored by the CIA, who swoop in and do the job for him. Then. back in the USA, he’s invited by cool, no nonsense CIA  Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who reckons he has the exact psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine, to join her black ops team. So, it’s off to the woods for some boot camp training under the command of hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a suitably taciturn Michael Keaton). Meanwhile, Kennedy and her boss (David Suchet) have been meeting with some top level Iranians regarding the theft of weapons grade plutonium from Russia and ascertained that the man responsible has arranged to acquire a nuclear trigger, so he duly despatches Hurley, Rapp and fellow trainee Victor (Birmingham’s Scott Atkins), hooking up with Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar),  to take the arms dealer and the thief and recover the plutonium.

Needless to say, things go pear-shaped,  Rapp ignoring orders and taking off to finish the mission. Naturally, things get more complicated when it turns out the one who stole the plutonium calls himself Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) and is actually one of Hurley’s former protégés gone rogue and is playing to provide the Iranians with everything they need, scientist included, to make a nuke to attack Israel

Thus the stage is set for another maverick race against the clock  complete with several twists and reveals in the final stretch that steers this away from the  Islam-bashing narrative it first seems.

The result of four screenwriters, it’s fairly generic and cliché-bound, complete with the chiselled dialogue you might expect along with the stoicism in the face of pain patriotism (Keaton figures in a particularly nasty torture scene) and the repeated mantra about not making it personal. It’s not big on character depth or development, but, variously unfolding in Warsaw, Istanbul, Malta and Rome, it delivers the limited action sequences in workmanlike manner, building up to the big CGI effects climax, doing the job efficiently enough to ensure the sequel promised in the final shot.  (Vue Star City)

 

American Made (15)

In 1978, tapped for smuggling illegal Cuban cigars, TWA pilot Barry Seal was approached by the CIA to run secret surveillance missions over Colombia, a success that, through the early 80s,  led to him becoming a bag man between the CIA and Nicaragua’s General Noriega, delivering pay offs in return for information on Communist operations in South America. Then, he was approached by the Medelin Cartel, the biggest drugs operation in Colombia, headed up by Pablo Escobar, who recruited him to transport their cocaine to  the United States. Then, further concerned about the Communist-run Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA got him to fly arms to the supposedly opposing Contras, except instead, he ended up flying the guns to the Cartel  who armed their forces and  then got the Contras to smuggle cocaine into America. Before long Seal, who by now had been relocated by the CIA from Louisiana to Mena in smalltown Arkansas  was making so much money he was having to set up any number of front businesses to launder it, and even then he was still burying it in the garden and stuffing it into cupboards. And even when it went pear-shaped, and he was being pursued variously by state police, the FBI, CIA  and the DEA, he was still able to come out on top.

Unfolding between 1985 top 1986, it was one of the biggest covert operations ever run by the US government. His story’s been told before, but, screenwriter Gary Spinelli taking a cue from GoodFellas,  never as well or as entertainingly as here by director Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) with a permagrin Tom Cruise donning the aviator sunglasses as Seals. Played with an eye on the comedic element in the whole situation (rather akin to the recent similarly-themed War Dogs), it romps from one implausible but real scenario to the next as Seal’s ‘business’ empire continues to expand. Although initially wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) is oblivious to Barry’s double life, but when you’ve got wads of dollar bills all over the house, it’s hard to keep things that secret and she readily takes to the  wealth and the life, although things almost come crashing down thanks her to her self-serving slacker brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons he can deal himself an easy hand in the cash flow.

Not until the final act when, now working for the White House and Colonel Oliver North, he’s inadvertently outed as betraying the Cartel and becomes a marked man, while the Iran-Contra scandal blows up in the government’s face does it really involve any real tension, and even then, as he moves from motel to motel, recording the videotapes that would eventually reveal his story (and provide the film’s to camera framing device), it still manages to play for  edgy laughs as, each morning, he wonders if his car will explode.

Following the disappointment of The Mummy and a series of autopilot Jack Reacher  turns, Cruise is on peak form here, bringing a winning charm and charisma to the film’s anti-hero embodiment of the American Dream on speed. Liman’s also well served by a solid supporting turn from Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler Monty Shafer who gets to bask in the reflected glory of his protégé’s successes while turning a knowing blind eye to extracurricular activities as long as they serve to further the political agenda, and burning any trail when compromised. There’s evidence of some edit room chops (Jesse Plemons’ local sheriff and his suspicious wife  seemingly the biggest victims), but even so the film flows at an exhilarating rush, making it easily Cruise’s best since Collateral.  (Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s iconic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, director Denis Villeneuve, DoP Roger Deakin and screenwriters Michael Green and  Hampton Fancher (the latter co-wrote the original), deliver a  haunting sequel which, set thirty years on in an forbidding LA some years after the Black Out that wiped all digital records and where it’s  always snowing or raining, both honours Scott’s vision and deepens its meditation on the nature of the soul.

Following the collapse of the Tyrell Corporation as a result of replicant rebellions, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) rose to power after his synthetic agriculture saved the world from famine, acquiring the remnants of Tyrell and producing a new model of replicants, with a  shorter life span.

However, there are still some extended life Nexus 8 models out there and it’s the task of LAPD replicants such as K (Ryan Gosling)  to track down these ;skin jobs’ and ‘retire’ them. His latest mission brings him to one of Wallace’s old farming facilities and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) who, after a bone crunching fight, he eventually shoots. However, in scouting the area a box is discovered buried beneath a tree, in it a box of bones and, carved nearby, a date. The bones turn out to be that of a woman, a replicant, but the staggering revelation is that she died giving birth, apparently to twins and that, while the girl died,  the boy, who would now be thirty, is still out there. As such, Lieutenant Joshi (an imposingly severe Robin Wright), K’s boss, orders him to find and eliminate the last remaining evidence so as to prevent the revolution that would surely ensue should such knowledge about the ability to reproduce become known and the fragile balance between the controlling humans and the ‘submissive’  replicants be overthrown.

As to the date, this resonates with a childhood memory K has about being chased by some other kids and hiding his wooden carving of a horse in an  abandoned furnace, the date being carved on the base of the toy. Thoughts of Pinocchio are not without foundation.

Meanwhile, he’s not the only one with an interest in the case, Wallace having despatched his cold and lethal replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, mesmerising) to acquire the evidence and to find the child. All of which leads K, first to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juni) who, forever trapped inside an hermetically sealed environment on account of her weak immune system, crafts memories for Wallace’s replicants and assures K that his is real not an implant. And from there, accompanied by his hologram girlfriend Joi (a terrific Ana de Armas), essentially a souped up and sexy version of Siri, in search of Rick Deckard (a pleasingly gruff Harrison Ford), the long missing former Blade Runner, whom, it would seem, may have the connections and answers K is seeking.

It would be unfair to reveal much more of the plot, but suffice to say there’s a clever narrative sleight of hand designed to have audiences jumping to conclusions while, through cues such as Joi’s boot up melody, a snatch from Peter and the Wolf,  the film cleverly weaves in notions of simulation and questions of what is real or just seems to be.

Visually it is an astonishing piece of work with inspired use of light and outstanding set design and CGI that include an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Las Vegas with a casino and holograms of Elvis and Sinatra, Wallace’s impressive but soulless headquarters,  the sometimes transparent Joi’s transformations of appearance (in a remarkable ménage a trois she merges with a replicant sex worker to make love to K) and the few but riveting action sequences.

The performances are suitably dialled down and reined in, giving rise to many a moody inscrutable Gosling stare and the film often uses silence for effect, building both the emotional intensity and the suspense. On the other hand, the soundtrack can also be brutally extreme, Not all of it is clear, and intentionally so, though Wallace’s motives and plans are, perhaps, a little too obscure, but that is part and parcel of its allure – and the reason you’ll need to see it more and, while you don’t necessarily have to have seen Scott’s film, those who have will relish a startling final act nod to one of that film’s pivotal moments. At 164 minutes, it’s a touch overlong and it’s certainly not some popcorn sci fi, but, as with Villeneuve’s Arrival, it assumes an intelligence in its audience that Hollywood far too often assumes to be absent. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Dunkirk  (12A)

His shortest feature at a concise 106 mins, Christopher Nolan has executed a technical if not necessarily emotional triumph in his account of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940 with the help of a flotilla of small privately-owned vessels, dubbed Operation Dynamo,  following their collapse under the German offensive.

Essentially, this is more about the operation itself, and splitting the narrative into three interconnected stories (and, indeed, time frames), on land, sea and air, means there’s only limited engagement with  any of the characters involved. Unfolding over the course of a week, we’re first introduced to one of the soldiers, the generically named teenage Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he narrowly escapes German bullets (in a departure from the usual war films, the enemy are never seen other than as aircraft and two blurry figures in the final scene) to make it to the beach where the British Expeditionary Force  troops (some 400,000 in all) are awaiting a miracle. Hooking up with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard), they initially manage to get aboard a rescue ship berthed at the jetty by stretchering a wounded soldier, only for the ship to be sunk, leaving them back where they started.

Very much evoking 40s wartime features, the sea section, which takes place over one day,  begins back in England with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a local civilian skipper, his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, seeking to prove himself,  enthusiastic schoolfriend  George (Barry Keoghan) setting sail for Dunkirk to help with the rescue. En route they rescue an unnamed shellshocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) from  the wreck of his torpedoed ship, his reluctance to return to Dunkirk setting up a subsequent tragedy.

The air section, which covers just one hour, involves two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as. mostly behind oxygen masks, they take on the Messerschmitts and Heinkels wreaking havoc on the troops and ships, the three time scales coming together for the final moments as Dawson’s boat heads towards a bombed minesweeper while Tommy and a fellow soldier (singer Harry Styles acquitting himself well) flounder in the sea after their appropriated trawler, strafed by the unseen enemy as target practice, sinks. Rounding out the cast, Kenneth Branagh gives a quietly impressive performance as the highest-ranking naval offer at the scene, while James D’Arcy is his opposite number in the Army

As ever, making very effective use of sound design, especially in the opening gunshot moments, and keeping the dialogue sparse and to the point, Nolan delivers massive spectacle (no less than three ships sink, spewing survivors into the waves), but without feeling the need to offer the visceral graphics of a Saving Private Ryan (indeed, there’s almost no blood to be seen), tightly winding up the tension which, even if it circumvents the heart, has a firm grip on the nerves.

The film is largely shot in 70mm which, should you be fortunate to have a cinema capable of screening it as such, gives it an extra sense of immersion and depth, but whatever the format, this is the work of a master, if perhaps slightly clinical,  filmmaker and stunning stuff. (Vue Star City)

 

Flatliners (15) 

Joel Schumacher’s  cult 90s thriller, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon, about a bunch of  med students who participate in a series of near death  experiences only to find past tragedies and sins coming back to haunt them,  gets a  remake from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, but  fails to bring the corpse back to life.

Nine years on from an accident in which, distracted while driving, her younger sister died, Courtney (Ellen Page) is now a med student obsessed with the idea of there being an afterlife. To which end, she persuades her fellow students, trust fund playboy Jamie (James Norton) and insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) to assist in her in an experiment, stopping her heart, recording any brain activity, and then bringing her back. When things hit a hitch in the revival process, they call on another of the group, Ray (Diego Luna) to help.  When Courtney suddenly seems to have developed  new abilities, Jamie demands to go next and when Marlo (Nina Dobrev), a senior student with a thing for Ray, learns what they’re up to, she insists on flatlining too and, having had another run in with her controlling mother, Sophia turns up demanding on following suit.

Needless to say, the immediate highs are quickly replaced by disturbing lows, each of those who went under finding themselves being haunted by something from their past, the car crash, an abortion, a medical miscall that cost a life, the humiliation of a fellow student; as Jamie puts it, the side effects are trying to kill them.

By its very nature, the laboured storyline is episodic, with each getting their own haunting, and there’s only so many fleeting glimpses or sudden appearances of ominous figures you can have before it all starts getting repetitive rather than scary, while, the final act, where everyone, or at least those that make it that far, set about finding redemption and atonement, just feels like the writers lost interest.  Page is good, but deserves better, while the others do what’s necessary and, in a  nod to the original, Sutherland puts in a couple of appearances as the hospital’s testy  senior doctor . It’s watchable but unnecessary. Do not resuscitate. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG)

Voted the favourite children’s story of all time, Winnie the Pooh, written by Alan Milne, brought the world a sense of happiness and innocence following the dark days of WWI. One person it didn’t bring happiness, however, was Christopher Robin Milne, the little boy who, the son of  the author, featured in the stories along with his toys, Pooh, Tigger and the others. Opening with Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) receiving news that his son is missing presumed dead in WWII, it flashes back to the author’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme and his return home, traumatised by what he went through, with even a champagne cork popping triggering  traumatic memories. Already a successful writer for Punch magazine, determined to write a book about ending wars, he decamps to the country with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), their  cherubic-looking young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whom they’ve nicknamed Billy Moon, and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), to whom they virtually hand over all parental duties.  When he fails to bring himself to put pen to paper, Daphne takes off back to London, declaring she won’t return until he’s written something.  Eventually, this turns out to be Vespers, the famous poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers. It proves to be a huge success and, in response to his son’s request to write him a  book, he embarks on the tales of the 100 Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eyeore, Piglet and the others, all based on where they live and his son’s stuffed animals. And of course, on Christopher Robin himself.

The books fly off the shelves, but it’s not Milne for whom the fan letters come and who is in demand for interviews, it’s his son and he and Daphne duly wheel him out on the celebrity circuit, even, at one, point, as the prize in  toy manufacturer’s  competition, oblivious, unlike Olive, to the effect it’s having on the boy. Grown up to resent the books’ success, as the teenage Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther)  remarks to his father before he sets off to war,  his childhood was happy enough, it was the growing up that was a misery, the stories’ make-believe version in the stories making him the source of constant bullying.

Directed by Simon Curtis, it’s a hugely melancholic work that slots comfortably into the long line of literary biopics such as Finding Neverland and Shadowlands and the shortcoming of the writers concerned. Certainly, neither of them caring that much for kids, Milne comes across as a slightly priggish figure, while Daphne seems to have no maternal instincts whatsoever, leaving it to Olive to be the only one that shows the boy any actual love. On the other hand, the scenes where father and son are forced to spend time together alone are rather sweet and show the side to Milne that allowed him to create such tender tales.

However, while handsomely photographed and finely acted (with a cast that also includes Stephen Campbell Moore and Richard McCabe), despite the commentary on the destructive, exploitative  fall out of fame, Christopher Robin robbed of the intimate moments of his childhood as well as his very identity, it never quite manages to be as dramatic as it ought. Nonetheless, there’ll be few dry eyes by the end.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Home Again (12A)

This finds Reese Witherspoon back in familiar romcom mode  as 40-year-old Alice, who, recently divorced from her record producer husband, takes her two young daughters, hypochondriac  Isobel (Lola Flanery) and  snarky Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), moves from New York back to her late filmmaker father’s sprawling estate in L.A. and sets up a decorating business, the girls spending time hanging out with their  retired actress grandma (Candice Bergen).

Meeting up with Harry (Pico Alexander) while quietly celebrating her fortieth, things end up  with  her agreeing to let him and his mates, George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff), all of whom are trying to make it in the movie business,  live in  the guest house, and also starts dating Harry.  Then along comes the ex ((Michael Sheen), trying to worm his way back in their lives.  Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Something’s Gotta Give director Nancy Meyers, who produced,  don’t expect anything original, but fans of Witherspoon’s comedic cuteness likely won’t be disappointed. (Vue Star City)

It (15)

Originally adapted as a mini-series back in 1990, Stephen King’s mammoth novel gets a  feature-length outing under  director Andy Muschietti.  Creepy without ever being as scary as it should, events spread over nine months, it’s been updated to the late 1980s and opens in smalltown Derry in Maine as young Georgie runs outside into the rain to float the paper boat made by his by his stutter-afflicted older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the boat drops into a culvert, he looks into it and is confronted by the face of a clown (Bill Skarsgarg), calling himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who lures him closer, bites off an arm and the drags the boy into the sewers.

A year later, Bill still believes his brother is alive, enlisting three  schoolfriends, know-it-all wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sceptical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), to explore the sewer system looking for him. Bullied at school by the psychotic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, they’re the self-styled Losers Club, their number eventually swelled by shy chubby new kid Ben and homeschooled black kid Mike  (Chosen Jacobs), both of whom are also targeted by Bowers, and  the supposedly promiscuous tomboy  Beverly (Sophia Lillis), another bullied outsider.

All have their own terrifying encounters with It, as the film gradually reveals the shapeshifting monster preys on his victims’ fears and Ben’s research uncovers that it appears every 27 years, each period characterised by children going missing, something the town  seems unwilling to confront.

Naturally, all the kids (Bowers included) have their own torments, among them abusive or demanding fathers, an overprotective mother, guilt and, for Richie, a fear of clowns. But, while individually vulnerable, as Beverly points out, by staying together they may have a chance of surviving and destroying their nemesis.

Echoing the themes of friendship  and coming of age on which Stand By Me was founded (along with the cruelty of the adult world) with an added serving of horror, following various individual close calls, they all head to the decrepit old house they’ve identified as the clown’s lair.

The film makes effective use of its haunting imagery, most especially the red balloon while, although bereft of backstory,  Skarsgard’s white-faced monster, whispering “you’ll float too”, is a striking visual presence. However, while the opening is especially striking,  the more set pieces that are introduced to give each youngster a turn in the spotlight, the more repetitive  and the less effective they become. Likewise, the romantic rivalry between Bill and Ben over Beverly is never  developed.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective  piece of work and the young cast acquit themselves well, Lillis ably living up to the Molly Ringwald reference tossed her way by Richie. Of course, however, with the film closing on their vow to return in 27 years time to take on It once again, the best they can look forward to in Chapter Two are some fleeting flashbacks. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (12A)

Cheerfully  contriving to bring back not one but two characters who were clearly killed off in the first film, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek secret agent romp resurrects both failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), respectively head blown off and shot through the eye. Charlie returns in the kinetic opening sequence, a frantic car chase through the streets of London, as, now equipped with a bionic arm,  he and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) battle it out in the latter’s souped up taxi. He’s now in the employ of Poppy (Julianne Moore), deranged CEO of the world’s biggest – but secret – drugs cartel, the Golden Circle, who’s holed up in her own 50s-styled Poppyland theme park in Cambodia who, Charlie’s arm having hacked into Eggy’s computer, then sets about blowing up every Kingsman establishment in the country.

This leaves just two survivors, gadget-man Victor aka Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who, since we last saw him, has, in contradiction to Kingsman rules, acquired a Swedish Princess girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom); indeed, he’s at dinner with her and her parents, the  King and Queen, when  Poppy strikes, also taking out one his mates and his dog in the process.

Falling back on the Doomsday Protocol leads them to a secrets safe containing  a bottle of bourbon and, from there, to Kentucky and  an American secret  agent organisation, Statesman, operating  a distillery as a front as opposed to a gentleman’s tailors.  Named after drinks rather than Knights of the Round Table, they’re headed up by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) whose team includes wildcard Tequila (Channing Tatum), electric lasso-wielding Whisky (Pedro Pascal) and gadget girl Ginger (Halle Berry) and, after clearing up an initial misunderstanding, the team join forces. It also turns out they also have in their keeping Harry, who, revived but now suffering from amnesia, thinks he’s a butterfly collector.

The plot per se finally kicks in when Poppy announces on television that she’s infected millions of drug users with a  toxin that causes a blue rash and eventual death and demands the President abandon the war on drugs so she and her empire can go legit. Needless to say, Tilde winds up as one of the afflicted, making it personal for Eggsy while the President (Bruce Greenwood)  reckons Poppy would be doing him a favour, much to the horror of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson). All of which, after a set piece on a cable car in the Italian alps, climaxes with Victor, Harry and Eggsy invading Poppy’s hide-out for the big shoot-out finale.

All of which serves to throw in an inordinate amount of silliness to go with the carnage, ranging from Poppy quite literally making mincemeat of Circle member Keith Allen and then serving him up as a burger, Eggsy having to implant a tracer on Charlie’s girlfriend (Poppy Delavigne) via a condom on his finger and, topping out her obsession with Elton John (she has robot dogs named Bennie and Jets), Poppy kidnapping the man himself for  private performances, though turning Elton into an action man may be pushing suspension of disbelief a touch too far. Playing deadpan, no one’s taking this seriously, which, of course adds to the fun and Vaughn rattles it along at a cracking pace, with some stylish suits and a couple of cute puppies along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end credits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be back for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

The Mountain Between Us (12A)

Neurosurgeon Ben (Idris Elba) and photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) both have to be somewhere the next day, he for important surgery, she for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But storms have grounded all planes. So, she hits on the ideas of the two of them sharing a private charter plane. However, enroute, over the mountains, the pilot (Beau Bridges), who hasn’t filed a flight plan,  has a stroke and the plane crashes. He’s killed but Ben and Alex both survive, although she has an injured leg, as does the pilot’s dog. Now, stuck ona mountain with no phone signal they can either wait in the wreckage and hope the emergency beacon, which fell off with the plane’s tail, is working and people will come looking, or they can try and make it out together.

And that’s pretty much it as far as plot goes as the couple slowly make it down the mountain, hitting and few obstacles and brought together through the determination to survive,falling in love along the way. There’s some moments of suspense and some character development regarding why buttoned-up Ben’s wife left him, though rather less insight into Alex, but mostly this is a simple romantic adventure love story, told in a  direct, light and unfussy manner by Abu-Assad, making his English language debut

A two-hander for  the bulk of its running time, Winslet and Elba, in his first romantic lead,  have a genuine chemistry and spark, their characters are likeable  and Chris Weitz’s screenplay avoids melodrama for a natural rhythm and a sense of wit, as well as upending stereotypes by making him the cautious one and she more inclined to take risks.

There’s a lot of walking through snow, a post survival coda that makes a last minute bid for the tissues and the message that love gives you something to live for. It’s not deep, there’s no action, but while the scenery make be cold, the film delivers a warm glow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Victoria and Abdul  (PG)

An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown,  Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship.  This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.

Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the  many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers.  Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her  “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.

As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the  Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant,  bringing over his wife and mother-in-law  (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery,  the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby   (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor  (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.

Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed  all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal  any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot.   It’s pleasant and, once or twice  quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

 

 

Album review: Beck – Colors

On the much-loved sitcom Frasier – you’ve probably seen it when you’re sighing into your morning cornflakes – younger brother Niles is lamenting his lack of rebellious antics. “You’re a good man, Niles,” comforts his titular older sibling. “Surely isn’t that you, well, rebelling against rebellion?” In other words, doing something seemingly straightforward, or removed from exploration or felony, doesn’t necessarily result in something being safe or unadventurous. For Colors, this is a fitting summary.

Beck doesn’t do albums, he does reactions. When he first shrugged onto the scene as a lank-haired, lo-fi troubadour, there was never any indication he would become one of alternative music’s most chameleonic characters. Each album has been a direct contrast to the last – the sample-heavy, era-defining Odelay was followed by the folk-tinged Mutations, which in turn preceded the Prince-esque grooves of Midnite Vultures. After 2014’s Morning Phase dealt in pastoral contemplation, any Beck fan worth their salt will know that Colors is going to plough a completely different furrow.

The premise behind Colors, though, is enough to startle any fan of the pint-sized Scientologist. The idea of Beck going pop has been heard before, but only when the singer has played by his own rules, twisting the convention into his own genre-hopping box. For him to embrace the radio-friendly, supremely polished pop of the current zeitgeist seems strange, risky and ultimately unfulfilling. However, by rebelling against rebelling, and producing something shiny, bright and ready for radio, Beck has beaten the songwriting machines at their own game, producing a record gleaming with hooks, buffed melodies and a much brighter outlook.

Lead single ‘Dreams’, released all the way back in 2015, still leads the charge in terms of quality, a summer cocktail of shuddering guitars, howling vocals and half-rapped deliveries. It also sets the tone for the rest of the record – throughout, Beck’s vocals are bathed in reverb, creating a breathy presence that brings out the best in his oft-used falsetto. Equally as impressive are ‘Up All Night’ and ‘I’m So Free’, despite the rather trite chorus lines (“just wanna stay up all night with you”, “I’m so free for you”). The former glides along on a sweet, twinkling sentiment and an arms-aloft outro, while the latter – with strong backing vocals from Feist – has the sugar rush guitar distortion of power poppers The Wannadies.

Producer of the moment Greg Kurstin understands what makes Beck tick, having worked with Hansen for a number of years in the ‘90s, and thus helps produce a pop record on Beck’s own terms – ‘No Distraction’ sounds like several big 1980s ballads spliced into one, with its reggae-lite guitar coda reminiscent of The Police, while the gently swaying ‘Dear Life’ and the lilting acoustic lullaby of ‘Fix Me’ have the kaleidoscopic beauty of The Beatles. The only track that still feels jarring is the panpipe-addled ‘Wow’, where Beck’s “giddy up” motif is probably not going to frighten the horses.

Colors feels like Beck’s own version of Ryan Adams record Rock N Roll (or, dare we say it, a much better attempt at Liz Phair’s self-titled LP), which was a blatant and tongue-in-cheek attempt to create the most ‘basic’ rock record he could. However, if both lack subtlety in their approach, Beck’s big, bold and pop record still has enough heart and originality to stand out from its contemporaries. “How long must I wait before the thrill is gone?” he asks at one point – if Beck continues to surprise and define his critics, that day will never come.

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

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s iconic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, director Denis Villeneuve, DoP Roger Deakin and screenwriters Michael Green and  Hampton Fancher (the latter co-wrote the original), deliver a  haunting sequel which, set thirty years on in an forbidding LA some years after the Black Out that wiped all digital records and where it’s  always snowing or raining, both honours Scott’s vision and deepens its meditation on the nature of the soul.

Following the collapse of the Tyrell Corporation as a result of replicant rebellions, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) rose to power after his synthetic agriculture saved the world from famine, acquiring the remnants of Tyrell and producing a new model of replicants, with a  shorter life span.

However, there are still some extended life Nexus 8 models out there and it’s the task of LAPD replicants such as K (Ryan Gosling)  to track down these ;skin jobs’ and ‘retire’ them. His latest mission brings him to one of Wallace’s old farming facilities and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) who, after a bone crunching fight, he eventually shoots. However, in scouting the area a box is discovered buried beneath a tree, in it a box of bones and, carved nearby, a date. The bones turn out to be that of a woman, a replicant, but the staggering revelation is that she died giving birth, apparently to twins and that, while the girl died,  the boy, who would now be thirty, is still out there. As such, Lieutenant Joshi (an imposingly severe Robin Wright), K’s boss, orders him to find and eliminate the last remaining evidence so as to prevent the revolution that would surely ensue should such knowledge about the ability to reproduce become known and the fragile balance between the controlling humans and the ‘submissive’  replicants be overthrown.

As to the date, this resonates with a childhood memory K has about being chased by some other kids and hiding his wooden carving of a horse in an  abandoned furnace, the date being carved on the base of the toy. Thoughts of Pinocchio are not without foundation.

Meanwhile, he’s not the only one with an interest in the case, Wallace having despatched his cold and lethal replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, mesmerising) to acquire the evidence and to find the child. All of which leads K, first to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juni) who, forever trapped inside an hermetically sealed environment on account of her weak immune system, crafts memories for Wallace’s replicants and assures K that his is real not an implant. And from there, accompanied by his hologram girlfriend Joi (a terrific Ana de Armas), essentially a souped up and sexy version of Siri, in search of Rick Deckard (a pleasingly gruff Harrison Ford), the long missing former Blade Runner, whom, it would seem, may have the connections and answers K is seeking.

It would be unfair to reveal much more of the plot, but suffice to say there’s a clever narrative sleight of hand designed to have audiences jumping to conclusions while, through cues such as Joi’s boot up melody, a snatch from Peter and the Wolf,  the film cleverly weaves in notions of simulation and questions of what is real or just seems to be.

Visually it is an astonishing piece of work with inspired use of light and outstanding set design and CGI that include an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Las Vegas with a casino and holograms of Elvis and Sinatra, Wallace’s impressive but soulless headquarters,  the sometimes transparent Joi’s transformations of appearance (in a remarkable ménage a trois she merges with a replicant sex worker to make love to K) and the few but riveting action sequences.

The performances are suitably dialled down and reined in, giving rise to many a moody inscrutable Gosling stare and the film often uses silence for effect, building both the emotional intensity and the suspense. On the other hand, the soundtrack can also be brutally extreme, Not all of it is clear, and intentionally so, though Wallace’s motives and plans are, perhaps, a little too obscure, but that is part and parcel of its allure – and the reason you’ll need to see it more and, while you don’t necessarily have to have seen Scott’s film, those who have will relish a startling final act nod to one of that film’s pivotal moments. At 164 minutes, it’s a touch overlong and it’s certainly not some popcorn sci fi, but, as with Villeneuve’s Arrival, it assumes an intelligence in its audience that Hollywood far too often assumes to be absent. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

The Mountain Between Us (12A)

Neurosurgeon Ben (Idris Elba) and photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) both have to be somewhere the next day, he for important surgery, she for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But storms have grounded all planes. So, she hits on the ideas of the two of them sharing a private charter plane. However, enroute, over the mountains, the pilot (Beau Bridges), who hasn’t filed a flight plan,  has a stroke and the plane crashes. He’s killed, but, along with the pilot’s dog, Ben and Alex both survive, although she has an injured leg. Now, stuck on a mountain with no phone signal they can either wait in the wreckage and hope the emergency beacon, which fell off with the plane’s tail, is working and people will come looking before the food runs out, or they can try and make it out together.

And that’s pretty much it as far as plot goes as the couple slowly make it down the mountain, hitting and few obstacles and brought together through the determination to survive,falling in love along the way. There’s some moments of suspense and some character development regarding why buttoned-up Ben’s wife left him, though rather less insight into Alex, but mostly this is a simple romantic adventure love story, told in a  direct, light and unfussy manner by Abu-Assad, making his English language debut

A two-hander for  the bulk of its running time, Winslet and Elba, in his first romantic lead,  have a genuine chemistry and spark, their characters are likeable  and Chris Weitz’s screenplay avoids melodrama for a natural rhythm and a sense of wit, as well as upending stereotypes by making him the cautious one and she more inclined to take risks.

There’s a lot of walking through snow, a post survival coda that makes a last minute bid for the tissues and the message that love gives you something to live for. It’s not deep, there’s no action, but while the scenery make be cold, the film delivers a warm glow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

American Assassin (18)

With the established stars of action movies now starting to get on a bit, Hollywood’s becoming increasingly desperate to find new and younger blood on whom to build franchises. Hence Michal Cuesta’s adaptation of Vince Flynn’s airport lounge pulp page turner knocking a decade or two off  its hero, Mitch Rapp, so as to cast Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien.

Opening with a scene that’s likely to be something of  raw nerve for many, Rapp is wounded and sees his girlfriend, to whom he’s just proposed, murdered when a bunch of armed Islamist terrorists start shooting up the Ibiza beach where they’re holidaying.  Fast forward 18 months and, recovered but seething with barely repressed rage, now sporting healthy face fuzz, Rapp has mastered  gun and martial arts skills  and learned Arabic so that he can infiltrate the Libyan terrorist cell responsible and take out them and their leader.  What he doesn’t know is that he’s being monitored by the CIA, who swoop in and do the job for him. Then. back in the USA, he’s invited by cool, no nonsense CIA  Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who reckons he has the exact psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine, to join her black ops team. So, it’s off to the woods for some boot camp training under the command of hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a suitably taciturn Michael Keaton). Meanwhile, Kennedy and her boss (David Suchet) have been meeting with some top level Iranians regarding the theft of weapons grade plutonium from Russia and ascertained that the man responsible has arranged to acquire a nuclear trigger, so he duly despatches Hurley, Rapp and fellow trainee Victor (Birmingham’s Scott Atkins), hooking up with Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar),  to take the arms dealer and the thief and recover the plutonium.

Needless to say, things go pear-shaped,  Rapp ignoring orders and taking off to finish the mission. Naturally, things get more complicated when it turns out the one who stole the plutonium calls himself Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) and is actually one of Hurley’s former protégés gone rogue and is playing to provide the Iranians with everything they need, scientist included, to make a nuke to attack Israel

Thus the stage is set for another maverick race against the clock  complete with several twists and reveals in the final stretch that steers this away from the  Islam-bashing narrative it first seems.

The result of four screenwriters, it’s fairly generic and cliché-bound, complete with the chiselled dialogue you might expect along with the stoicism in the face of pain patriotism (Keaton figures in a particularly nasty torture scene) and the repeated mantra about not making it personal. It’s not big on character depth or development, but, variously unfolding in Warsaw, Istanbul, Malta and Rome, it delivers the limited action sequences in workmanlike manner, building up to the big CGI effects climax, doing the job efficiently enough to ensure the sequel promised in the final shot.  (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

American Made (15)

In 1978, tapped for smuggling illegal Cuban cigars, TWA pilot Barry Seal was approached by the CIA to run secret surveillance missions over Colombia, a success that, through the early 80s,  led to him becoming a bag man between the CIA and Nicaragua’s General Noriega, delivering pay offs in return for information on Communist operations in South America. Then, he was approached by the Medelin Cartel, the biggest drugs operation in Colombia, headed up by Pablo Escobar, who recruited him to transport their cocaine to  the United States. Then, further concerned about the Communist-run Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA got him to fly arms to the supposedly opposing Contras, except instead, he ended up flying the guns to the Cartel  who armed their forces and  then got the Contras to smuggle cocaine into America. Before long Seal, who by now had been relocated by the CIA from Louisiana to Mena in smalltown Arkansas  was making so much money he was having to set up any number of front businesses to launder it, and even then he was still burying it in the garden and stuffing it into cupboards. And even when it went pear-shaped, and he was being pursued variously by state police, the FBI, CIA  and the DEA, he was still able to come out on top.

Unfolding between 1985 top 1986, it was one of the biggest covert operations ever run by the US government. His story’s been told before, but, screenwriter Gary Spinelli taking a cue from GoodFellas,  never as well or as entertainingly as here by director Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) with a permagrin Tom Cruise donning the aviator sunglasses as Seals. Played with an eye on the comedic element in the whole situation (rather akin to the recent similarly-themed War Dogs), it romps from one implausible but real scenario to the next as Seal’s ‘business’ empire continues to expand. Although initially wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) is oblivious to Barry’s double life, but when you’ve got wads of dollar bills all over the house, it’s hard to keep things that secret and she readily takes to the  wealth and the life, although things almost come crashing down thanks her to her self-serving slacker brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons he can deal himself an easy hand in the cash flow.

Not until the final act when, now working for the White House and Colonel Oliver North, he’s inadvertently outed as betraying the Cartel and becomes a marked man, while the Iran-Contra scandal blows up in the government’s face does it really involve any real tension, and even then, as he moves from motel to motel, recording the videotapes that would eventually reveal his story (and provide the film’s to camera framing device), it still manages to play for  edgy laughs as, each morning, he wonders if his car will explode.

Following the disappointment of The Mummy and a series of autopilot Jack Reacher  turns, Cruise is on peak form here, bringing a winning charm and charisma to the film’s anti-hero embodiment of the American Dream on speed. Liman’s also well served by a solid supporting turn from Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler Monty Shafer who gets to bask in the reflected glory of his protégé’s successes while turning a knowing blind eye to extracurricular activities as long as they serve to further the political agenda, and burning any trail when compromised. There’s evidence of some edit room chops (Jesse Plemons’ local sheriff and his suspicious wife  seemingly the biggest victims), but even so the film flows at an exhilarating rush, making it easily Cruise’s best since Collateral.  (Vue Star City)

 

Annabelle : Creation (15)

A second attempt to establish a franchise for The Conjuring spin-off,  Lights Out director David F. Sandberg scores in relying on old-school horror tactics with half-glimpsed figures, shadows, doors opening of their own accord and teasing the audience with anticipation that’s not always fulfilled. This goes back to the 1950’s origins of the devil doll, as 12 years after their beloved daughter Bee (Samara Lee) is killed in an auto accident, former doll maker Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) opens up the rural California farmhouse he shares with his mysteriously invalided wife (Miranda Otto)  to serve as an orphanage for a group of young Catholic girls and their accompanying nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).

Central to the narrative are young  best friends Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the latter in a  leg brace after being stricken with polio. Shut out by the older girls, they end up sharing  room to themselves, next to a door which, Mulls advises them, is locked and will stay that way. So, naturally, when, one night, Janice is awoken by someone slipping  a note under the door bearing the words ‘find me’ (the same game the dead daughter played with her parents) and finds the forbidden room unlocked, she duly enters and discovers a white-frocked wooden doll locked  in a  cupboard. From which point, things start to get even more creepy with the doll mysteriously shifting locations (though you never actually see it move), scary noises and, eventually, Janice coming face to face with the dead daughter, who, naturally turns out to be a demon in disguise (the back story’s explained towards the end) which wants her soul.

The film makes effective use of the set and lighting design to build the tension, plus, of course, the soundtrack, as Janice draws ever closer to her ultimate fate (as detailed in previous instalments, to which the coda provides a direct link), Curiously, the film does little with its religious elements as regards the possession theme and is, at times, a little too cryptic for logic but, by placing two resourceful but nevertheless still young and vulnerable children (very effectively played Bateman and Wilson, respectively seen in Nine Lives and  Ouija: Origin of Evil) at the centre of the gathering horror, it adds to the suspense it seeks to evoke. (Vue Star City)

 

 
Borg vs. McEnroe (12A)

Few would disagree that the 1980 Wimbledon final, a four-hour, five-set showdown between people’s favourite four time champion Bjorn Borg and badboy contender John McEnroe, is the greatest match ever played, Borg losing seven match points before finally taking a record-breaking fifth title. It was  match between two very different tennis style and two very different personalities, Borg dubbed the machine for his ice cool composure, pre-match rituals and seeming lack of emotion, McEnroe the tantrum prone hothead with a reputation for disputing decision and swearing at the umpire and spectators alike.

Directed by Denmark’s Janus Metz with a screenplay by Swede Ronnie Sandahl, it’s not too surprising that this biopic seeks to get inside  Borg slightly more than McEnroe, but, nevertheless, it does a good job in using flashbacks  presenting the childhoods and teenage years that formed the two players, scenes of a volatile adolescent Borg throwing the sort of tempers that made McEnroe’s name before he had it trained out of him.

Building towards the final, it cross-cuts between the two men’s preparations and pre-game psychological states (McEnroe refuses to speak to anyone, not even close friends like fellow player Peter Fleming), capturing the pressure felt by the defending champion and  the rage he bottled up behind his iceman persona while offering equal insight into the parental pressures that drove McEnroe’s intensity and outbursts. Stellan Skaarsgard is effective as  former Wimbledon player, Davis Cup captain and Borg’s longtime mentor Lennart Bergelin as is Tuva Novotny as Borg’s then fiancée and later wife Mariana Simionescu, both of whom get shut out in the hours before the game. However, the film like this lives or dies on its central stars and both are excellent. Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance in years as McEnroe. but even he’s eclipsed by Sverrir Gudnason who, in both looks and manners, to all intents and purposes is Bjorn Borg, the film more about the rival players who, obsessed, driven, tormented and flawed, ultimately, had more in common that wan realised, than the match itself. Somehow I can’t see anyone doing this about Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic (MAC)

Dunkirk  (12A)

His shortest feature at a concise 106 mins, Christopher Nolan has executed a technical if not necessarily emotional triumph in his account of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940 with the help of a flotilla of small privately-owned vessels, dubbed Operation Dynamo,  following their collapse under the German offensive.

Essentially, this is more about the operation itself, and splitting the narrative into three interconnected stories (and, indeed, time frames), on land, sea and air, means there’s only limited engagement with  any of the characters involved. Unfolding over the course of a week, we’re first introduced to one of the soldiers, the generically named teenage Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he narrowly escapes German bullets (in a departure from the usual war films, the enemy are never seen other than as aircraft and two blurry figures in the final scene) to make it to the beach where the British Expeditionary Force  troops (some 400,000 in all) are awaiting a miracle. Hooking up with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard), they initially manage to get aboard a rescue ship berthed at the jetty by stretchering a wounded soldier, only for the ship to be sunk, leaving them back where they started.

Very much evoking 40s wartime features, the sea section, which takes place over one day,  begins back in England with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a local civilian skipper, his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, seeking to prove himself,  enthusiastic schoolfriend  George (Barry Keoghan) setting sail for Dunkirk to help with the rescue. En route they rescue an unnamed shellshocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) from  the wreck of his torpedoed ship, his reluctance to return to Dunkirk setting up a subsequent tragedy.

The air section, which covers just one hour, involves two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as. mostly behind oxygen masks, they take on the Messerschmitts and Heinkels wreaking havoc on the troops and ships, the three time scales coming together for the final moments as Dawson’s boat heads towards a bombed minesweeper while Tommy and a fellow soldier (singer Harry Styles acquitting himself well) flounder in the sea after their appropriated trawler, strafed by the unseen enemy as target practice, sinks. Rounding out the cast, Kenneth Branagh gives a quietly impressive performance as the highest-ranking naval offer at the scene, while James D’Arcy is his opposite number in the Army

As ever, making very effective use of sound design, especially in the opening gunshot moments, and keeping the dialogue sparse and to the point, Nolan delivers massive spectacle (no less than three ships sink, spewing survivors into the waves), but without feeling the need to offer the visceral graphics of a Saving Private Ryan (indeed, there’s almost no blood to be seen), tightly winding up the tension which, even if it circumvents the heart, has a firm grip on the nerves.

The film is largely shot in 70mm which, should you be fortunate to have a cinema capable of screening it as such, gives it an extra sense of immersion and depth, but whatever the format, this is the work of a master, if perhaps slightly clinical,  filmmaker and stunning stuff. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Flatliners (15) 

Joel Schumacher’s  cult 90s thriller, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon about a bunch of  med students who participate in a series of near death  experiences only to find past tragedies and sins coming back to haunt them,  gets a  remake from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, but  fails to bring the corpse back to life.

Nine years on from an accident in which, distracted while driving, her younger sister died, Courtney (Ellen Page) is now a med student obsessed with the idea of there being an afterlife. To which end, she persuades her fellow students, trust fund playboy Jamie (James Norton) and insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) to assist in her in an experiment, stopping her heart, recording any brain activity, and then bringing her back. When things hit a hitch in the revival process, they call on another of the group, Ray (Diego Luna) to help.  When Courtney suddenly seems to have developed  new abilities, Jamie demands to go next and when Marlo (Nina Dobrev), a senior student with a thing for Ray, learns what they’re up to, she insists on flatlining too and, having had another run in with her controlling mother, Sophia turns up demanding on following suit.

Needless to say, the immediate highs are quickly replaced by disturbing lows, each of those who went under finding themselves being haunted by something from their past, the car crash, an abortion, a medical miscall that cost a life, the humiliation of a fellow student; as Jamie puts it, the side effects are trying to kill them.

By its very nature, the laboured storyline is episodic, with each getting their own haunting, and there’s only so many fleeting glimpses or sudden appearances of ominous figures you can have before it all starts getting repetitive rather than scary, while, the final act, where everyone, or at least those that make it that far, set about finding redemption and atonement, just feels like the writers lost interest.  Page is good, but deserves better, while the others do what’s necessary and, in a  nod to the original, Sutherland puts in a couple of appearances as the hospital’s testy  senior doctor . It’s watchable but unnecessary. Do not resuscitate. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG)

Voted the favourite children’s story of all time, Winnie the Pooh, written by Alan Milne, brought the world a sense of happiness and innocence following the dark days of WWI. One person it didn’t bring happiness, however, was Christopher Robin Milne, the little boy who, the son of  the author, featured in the stories along with his toys, Pooh, Tigger and the others. Opening with Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) receiving news that his son is missing presumed dead in WWII, it flashes back to the author’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme and his return home, traumatised by what he went through, with even a champagne cork popping triggering  traumatic memories. Already a successful writer for Punch magazine, determined to write a book about ending wars, he decamps to the country with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), their  cherubic-looking young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whom they’ve nicknamed Billy Moon, and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), to whom they virtually hand over all parental duties.  When he fails to bring himself to put pen to paper, Daphne takes off back to London, declaring she won’t return until he’s written something.  Eventually, this turns out to be Vespers, the famous poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers. It proves to be a huge success and, in response to his son’s request to write him a  book, he embarks on the tales of the 100 Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eyeore, Piglet and the others, all based on where they live and his son’s stuffed animals. And of course, on Christopher Robin himself.

The books fly off the shelves, but it’s not Milne for whom the fan letters come and who is in demand for interviews, it’s his son and he and Daphne duly wheel him out on the celebrity circuit, even, at one, point, as the prize in  toy manufacturer’s  competition, oblivious, unlike Olive, to the effect it’s having on the boy. Grown up to resent the books’ success, as the teenage Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther)  remarks to his father before he sets off to war,  his childhood was happy enough, it was the growing up that was a misery, the stories’ make-believe version in the stories making him the source of constant bullying.

Directed by Simon Curtis, it’s a hugely melancholic work that slots comfortably into the long line of literary biopics such as Finding Neverland and Shadowlands and the shortcoming of the writers concerned. Certainly, neither of them caring that much for kids, Milne comes across as a slightly priggish figure, while Daphne seems to have no maternal instincts whatsoever, leaving it to Olive to be the only one that shows the boy any actual love. On the other hand, the scenes where father and son are forced to spend time together alone are rather sweet and show the side to Milne that allowed him to create such tender tales.

However, while handsomely photographed and finely acted (with a cast that also includes Stephen Campbell Moore and Richard McCabe), despite the commentary on the destructive, exploitative  fall out of fame, Christopher Robin robbed of the intimate moments of his childhood as well as his very identity, it never quite manages to be as dramatic as it ought. Nonetheless, there’ll be few dry eyes by the end.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Home Again (12A)

This finds Reese Witherspoon back in familiar romcom mode  as 40-year-old Alice, who, recently divorced from her record producer husband, takes her two young daughters, hypochondriac  Isobel (Lola Flanery) and  snarky Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), moves from New York back to her late filmmaker father’s sprawling estate in L.A. and sets up a decorating business, the girls spending time hanging out with their  retired actress grandma (Candice Bergen).

Meeting up with Harry (Pico Alexander) while quietly celebrating her fortieth, things end up  with  her agreeing to let him and his mates, George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff), all of whom are trying to make it in the movie business,  live in  the guest house, and also starts dating Harry.  Then along comes the ex ((Michael Sheen), trying to worm his way back in their lives.  Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Something’s Gotta Give director Nancy Meyers, who produced,  don’t expect anything original, but fans of Witherspoon’s comedic cuteness likely won’t be disappointed. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

It (15)

Originally adapted as a mini-series back in 1990, Stephen King’s mammoth novel gets a  feature-length outing under  director Andy Muschietti.  Creepy without ever being as scary as it should, events spread over nine months, it’s been updated to the late 1980s and opens in smalltown Derry in Maine as young Georgie runs outside into the rain to float the paper boat made by his by his stutter-afflicted older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the boat drops into a culvert, he looks into it and is confronted by the face of a clown (Bill Skarsgarg), calling himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who lures him closer, bites off an arm and the drags the boy into the sewers.

A year later, Bill still believes his brother is alive, enlisting three  schoolfriends, know-it-all wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sceptical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), to explore the sewer system looking for him. Bullied at school by the psychotic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, they’re the self-styled Losers Club, their number eventually swelled by shy chubby new kid Ben and homeschooled black kid Mike  (Chosen Jacobs), both of whom are also targeted by Bowers, and  the supposedly promiscuous tomboy  Beverly (Sophia Lillis), another bullied outsider.

All have their own terrifying encounters with It, as the film gradually reveals the shapeshifting monster preys on his victims’ fears and Ben’s research uncovers that it appears every 27 years, each period characterised by children going missing, something the town  seems unwilling to confront.

Naturally, all the kids (Bowers included) have their own torments, among them abusive or demanding fathers, an overprotective mother, guilt and, for Richie, a fear of clowns. But, while individually vulnerable, as Beverly points out, by staying together they may have a chance of surviving and destroying their nemesis.

Echoing the themes of friendship  and coming of age on which Stand By Me was founded (along with the cruelty of the adult world) with an added serving of horror, following various individual close calls, they all head to the decrepit old house they’ve identified as the clown’s lair.

The film makes effective use of its haunting imagery, most especially the red balloon while, although bereft of backstory,  Skarsgard’s white-faced monster, whispering “you’ll float too”, is a striking visual presence. However, while the opening is especially striking,  the more set pieces that are introduced to give each youngster a turn in the spotlight, the more repetitive  and the less effective they become. Likewise, the romantic rivalry between Bill and Ben over Beverly is never  developed.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective  piece of work and the young cast acquit themselves well, Lillis ably living up to the Molly Ringwald reference tossed her way by Richie. Of course, however, with the film closing on their vow to return in 27 years time to take on It once again, the best they can look forward to in Chapter Two are some fleeting flashbacks. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (12A)

Cheerfully  contriving to bring back not one but two characters who were clearly killed off in the first film, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek secret agent romp resurrects both failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), respectively head blown off and shot through the eye. Charlie returns in the kinetic opening sequence, a frantic car chase through the streets of London, as, now equipped with a bionic arm,  he and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) battle it out in the latter’s souped up taxi. He’s now in the employ of Poppy (Julianne Moore), deranged CEO of the world’s biggest – but secret – drugs cartel, the Golden Circle, who’s holed up in her own 50s-styled Poppyland theme park in Cambodia who, Charlie’s arm having hacked into Eggy’s computer, then sets about blowing up every Kingsman establishment in the country.

This leaves just two survivors, gadget-man Victor aka Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who, since we last saw him, has, in contradiction to Kingsman rules, acquired a Swedish Princess girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom); indeed, he’s at dinner with her and her parents, the  King and Queen, when  Poppy strikes, also taking out one his mates and his dog in the process.

Falling back on the Doomsday Protocol leads them to a secrets safe containing  a bottle of bourbon and, from there, to Kentucky and  an American secret  agent organisation, Statesman, operating  a distillery as a front as opposed to a gentleman’s tailors.  Named after drinks rather than Knights of the Round Table, they’re headed up by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) whose team includes wildcard Tequila (Channing Tatum), electric lasso-wielding Whisky (Pedro Pascal) and gadget girl Ginger (Halle Berry) and, after clearing up an initial misunderstanding, the team join forces. It also turns out they also have in their keeping Harry, who, revived but now suffering from amnesia, thinks he’s a butterfly collector.

The plot per se finally kicks in when Poppy announces on television that she’s infected millions of drug users with a  toxin that causes a blue rash and eventual death and demands the President abandon the war on drugs so she and her empire can go legit. Needless to say, Tilde winds up as one of the afflicted, making it personal for Eggsy while the President (Bruce Greenwood)  reckons Poppy would be doing him a favour, much to the horror of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson). All of which, after a set piece on a cable car in the Italian alps, climaxes with Victor, Harry and Eggsy invading Poppy’s hide-out for the big shoot-out finale.

All of which serves to throw in an inordinate amount of silliness to go with the carnage, ranging from Poppy quite literally making mincemeat of Circle member Keith Allen and then serving him up as a burger, Eggsy having to implant a tracer on Charlie’s girlfriend (Poppy Delavigne) via a condom on his finger and, topping out her obsession with Elton John (she has robot dogs named Bennie and Jets), Poppy kidnapping the man himself for  private performances, though turning Elton into an action man may be pushing suspension of disbelief a touch too far. Playing deadpan, no one’s taking this seriously, which, of course adds to the fun and Vaughn rattles it along at a cracking pace, with some stylish suits and a couple of cute puppies along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end credits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be back for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Logan Lucky (12A)

The return of director Steven Soderbergh to feature filmmaking should be cause for celebration, but instead what you get is a rather lacklustre and flat blue collar  retread of his Oceans’s trilogy, one which may have a cleverly intricate plot mechanism to the heist, but lacks any of those previous films’ fluidity,  comedic spark and banter. For reasons never quite made clear (but presumably involve being able to afford to follow his ex-wife –Katie Holmes – from Virginia  to Pittsburgh so he can still see his young daughter),  recently let go from a construction company on account of his insurance risk dodgy knee, former high school football star Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), persuades his one-armed Iraq-veteran bar tender brother  Clyde (Adam Driver) to join him in a  plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, to which end, with their flaky hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) already onboard, they enlist the services of  celebrated safecracker Jo Bang (a scenery-chewing Daniel Craig with a white buzzcut); they just have to get him out of jail to do the job and back again before he’s missed. Which means they also need the assistance of his two dimwit brothers (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson).

Unfortunately, there’s a hiccup that means they have to bring the plan forward a week, which means that, instead of some low profile race meet, they’re hitting the NASCAR Coca -Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend. And, on top of which, after they pull the job, Jimmy’s got to get to his daughter’s pageant show.

It’s the first screenplay by Rebecca Blunt and, as such, you can often hear the gears grinding while things like the running gags about the supposed Logan family curse, Clyde’s hand  and John Denver’s music feel like Blunt being consciously ‘eccentric’ rather than an organic part of the plot. Likewise scenes involving Seth McFarlane’s loudmouth British energy drink creator race driver Max Chilblain which could have been cut without any loss to the narrative.

Admittedly, the way it all falls into place is well-handled and ( as with the Oceans films), there’s the inevitable reveals of things you didn’t see in the main narrative, but even so the late arrival of Hilary Swank’s FBI agent means the film has to try and crank things up again just after they’ve wound down post heist, something it never quite manages to do.  The cast are game enough, but never quite sparks in the way that Clooney et al. did and, while there’s some amusing touches, not least an amusing Game of Thrones gag as part of a prison riot demands and a witty background reference to Ocean’s Eleven,  ultimately this is enjoyable but forgettable fare. (Vue Star City)

 

Mother!  (18)

It certainly earns its exclamation mark! Darren Aronofsky pushes the boat out with this mindfuck of a psychological thriller that throws in haunted house horrors, biblical allegory (Cain and Abel and the plagues of Egypt included), relationship drama, home invasion and quite literally even a kitchen sink. It opens on a hallucinatory scene of  a woman burning alive, followed by a dream sequence involving a large red-veined crystal and the charred house gradually restoring itself before, finally, the camera pans in on Jennifer Lawrence waking up in bed and saying ‘baby?

Never given a  name, she’s married to Javier Barden’s equally unnamed and older character, a famous poet suffering writer’s block, while she’s restoring his isolated and previously ruined old  house to try and get his juices flowing again.  An early clue that it isn’t going to be especially straightforward comes when she puts her hands on the wall and has visions of a beating organ inside them. When she gets anxious she retreats to the bathroom to take some sort of yellow powder. One night, they get a visitor (Ed Harris) claiming to be a doctor who says he was told he could get a room. Bardem invites him to stay, enraptured with the stories he tells him, though Lawrence is clearly not happy about this.  The next morning along comes the man’s disrespectful wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who quickly taps into the unspoken but fraught  issue of  Lawrence and Barden not having kids.  Lawrence is even more unsettled by their unwanted guests when their two sons (Domhall and Brian Gleeson) turn up, quarrelling over dad’s will. Things get ugly, someone dies,  a wake gets out of hand, the floor and walls bleed, Javier writes another bestseller, she gets pregnant and suddenly there’s an army of fans descending on the place, to his delight and her anger. Things turn apocalyptic, people riot, tearing the place apart for relics of the great man,  the army crashes  in shooting. What happens to the  baby is for strong stomachs only.

It’s operatically delirious and frequently surreal  stuff that has Lawrence, from whose perspective the entire thing is seen,  getting increasingly desperate and intense (particularly in the many extreme close-ups) and the creepily smiling and increasingly callous Bardem possessed of a demented good humour and cheer to allcomers, basking in their admiration. Cinephiles will enjoy picking apart nods to the likes of Rebecca, The Shining,   Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Exterminating Angel and much more, others will just wonder what the hell’s going on.

At the end of the day,  however, it boils down to Aronofsky’s recurring themes, specifically the selfish, consuming nature of the act of creation, the idolatrous and destructive nature of fame in which the artist draws on the love of others like a sort of vampire and is willing to sacrifice (here quite literally) those close to him to fuel his creativity.  That by way of parenthood, trophy objects and the male ego. It’s a real mutha! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A)

The third actor to play the webslinger on the big screen, Tom Holland made his debut cameoing in Captain America: Civil War, and this latest reboot is set a few months after those events. It opens, however, in the wake of the first Avengers movie as, mid-way through salvage work, New York contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is told all such operations involving alien material now comes under Damage Control. Still, he and his crew have stowed away enough to go into the super-weapons business, which is where we pick up events eight years later (no Spidey origin stories here). On a high after helping out The Avengers, making his own web diary footage of events to revel in on playback, gawky 15-year-old Queens high schooler Peter Parker (Holland) is keen to see more action in his Stark ‘internship’, but, with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his babysitter,  is advised by Tony (a typically snarky Robert Downey Jr) to keep his super-heroing on a neighbourhood level, although he does get a  new hi-tech suit (with its very own Jarvis in the vocal form of Jennifer Connelly) to go with the job, even if he has no idea what all its powers are or how to use them.

As such, things toddle along with his handling petty crime and helping out old ladies until he stumbles on a heist with a gang using alien-technology weapons. This, in turn, leads him to track down the suppliers and run foul of Toomes who now sports a pair of armoured flying wings (he’s essentially The Vulture, but is never really referred to as such until the end), and, although warned off from getting involved by Stark, climaxes in a near disaster aboard the Staten Island Ferry (in a sequence that mirrors Tobey Maguire saving the elevated train in the original movie) that requires Iron Man to come to the rescue and take back the suit.

On top of all this, Peter’s having to deal with the usual high school problems, such as the class bully, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the senior on whom he has a crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), but is too shy to say anything. Plus the fact that he’s accidentally revealed his secret identity to science partner and equally geeky best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and that his webslinging heroics force him to both duck out on the  Academic Decathlon (he’s busy saving the other students in the Washington Tower) and, finally going places with Liz, the homecoming ball. And now he’s stuck with his old homemade suit too.

It’s a little ADD in the early going, reflecting Peter’s uber-enthusiasm and desire to impress Stark, but it soon settles down into a solid and, importantly, hugely entertaining fanboy addition to the Marvel Universe. Although things have been tweaked, there’s still plenty of familiar notes from the comics, including a new spin on MJ (a dry, scene stealing Zendaya), a much younger Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), nods to the many variations the costume’s been through and even the theme from the animated 60s TV series, not to mention a tease of Maguire’s famous upside down kiss.

Holland brings a likeable wide-eyed boyish glee as well as a disarming vulnerability to Parker, regularly screwing up but always getting back on his feet,  while Keaton, who, like Doctor Octopus, is a human-scaled villain with mechanical appendages  and a moral ambiguity, is menacingly compelling and, essentially a victim of the Avengers fall-out himself,  comes with a truly unexpected kick of a twist. Downey Jr and Favreau reprise their familiar shtick and the film also finds room for cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and, albeit by  way of school training videos, the now disgraced Captain America. Filling out the supporting cast, Martin Starr makes the most of his scenes as the Decathlon coach and Bokeem Woodbine does duty as one of Toomes’ crew aka the Shocker. Climaxing in a mid-air battle atop an Avengers  jet, it may ultimately resort to the usual super-hero tropes, but getting there is a whole web of fun. (Vue Star City)

 

Step (PG)

You saw the dance musicals, now here’s the documentary as director Amanda Lipitz follows an inner-city  girls’ high school’s step dance team  in their final year at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women on the journey to the finals of the state  step championships. A study in finding unity and a common purpose as well as individual motivation by being pushed and challenged by their teachers, counsellors, coaches, families  and each other to always do better, focusing on three students in particular, each from different backgrounds,  it’s an inspiring portrait of both sisterhood and the impulse to rise above socioeconomic ghettoising and find self-value, in both their dancing and academic performances, not to mention an insight into life in contemporary America. (MAC)

Victoria and Abdul  (PG)

An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown,  Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship.  This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.

Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the  many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers.  Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her  “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.

As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the  Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant,  bringing over his wife and mother-in-law  (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery,  the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby   (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor  (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.

Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed  all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal  any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot.   It’s pleasant and, once or twice  quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

Album review: Liam Gallagher – As You Were

Like Jaegerbombs, cereal cafes and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the idea of Liam Gallagher is perhaps much more satisfactory than the existence. When it comes to spouting soundbites, he is a journalist’s wet dream – he’s constantly pouring scorn over his older brother, dismissing ‘lesser’ bands, and shamelessly showboating about rock and roll currency. Throughout the interminable press campaign surrounding his debut album, his never-ending barrage of bluster has been refreshing, if slightly retrograde. But does his debut solo album back up the brashness?

Of course, the answer is no, but is that really the point? Like a band needing a record to tour, Liam needs an album to chunter. Beady Eye always seemed destined to failure, a Joey to Oasis’ Friends that sank beneath its own bravery, but as a de facto solo album, it feels like Liam’s last chance to remind people of his potency. Instead of Noel, Gem Archer or Andy Bell providing songwriting assistance, this time Adele and Ellie Goulding scribe Greg Kurstin has been recruited. However, dig deep and this makes perfect sense – Liam is just as much of a formidable frontman as those two, equally as strong a superstar with a swaggering and stately stage presence.

However, there’s a saying that even the best people can, if working with also-rans, be brought down to the latter’s level. Sadly, that seems the case with As You Were. Even with a crack team of chart-gobbling hook writers behind him, Liam Gallagher’s lyrics still remain awful. Even more amazing is the worst offender here, ‘Chinatown’, doesn’t even have Gallagher’s name in the credits – with clunky couplets like “the cops are taking over / and everyone’s in yoga”, as well as “what’s it to be free, man? What’s a European?” (a particularly thought-provoking ponder over Brexit), it seems like an end-of-day office game where the gang tried to devise a parody version of ‘Little James’. The song carries a certain ethereal charm, but that’s only until you realise the chorus hook has been pilfered from ‘Champagne Supernova’ – you half expect Liam to sing “where were you when we were getting high?”. Followed by “I was eating humble pie.” Actually, maybe that’s too good.

The record opens strongly, with a screeching harmonica and blistering guitar riff bleeding into the strutting single ‘Wall of Glass’, easily the best song on offer. With its rollicking verses and pounding chorus, it has the rage, energy and eclecticism of a more focused Be Here Now. Similarly, the shrugging confessions and string-drenched melodies of ‘For What It’s Worth’ sound like a much more purposeful latter-day Oasis offcut, the kind of ballad that would have been released as the second single from the Heathen Chemistry era.

But even that has its own problems – when you’re championing a record for sounding like one of Oasis’ last albums, the ones that were widely derided but were purchased devotedly, surely that’s a bad sign. ‘Paper Crown’ begins promisingly, a subdued strum that propels Gallagher’s gorgeous falsetto, but the chorus then dissolves into a weary re-tread of Britpop grafters Cast. Similarly, on ‘Bold’ he wistfully sighs about his own mischief, but it’s delivered with such toothless banality you can almost picture the Red Stripe cans sloshing in laddish contemplation.

The record would be better if Gallagher also reined in his ham-fisted homages to The Beatles. “Happiness is still a warm gun,” he coos on ‘Chinatown’, “Tomorrow never knows,” he winks on closer ‘I’ve All I Need’, which, despite Liam’s continued criticism of U2, has the widescreen balladry of ‘With Or Without You’. Surely by this point he has demonstrated he’s something of a Fab Four fan? Or maybe Liam lacks anything truly original to say beyond the Noel taunts and the cocky barbs.

Musically, As You Were is solid, richly textured with gentle acoustic thrums, glossy keys, stadium-sized electric riffs and the occasional gospel backing (see the convincingly menacing ‘Greedy Soul’). But lyrically and aesthetically, this is no giant step forward – replete with ropey platitudes, shallow self-pondering and artistic limitations, As You Were veers dangerously into beer tin-for-a-brain balladry. “In my defence, all my intentions were good,” he sighs on ‘For What It’s Worth’. True enough, but this needed much more.

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 29-Thu Oct 5

NEW RELEASES

Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG)

Voted the favourite children’s story of all time, Winnie the Pooh, written by Alan Milne, brought the world a sense of happiness and innocence following the dark days of WWI. One person it didn’t bring happiness, however, was Christopher Robin Milne, the little boy who, the son of  the author, featured in the stories along with his toys, Pooh, Tigger and the others. Opening with Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) receiving news that his son is missing presumed dead in WWII, it flashes back to the author’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme and his return home, traumatised by what he went through, with even a champagne cork popping triggering traumatic memories. Already a successful writer for Punch magazine, determined to write a book about ending wars, he decamps to the country with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), their  cherubic-looking young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whom they’ve nicknamed Billy Moon, and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), to whom they virtually hand over all parental duties.  When he fails to bring himself to put pen to paper, Daphne takes off back to London, declaring she won’t return until he’s written something.  Eventually, this turns out to be Vespers, the famous poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers. It proves to be a huge success and, in response to his son’s request to write him a  book, he embarks on the tales of the 100 Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eyeore, Piglet and the others, all based on where they live and his son’s stuffed animals. And of course, on Christopher Robin himself.

The books fly off the shelves, but it’s not Milne for whom the fan letters come and who is in demand for interviews, it’s his son and he and Daphne duly wheel him out on the celebrity circuit, even, at one, point, as the prize in  toy manufacturer’s  competition, oblivious, unlike Olive, to the effect it’s having on the boy. Grown up to resent the books’ success, as the teenage Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther) remarks to his father before he sets off to war,  his childhood was happy enough, it was the growing up that was a misery, his fame as the stories’ make-believe version in the stories making him the source of constant bullying at school..

Directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by Simon Vaughan and Frank Cottrell Boyce, it’s a hugely melancholic work that slots comfortably into the long line of literary biopics such as Finding Neverland and Shadowlands and the shortcoming of the writers concerned. Certainly, neither of them caring that much for kids, Milne comes across as a slightly priggish figure, while Daphne seems to have no maternal instincts whatsoever, leaving it to Olive to be the only one that shows the boy any actual love, at least. On the other hand, the scenes where father and son are forced to spend time together alone are rather sweet and show the side to Milne that allowed him to create such tender tales.

However, while handsomely photographed and finely acted (with a cast that also includes Stephen Campbell Moore and Richard McCabe), despite the commentary on the destructive, exploitative  fall out of fame, Christopher Robin robbed of the intimate moments of his childhood as well as his very identity, it never quite manages to be as dramatic as it ought. Nonetheless, there’ll be few dry eyes by the end.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Brimstone (18) 

Disappointingly playing one just a single screen in the West Mids, Dutch director Martin Koolhoven serves up a dark, violent, blood-soaked spaghetti-toned feminist Western about redemption and retribution told in four chapters, staring at the end with Revelation and working back through Exodus and Genesis before closing several years later with a blackly ironic Retribution coda. As you might have guessed, biblical imagery, symbolism and allegory loom large.

Following different stages in the life of Dutch immigrant Liz Bundy (Dakota Fanning), opening with her as the mute (for reasons unfolded later) midwife of a frontier town, married to an older sheep farmer and with two kids, his son and a daughter, Joanna,  of her own.  Life’s good until they turn up at church one day to find a new preacher in town. Only ever referred to as The Reverend (Guy Pearce who previously did the backwards narration thing in Memento), he’s a glowering, black clad,  hellfire sermonising fundamentalist with a huge facial scar, and Liz is keen to avoid meeting him. Clearly, they have a past, more of which is revealed in the second chapter when, after accused of being a murderess when a baby she’s delivering dies,  the Rev ominously comes calling, a couple of wounded gunmen take refuge in the barn,  she falls for one of them (Kit Hartington) and a night of bloody slaughter leads her and the children to flee,   things move in time. Now played by Emilia Jones and able to talk, she’s rescued from the desert by a Chinese slave trader sold off to cold-hearted brothel keeper Frank (Paul Anderson), who has one of his employees hung for injuring client while protecting her, and is befriended by fellow prostitute Elizabeth Brundy (Carla Juni). One day Frank announces they have a special client who’s taking the place over for the night. Needless to say, this turns out to be The Reverend, her unscarred, who has apparently been looking for her. More bloodshed and murder ensues, leading Liz to take some very drastic action. The film then moves back again, this time to her as a younger girl, daughter to Anna (Carice Van Houten), the much abused wife of the Dutch community’s preacher as the film spirals into themes of menstruation, damnation and incest.

Flagellation, fire, blood and even a sort of angelic vision all combine in the heady stew of obsession, perverted desire, damnation and much more, with a man being strangled with his own intestines is just one of the many visceral moments.  Framed with narration by Liz’s now grown daughter,  with Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL providing a suitably brooding s ore and Rogier Stoffers’ stunningly atmospheric and evocative. photography, it’s relentlessly intense and unremittingly bleak, with both Fanning as the much-suffering but formidably resilient Liz and Pearce as the terrifyingly demonic Reverend giving riveting performances.  Stunning. (Vue Star City)

Flatliners (15) 

Joel Schumacher’s  cult 90s thriller, in many ways a sort of precurser to Final Destination,  starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon about a bunch of  med students who participate in a series of near death  experiences only to find past tragedies and sins coming back to haunt them gets a  remake from Niels Arden Oplev, the Danish director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but  fails to bring the corpse back to life.

Nine years on from an accident in which, distracted while driving, her younger sister died, Courtney (Ellen Page) is now a med student obsessed with the idea of there being an afterlife. To which end, she persuades her fellow students, trust fund playboy Jamie (James Norton) and insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) to assist in her in an experiment, stopping her heart, recording any brain activity, and then bringing her back. When things hit a hitch in the revival process, they call on another of the group, Ray (Diego Luna) to help.  When Courtney suddenly seems to have developed  new abilities, Jamie demands to go next and when Marlo (Nina Dobrev), a senior student with a thing for Ray, learns what they’re up to, she insists on flatlining too and, having had another run in with her controlling mother, Sophia turns up insisting on following suit. Only Ray refuses to become one of the flatliners, after all someone has to be stable to bring them back.

Needless to say, the immediate highs are quickly replaced by disturbing lows, each of those who went under finding themselves being haunted by something from their past, the car crash, an abortion, a medical miscall that cost a life, the humiliation of a fellow student, or, as Jamie puts it, the side effects are trying to kill them.

By its very nature, the labured storyline is episodic, with each getting their own haunting, and there’s only so many fleeting glimpses or sudden appearances of ominous figures you can have before it all starts getting repetitive rather than scary, while, the final act, where everyone, or at least those that make it that far, set about finding redemption and atonement, just feels like the writers lost interest.  Page is good, but deserves better, while the others do what’s necessary and, in a  nod to the original, Sutherland puts in a couple of appearances as a the hospital’s testy  senior doctor . It’s watchable but unnecessary. Do not resuscitate. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Home Again (12A)

Opening without previews, this finds Reese Witherspoon back in familiar romcom mode  as 40-year-old Alice, who, recently divorced from her record producer husband, takes her two young daughters, hypochondriac  Isobel (Lola Flanery) and  snarky Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), moves from New York back to her late filmmaker father’s sprawling estate in L.A. and sets up a decorating business, the girls spending time hanging out with their  retired actress grandma (Candice Bergen).

Meeting up with Harry (Pico Alexander) while quietly celebrating her fortieth, things end up  with  her agreeing to let him and his mates, George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff), all of whom are trying to make it in the movie business,  live in  the guest house, and also starts dating Harry.  Then along comes the ex ((Michael Sheen), trying to worm his way back in their lives.  Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Something’s Gotta Give director Nancy Meyers, who produced,  don’t expect anything original, but fans of Witherspoon’s comedic cuteness likely won’t be disappointed. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Pecking Order (12A)

Following on from last year’s Tickled, here’s another quirky New Zealand documentary, this one about The Christchurch Poultry, Bantam, and Pigeon Club, an association dedicated to raising assorted poultry and entering them into various competitions, most especially, the prestigious National Show.  Ranging from adolescents to near geriatrics, the chicken-breeding members are an odd, eccentric bunch, obsessed with their birds, but (as is clear from the fates of those who don’t come up to scratch) not necessarily sentimentally so.

However, for those that survive the pot, these are meticulously groomed in order to satisfy the rigorous ‘Standards’ – purple in the feathers is apparently a no go.  It’s serious business and inevitably gives rise to serious rivalry. But that’s nothing compared to what goes on away from the poultry shows as a the film charts the power struggle for control of the Club between Doug, the long-standing 70-something incumbent President, and  the much younger ambitious Mark who wants to shake things up a bit and reverse the 150 year old club’s declining membership numbers. A coup  among the coops is in the offing.

Unfolding like a feathery real-life version of Best In Show (and yes, the big comp does end with the Best Bird),  director Slavko Markinov indulges pretty much every poultry pun going in his title cards but always maintains an affection approach to his subject and characters and it’s hard not to smile at scenes like a  bagpiper leading a procession of contenders across the road  to the competition, staged  four days away in sleepy Oamaru. Cracking fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

NOW PLAYING

American Assassin (18)

With the established stars of action movies now starting to get on a bit, Hollywood’s becoming increasingly desperate to find new and younger blood on whom to build franchises. Hence Michal Cuesta’s adaptation of Vince Flynn’s airport lounge pulp page turner knocking a decade or two off  its hero, Mitch Rapp, so as to cast Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien.

Opening with a scene that’s likely to be something of  raw nerve for many, Rapp is wounded and sees his girlfriend, to whom he’s just proposed, murdered when a bunch of armed Islamist terrorists start shooting up the Ibiza beach where they’re holidaying.  Fast forward 18 months and, recovered but seething with barely repressed rage, now sporting healthy face fuzz, Rapp has mastered  gun and martial arts skills  and learned Arabic so that he can infiltrate the Libyan terrorist cell responsible and take out them and their leader.  What he doesn’t know is that he’s being monitored by the CIA, who swoop in and do the job for him. Then. back in the USA, he’s invited by cool, no nonsense CIA  Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who reckons he has the exact psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine, to join her black ops team. So, it’s off to the woods for some boot camp training under the command of hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a suitably taciturn Michael Keaton). Meanwhile, Kennedy and her boss (David Suchet) have been meeting with some top level Iranians regarding the theft of weapons grade plutonium from Russia and ascertained that the man responsible has arranged to acquire a nuclear trigger, so he duly despatches Hurley, Rapp and fellow trainee Victor (Birmingham’s Scott Atkins), hooking up with Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar),  to take the arms dealer and the thief and recover the plutonium.

Needless to say, things go pear-shaped,  Rapp ignoring orders and taking off to finish the mission. Naturally, things get more complicated when it turns out the one who stole the plutonium calls himself Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) and is actually one of Hurley’s former protégés gone rogue and is playing to provide the Iranians with everything they need, scientist included, to make a nuke to attack Israel

Thus the stage is set for another maverick race against the clock  complete with several twists and reveals in the final stretch that steers this away from the  Islam-bashing narrative it first seems.

The result of four screenwriters, it’s fairly generic and cliché-bound, complete with the chiselled dialogue you might expect along with the stoicism in the face of pain patriotism (Keaton figures in a particularly nasty torture scene) and the repeated mantra about not making it personal. It’s not big on character depth or development, but, variously unfolding in Warsaw, Istanbul, Malta and Rome, it delivers the limited action sequences in workmanlike manner, building up to the big CGI effects climax, doing the job efficiently enough to ensure the sequel promised in the final shot.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

American Made (15)

In 1978, tapped for smuggling illegal Cuban cigars, TWA pilot Barry Seal was approached by the CIA to run secret surveillance missions over Colombia, a success that, through the early 80s,  led to him becoming a bag man between the CIA and Nicaragua’s General Noriega, delivering pay offs in return for information on Communist operations in South America. Then, he was approached by the Medelin Cartel, the biggest drugs operation in Colombia, headed up by Pablo Escobar, who recruited him to transport their cocaine to  the United States. Then, further concerned about the Communist-run Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA got him to fly arms to the supposedly opposing Contras, except instead, he ended up flying the guns to the Cartel  who armed their forces and  then got the Contras to smuggle cocaine into America. Before long Seal, who by now had been relocated by the CIA from Louisiana to Mena in smalltown Arkansas  was making so much money he was having to set up any number of front businesses to launder it, and even then he was still burying it in the garden and stuffing it into cupboards. And even when it went pear-shaped, and he was being pursued variously by state police, the FBI, CIA  and the DEA, he was still able to come out on top.

Unfolding between 1985 top 1986, it was one of the biggest covert operations ever run by the US government. His story’s been told before, but, screenwriter Gary Spinelli taking a cue from GoodFellas,  never as well or as entertainingly as here by director Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) with a permagrin Tom Cruise donning the aviator sunglasses as Seals. Played with an eye on the comedic element in the whole situation (rather akin to the recent similarly-themed War Dogs), it romps from one implausible but real scenario to the next as Seal’s ‘business’ empire continues to expand. Although initially wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) is oblivious to Barry’s double life, but when you’ve got wads of dollar bills all over the house, it’s hard to keep things that secret and she readily takes to the  wealth and the life, although things almost come crashing down thanks her to her self-serving slacker brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons he can deal himself an easy hand in the cash flow.

Not until the final act when, now working for the White House and Colonel Oliver North, he’s inadvertently outed as betraying the Cartel and becomes a marked man, while the Iran-Contra scandal blows up in the government’s face does it really involve any real tension, and even then, as he moves from motel to motel, recording the videotapes that would eventually reveal his story (and provide the film’s to camera framing device), it still manages to play for  edgy laughs as, each morning, he wonders if his car will explode.

Following the disappointment of The Mummy and a series of autopilot Jack Reacher  turns, Cruise is on peak form here, bringing a winning charm and charisma to the film’s anti-hero embodiment of the American Dream on speed. Liman’s also well served by a solid supporting turn from Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler Monty Shafer who gets to bask in the reflected glory of his protégé’s successes while turning a knowing blind eye to extracurricular activities as long as they serve to further the political agenda, and burning any trail when compromised. There’s evidence of some edit room chops (Jesse Plemons’ local sheriff and his suspicious wife  seemingly the biggest victims), but even so the film flows at an exhilarating rush, making it easily Cruise’s best since Collateral.  (Cineworld NEC,;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Annabelle : Creation (15)

A second attempt to establish a franchise for The Conjuring spin-off,  Lights Out director David F. Sandberg scores in relying on old-school horror tactics with half-glimpsed figures, shadows, doors opening of their own accord and teasing the audience with anticipation that’s not always fulfilled. This goes back to the 1950’s origins of the devil doll, as 12 years after their beloved daughter Bee (Samara Lee) is killed in an auto accident, former doll maker Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) opens up the rural California farmhouse he shares with his mysteriously invalided wife (Miranda Otto)  to serve as an orphanage for a group of young Catholic girls and their accompanying nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).

Central to the narrative are young  best friends Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the latter in a  leg brace after being stricken with polio. Shut out by the older girls, they end up sharing  room to themselves, next to a door which, Mulls advises them, is locked and will stay that way. So, naturally, when, one night, Janice is awoken by someone slipping  a note under the door bearing the words ‘find me’ (the same game the dead daughter played with her parents) and finds the forbidden room unlocked, she duly enters and discovers a white-frocked wooden doll locked  in a  cupboard. From which point, things start to get even more creepy with the doll mysteriously shifting locations (though you never actually see it move), scary noises and, eventually, Janice coming face to face with the dead daughter, who, naturally turns out to be a demon in disguise (the back story’s explained towards the end) which wants her soul.

The film makes effective use of the set and lighting design to build the tension, plus, of course, the soundtrack, as Janice draws ever closer to her ultimate fate (as detailed in previous instalments, to which the coda provides a direct link), Curiously, the film does little with its religious elements as regards the possession theme and is, at times, a little too cryptic for logic but, by placing two resourceful but nevertheless still young and vulnerable children (very effectively played Bateman and Wilson, respectively seen in Nine Lives and  Ouija: Origin of Evil) at the centre of the gathering horror, it adds to the suspense it seeks to evoke. (Vue Star City)

Borg vs. McEnroe (12A)

Few would argue that the 1980 Wimbledon final, a four-hour, five-set showdown between people’s favourite four time champion Bjorn Borg and badboy contender John McEnroe, was’nt the greatest match ever played, Borg losing seven match points before finally taking a record-breaking fifth title. It was  match between two very different tennis style and two very different personalities, Borg dubbed the machine for his ice cool composure, pre-match rituals and seeming lack of emotion, McEnroe the tantrum prone hothead with a reputation for disputing decision and swearing t umpire and spectators alike.

Directed by Denmark’s Janus Metz with a screenplay by Swede Ronnie Sandahl, it’s not too surprising that this biopic seeks to get inside  Borg slightly more than McEnroe, but, nevertheless, it does a good job in using flashbacks  presenting the childhoods and teenage years that formed the two players, scenes of a volatile adolescent Borg throwing the sort of tempers that made McEnroe’s name before he had it trained out of him.

Building towards the final, it cross-cuts between the two men’s preparations and pre-game psychological states (McEnroe refuses to speak to anyone, not even close friends like fellow player Peter Fleming), capturing the pressure felt by the defending champion and  the rage he bottled up behind his iceman persona while offering equal insight into the parental pressures that drove McEnroe’s intensity and outbursts. Stellan Skaarsgard is effective as  former Wimbledon player, Davis Cup captain and Borg’s longtime mentor Lennart Bergelin as is Tuva Novotny as Borg’s then fiancée and later wife Mariana Simionescu, both of whom get shut out in the hours before the game. However, the film like this lives or dies on its central stars and both are excellent. Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance in years as McEnroe. but even he’s eclipsed by Sverrir Gudnason who, in both looks and manners, to all intents and purposes is Bjorn Borg, the film more about the rival players who, obsessed, driven, tormented and flawed, ultimately, had more in common that wan realised, than the match itself. Somehow I can’t see anyone doing this about Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic (Empire Great Park)

 

Captain Underpants – The First Epic Movie (U)

Having bonded over hearing the word Uranus as tots, first graders George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are firm friends with a mission to enliven school boredom with wild pranks. However, finally caught in the act by joyless principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), they face being put in separate classes to end their friendship. To prevent this, George uses a toy hypno-ring  from a cereal box to make Mr. Krupps think he’s really Captain Underpants, the decidedly dumb superhero character in red cape and white pants with a “Tra La Laaaa!” catchphrase in the comics they create together. Naturally chaos follows as he keeps switching between nice and nasty (the change triggered by splashes of water. However, with the arrival of their new Einstein-lookalike mad scientist teacher (Nick Kroll),  who, with the help of humour-challenged (“Like a chair, or a supermodel!”) class nerd Melvin, is determined to ride the world of laughter after being ridiculed because of his name, maybe, together, they can save the day and transform Krupps (who’s really just lonely) into a more pleasant person as well.

The fact that Kroll’s character is named Professor Poopypants should tell grown-ups not familiar with Dav Pilkey’s best-selling books what to expect from this animated big screen adaptation. The better news is that, although clearly aimed at the immature humour of  seven-year-olds with its giant robot toilet  with a smattering of subversive  adult jokes, it’s also  an enjoyably good-natured silly gigglefest about the power of friendship and laughter.  (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Despicable Me 3 (U)

The third (fourth if you count the Minions spin-off) in the animated series finds itself having to work hard to keep the spark going. Following their failure to capture  80s-obsessed washed-up Hollywood  child star turned  criminal, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker),  Gru (Steve Carrell) and wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are fired from their jobs as Anti-Villain League agents and, when he refuses to return to his super-villain ways, all but two of the Minions walk out on him too. His depression’s lifted when he learns he has a twin brother, Dru (Carrell), the pair apparently being separated when their parents (Julie Andrews voices their sour mom) divorced. The super cool Dru, who wears white in contrast to Gru’s black (cue a clever Yin/Yang symbol gag) not only has blonde hair but is a fabulously rich pig farm owner, but what he wants most is to follow in his brother’s – and as it turns out – father’s footsteps and become a  villain. Seeing this as a chance to recover the world’s biggest diamond, which Bratt has now stolen, and finally capture him, Gru pretends to go along with the idea, he just doesn’t tell Lucy.

The problem is that film’s split into three storylines.  Gru and Dru’s assault on Bratt’s HQ, the quest by Agnes, the youngest of  Gru’s young foster daughter,  to find a unicorn, and the misadventures of the Minions (who wind up in and escaping from prison), as well as Lucy trying to get a handle on this mom thing, the disparate characters  finally coming together as  Bratt, in his giant size Bratt doll, seeks to send  Hollywood into space on giant bubblegum balloons. Switching between them all rather saps the film’s energy.

There’s some inspired touches, Bratt  pulls off his heists to 80s tunes by the likes of Michael Jackson and Van Halen, there’s a dose of sentiment in the scenes with the three girls, and it always looks good, but the jokes are fewer and more far between this time round. Once again, the  Minions steal the film, most notably with their gibberish performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General from The Pirates of Penzance,  and, while this will undoubtedly keep the kids amused, it may be time for Gru to retire and let his yellow accomplices take over keeping the franchise alive.  (Empire Great Park)

Dunkirk  (12A)

His shortest feature at a concise 106 mins, Christopher Nolan has executed a technical if not necessarily emotional triumph in his account of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940 with the help of a flotilla of small privately-owned vessels, dubbed Operation Dynamo,  following their collapse under the German offensive.

Essentially, this is more about the operation itself, and splitting the narrative into three interconnected stories (and, indeed, time frames), on land, sea and air, means there’s only limited engagement with  any of the characters involved. Unfolding over the course of a week, we’re first introduced to one of the soldiers, the generically named teenage Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he narrowly escapes German bullets (in a departure from the usual war films, the enemy are never seen other than as aircraft and two blurry figures in the final scene) to make it to the beach where the British Expeditionary Force  troops (some 400,000 in all) are awaiting a miracle. Hooking up with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard), they initially manage to get aboard a rescue ship berthed at the jetty by stretchering a wounded soldier, only for the ship to be sunk, leaving them back where they started.

Very much evoking 40s wartime features, the sea section, which takes place over one day,  begins back in England with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a local civilian skipper, his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, seeking to prove himself,  enthusiastic schoolfriend  George (Barry Keoghan) setting sail for Dunkirk to help with the rescue. En route they rescue an unnamed shellshocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) from  the wreck of his torpedoed ship, his reluctance to return to Dunkirk setting up a subsequent tragedy.

The air section, which covers just one hour, involves two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as. mostly behind oxygen masks, they take on the Messerschmitts and Heinkels wreaking havoc on the troops and ships, the three time scales coming together for the final moments as Dawson’s boat heads towards a bombed minesweeper while Tommy and a fellow soldier (singer Harry Styles acquitting himself well) flounder in the sea after their appropriated trawler, strafed by the unseen enemy as target practice, sinks. Rounding out the cast, Kenneth Branagh gives a quietly impressive performance as the highest-ranking naval offer at the scene, while James D’Arcy is his opposite number in the Army

As ever, making very effective use of sound design, especially in the opening gunshot moments, and keeping the dialogue sparse and to the point, Nolan delivers massive spectacle (no less than three ships sink, spewing survivors into the waves), but without feeling the need to offer the visceral graphics of a Saving Private Ryan (indeed, there’s almost no blood to be seen), tightly winding up the tension which, even if it circumvents the heart, has a firm grip on the nerves.

The film is largely shot in 70mm which, should you be fortunate to have a cinema capable of screening it as such, gives it an extra sense of immersion and depth, but whatever the format, this is the work of a master, if perhaps slightly clinical,  filmmaker and stunning stuff. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Emoji Movie: Express Yourself (U)

Basically, Inside Out in a Smartphone without the poignancy or existential philosophising.  The son of the morose Mel (Steven Wright) and Mary (Jennifer Coolidge) Meh, young Gene (T.J. Miller) is about to make his debut in the Cube as the new indifferent emoji. However, unable to control the fact that he’s actually happily upbeat and not limited to one expression when selcted, everything in Textopolis goes into meltdown, with Cube controller Smiler (Maya Rudolph) declaring him a malfunction and ordering his deletion. To which end, he and out of fashion emoji Hi-5 (James Cordon) recruit hacker Jailbreak (Anna Faris), who, it turns out has her own secret,  to help him navigate the apps (Spotify, YouTube, etc), avoid  the Internet Trolls and getting lost in the Trash, escape into the Cloud and get reprogrammed so he can fit in. All the while trying to avoid the illegal upgrade malware Smiler’s sent to eradicate them. Meanwhile, the phone’s owner, high schooler freshman Alex, whose texts to his crush, Addie, keep going awry, decides to have it wiped and reset, prompting the obligatory race against the clock.

Retreading the message about being who you are, individuality and not being defined by one trait, as well as the usual stuff about friendship, it’s a colourful affair populated with dozens of familiar emojis, among them Poop (Patrick Stewart) and Akiko Glitter (Christina Aguilera), allowing for any number of groan-inducing puns, although the comments about how emojis and texting limit real communication seem at odds with the film’s concept per se.  It may not be deep, but it’s undeniably fun.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Girls Trip (15)

At times feeling like an exercise to prove that  African-American women getting together for a riotous weekend can be every bit as filthy – yet also poignant – as Bridesmaids or the Hangovers  series, this brings together Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and newcomer Tiffany Haddish as four college friends back in the 90s (somewhat stretching credibility given the age differences), the infamous Flossy Posse, who’ve not seen each other for five years, having lost touch as they’ve followed their separate lives and careers. Ryan Pierce (Hall) has become a best-selling self-help author in partnership with her  retired NFL hero husband Stewart (Mike Colter); former top Times journalist Sasha (Latifah) now runs a failing scandal  blog after a business partnership with Ryan fell through when she got into bed with Stewart instead;  Dina (Haddish), a  libido-rampant hot-head with no filters,  is recently  unemployed after assaulting a co-worker for using her cup; and, once a wild child,  Lisa (Pinkett Smith) is now a divorced romance-challenged mother of two nurse who lives with her mother.

The four are reunited when Ryan invited them to join her at the upcoming Essence Festival in New Orleans where she’ll be  the keynote speaker on female empowerment  and where her agent, Liz (Kate Walsh), is looking to close a deal that will set up her and Stewart with a lucrative product line and talk show. This is being sold on her You Can Have It All ethos and her perfect marriage. Except Sasha has a paparazzi shot of Stewart cheating with Instagram model Simone (Deborah Ayorinde), an affair Dina can’t stop herself revealing to Ryan. As it turns out, she’s aware of it and argues that the pair of them are working things out, so why let it spoil their weekend, although Dina’s haranguing of Stewart has got them thrown out of their five star hotel and shacked up in a cheap flea pit  where some leary old bloke in search of his regular hooker flashes himself at the window. That’s just the first of many many moments involving male genitalia, either in reference, in the flesh or through Dina’s simulation of the, ahem, grapefruit technique (if you don’t know, don’t ask).

Essentially a vulgarity-enhanced black riff on Sex and the City, although intermittently taking time out to address friendship bonds, relationship cracks and lost self-belief, the bulk of  this wildly overlong largely entails moving from one crude or rowdy sequence to the next. Some of these, such as the girls tripping on absinthe at a nightclub, are hilarious, others, such as Pinkett Smith urinating on a crowd while hanging from a  trip wire between a New Orleans street are decidedly not.

The plot is as formulaic as the characters are generic (Haddish is basically the female equivalent to Zach Galifianakis’ overbearingly irresponsible character in The Hangover), but the four leads give a cocktail of ebullient and nuanced performances above and beyond such tired clichés (there’s even a dance off), Pinkett Smith especially good.

En route to its sentimental happy ending, it’s symptomatic of the film’s ‘noise’ that director Malcolm Lee feels the need to stuff it to overflowing with cameos from the likes of Common, Sean Combs, Mike Epps,  Ne-Yo, Morris Chestnut and, clearly with more tolerance than The House filmmakers, even a  brief glimpse of Mariah Carey.

Some it works, a lot of it doesn’t and you have to ask whether a comedy  with a  white director and cast could ever have gotten away with the liberal use of the N word like this does and, a mark of its uneven nature,  it undermines its feminist principles when it seems to say that all women need to get them out of a funk is big dick. Still, cheaper than a pair of Manolo Blahniks I guess. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (15)

Ryan Reynolds teams with Samuel L Jackson for an empty but thoroughly entertaining variation on the mismatched enemies turned buddies road trip  that involves the former’s bodyguard, Michael Bryce, and the latter’s hitman, Darius Kincaid, in a  race against the clock to travel from Manchester to The Hague. The purpose being that Kincaid has been persuaded to give testimony  at the war crimes trial of genocidal Belarus dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (a suitably evil Gary Oldman) in exchange for immunity and freedom for his imprisoned wife (Selma Hayek, marvellously foul-mouthed in her  few scenes). Since that means that, with the help of the inevitable Interpol traitor (revealed early as Joaquim de Almeid’s Assistant Director), Dukhovich’s thugs are out to ensure he never gets there, Bryce has been brought in to facilitate self-passage.

He’s less than enthusiastic since, as the prologue reveals, formerly Triple A-rated, he’s slipped considerably down the personal security food chain since one of his clients was popped after safely boarding a plane. He’s still good at his job, but he’s gone from top of the range Jags to battered jalopies and from top diplomats and arms dealers to Richard E Grant’s cameoing coke-dealing London businessman.  On top of which, Kincaid has tried to kill him 28 times and , following an assault on the convoy transporting him, the Interpol agent whose enlisted him is Amelia Ryder (Elodie Yung), his former girlfriend whom he blames for selling him out on that airport job. The truth about which provides a particularly amusing reveal in a film that balances lethal and laughter in equal measure.

Essentially, it boils down to a series of  hops between cities (Coventry included) en route to the Amsterdam courtroom, including hitching  lift with a busload of nuns, punctuated by constant banter between the two, innumerable shoot outs and action sequences and some particularly thrilling high speeds chances, most notably one involving Amsterdam’s canals, vans, a motorbike and speedboat.

Jackson provides the larger than life side of the pairing, Kincaid regarding himself as one of the good guys and proving to be a hopeless romantic at heart (a flashback reveals how he and Sonia met and bonded when she slashed a guy’s carotid in a Cuban bar-fight) as he offers relationship advice to wounded soul Bryce, Reynolds handling the deadpan sarcasm and dry quips with Bryce’s plays safe approach constantly undermined by Kincaid’s street-smart bull by the horns attitude.

The whole romance element is, frankly, fairly superfluous to requirements other than as motivation drivers, and, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the spark and interplay between the two stars, who are clearly having a  lot of fun, and the frenetic, action-crammed energy with which it unfolds. It’s infectious. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

It (15)

Originally adapted as a mini-series back in 1990, Stephen King’s mammoth novel gets a  feature-length outing under  director Andy Muschietti.  Creepy without ever being as scary as it should, events spread over nine months, it’s been updated to the late 1980s and opens in smalltown Derry in Maine as young Georgie runs outside into the rain to float the paper boat made by his by his stutter-afflicted older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the boat drops into a culvert, he looks into it and is confronted by the face of a clown (Bill Skarsgarg), calling himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who lures him closer, bites off an arm and the drags the boy into the sewers.

A year later, Bill still believes his brother is alive, enlisting three  schoolfriends, know-it-all wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sceptical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), to explore the sewer system looking for him. Bullied at school by the psychotic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, they’re the self-styled Losers Club, their number eventually swelled by shy chubby new kid Ben and homeschooled black kid Mike  (Chosen Jacobs), both of whom are also targeted by Bowers, and  the supposedly promiscuous tomboy  Beverly (Sophia Lillis), another bullied outsider.

All have their own terrifying encounters with It, as the film gradually reveals the shapeshifting monster preys on his victims’ fears and Ben’s research uncovers that it appears every 27 years, each period characterised by children going missing, something the town  seems unwilling to confront.

Naturally, all the kids (Bowers included) have their own torments, among them abusive or demanding fathers, an overprotective mother, guilt and, for Richie, a fear of clowns. But, while individually vulnerable, as Beverly points out, by staying together they may have a chance of surviving and destroying their nemesis.

Echoing the themes of friendship  and coming of age on which Stand By Me was founded (along with the cruelty of the adult world) with an added serving of horror, following various individual close calls, they all head to the decrepit old house they’ve identified as the clown’s lair.

The film makes effective use of its haunting imagery, most especially the red balloon while, although bereft of backstory,  Skarsgard’s white-faced monster, whispering “you’ll float too”, is a striking visual presence. However, while the opening is especially striking,  the more set pieces that are introduced to give each youngster a turn in the spotlight, the more repetitive  and the less effective they become. Likewise, the romantic rivalry between Bill and Ben over Beverly is never  developed.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective  piece of work and the young cast acquit themselves well, Lillis ably living up to the Molly Ringwald reference tossed her way by Richie. Of course, however, with the film closing on their vow to return in 27 years time to take on It once again, the best they can look forward to in Chapter Two are some fleeting flashbacks. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Jungle Bunch (U)

We’ve had a kung-fu panda, and now here’s a kung-fu penguin. That’ll be Maurice, who lives in the jungle and, raised by his adoptive  tiger mom, thinks he’s one too. Many years ago, she was part of The Champs,  a team of heroes who saved the jungle from deranged koala Igor and his crab sidekick. But now, years later, they’ve disbanded and Igor is back, determined to destroy the jungle using explosive mushrooms. So, now it’s up to Maurice, who, to be honest, isn’t the world’s most skilful kung-fu artist,  and his new team of misfits, Junior his adopted tiger fish son, Gilbert the tarsier, his would be  lover Batricia the bat, Miguel the not entirely with it gorilla, and Al and Bob the sarcastic toads, to stop him. Adapted from the children’s TV series, it never rises to even the lower heights of Pixar and their like, but it’s colourful and fun enough to keep undemanding six-year-olds happy. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Vue Star City)

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (12A)

Cheerfully  contriving to bring back not one but two characters who were clearly killed off in the first film, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek secret agent romp resurrects both failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), respectively head blown off and shot through the eye. Charlie returns in the kinetic opening sequence, a frantic car chase through the streets of London, as, now equipped with a bionic arm,  he and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) battle it out in the latter’s souped up taxi. He’s now in the employ of Poppy (Julianne Moore), deranged CEO of the world’s biggest – but secret – drugs cartel, the Golden Circle, who’s holed up in her own 50s-styled Poppyland theme park in Cambodia who, Charlie’s arm having hacked into Eggy’s computer, then sets about blowing up every Kingsman establishment in the country.

This leaves just two survivors, gadget-man Victor aka Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who, since we last saw him, has, in contradiction to Kingsman rules, acquired a Swedish Princess girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom); indeed, he’s at dinner with her and her parents, the  King and Queen, when  Poppy strikes, also taking out one his mates and his dog in the process.

Falling back on the Doomsday Protocol leads them to a secrets safe containing  a bottle of bourbon and, from there, to Kentucky and  an American secret  agent organisation, Statesman, operating  a distillery as a front as opposed to a gentleman’s tailors.  Named after drinks rather than Knights of the Round Table, they’re headed up by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) whose team includes wildcard Tequila (Channing Tatum), electric lasso-wielding Whisky (Pedro Pascal) and gadget girl Ginger (Halle Berry) and, after clearing up an initial misunderstanding, the team join forces. It also turns out they also have in their keeping Harry, who, revived but now suffering from amnesia, thinks he’s a butterfly collector.

The plot per se finally kicks in when Poppy announces on television that she’s infected millions of drug users with a  toxin that causes a blue rash and eventual death and demands the President abandon the war on drugs so she and her empire can go legit. Needless to say, Tilde winds up as one of the afflicted, making it personal for Eggsy while the President (Bruce Greenwood)  reckons Poppy would be doing him a favour, much to the horror of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson). All of which, after a set piece on a cable car in the Italian alps, climaxes with Victor, Harry and Eggsy invading Poppy’s hide-out for the big shoot-out finale.

All of which serves to throw in an inordinate amount of silliness to go with the carnage, ranging from Poppy quite literally making mincemeat of Circle member Keith Allen and then serving him up as a burger, Eggsy having to implant a tracer on Charlie’s girlfriend (Poppy Delavigne) via a condom on his finger and, topping out her obsession with Elton John (she has robot dogs named Bennie and Jets), Poppy kidnapping the man himself for  private performances, though turning Elton into an action man may be pushing suspension of disbelief a touch too far. Playing deadpan, no one’s taking this seriously, which, of course adds to the fun and Vaughn rattles it along at a cracking pace, with some stylish suits and a couple of cute puppies along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end credits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be back for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Logan Lucky (12A)

The return of director Steven Soderbergh to feature filmmaking should be cause for celebration, but instead what you get is a rather lacklustre and flat blue collar  retread of his Oceans’s trilogy, one which may have a cleverly intricate plot mechanism to the heist, but lacks any of those previous films’ fluidity,  comedic spark and banter. For reasons never quite made clear (but presumably involve being able to afford to follow his ex-wife –Katie Holmes – from Virginia  to Pittsburgh so he can still see his young daughter),  recently let go from a construction company on account of his insurance risk dodgy knee, former high school football star Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), persuades his one-armed Iraq-veteran bar tender brother  Clyde (Adam Driver) to join him in a  plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, to which end, with their flaky hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) already onboard, they enlist the services of  celebrated safecracker Jo Bang (a scenery-chewing Daniel Craig with a white buzzcut); they just have to get him out of jail to do the job and back again before he’s missed. Which means they also need the assistance of his two dimwit brothers (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson).

Unfortunately, there’s a hiccup that means they have to bring the plan forward a week, which means that, instead of some low profile race meet, they’re hitting the NASCAR Coca -Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend. And, on top of which, after they pull the job, Jimmy’s got to get to his daughter’s pageant show.

It’s the first screenplay by Rebecca Blunt and, as such, you can often hear the gears grinding while things like the running gags about the supposed Logan family curse, Clyde’s hand  and John Denver’s music feel like Blunt being consciously ‘eccentric’ rather than an organic part of the plot. Likewise scenes involving Seth McFarlane’s loudmouth British energy drink creator race driver Max Chilblain which could have been cut without any loss to the narrative.

Admittedly, the way it all falls into place is well-handled and ( as with the Oceans films), there’s the inevitable reveals of things you didn’t see in the main narrative, but even so the late arrival of Hilary Swank’s FBI agent means the film has to try and crank things up again just after they’ve wound down post heist, something it never quite manages to do.  The cast are game enough, but never quite sparks in the way that Clooney et al. did and, while there’s some amusing touches, not least an amusing Game of Thrones gag as part of a prison riot demands and a witty background reference to Ocean’s Eleven,  ultimately this is enjoyable but forgettable fare. (Vue Star City)

 

Mother!  (18)

It certainly earns its exclamation mark! Darren Aronofsky pushes the boat out with this mindfuck of a psychological thriller that throws in haunted house horrors, biblical allegory (Cain and Abel and the plagues of Egypt included), relationship drama, home invasion and quite literally even a kitchen sink. It opens on a hallucinatory scene of  a woman burning alive, followed by a dream sequence involving a large red-veined crystal and the charred house gradually restoring itself before, finally, the camera pans in on Jennifer Lawrence waking up in bed and saying ‘baby?

Never given a  name, she’s married to Javier Barden’s equally unnamed and older character, a famous poet suffering writer’s block, while she’s restoring his isolated and previously ruined old  house to try and get his juices flowing again.  An early clue that it isn’t going to be especially straightforward comes when she puts her hands on the wall and has visions of a beating organ inside them. When she gets anxious she retreats to the bathroom to take some sort of yellow powder. One night, they get a visitor (Ed Harris) claiming to be a doctor who says he was told he could get a room. Bardem invites him to stay, enraptured with the stories he tells him, though Lawrence is clearly not happy about this.  The next morning along comes the man’s disrespectful wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who quickly taps into the unspoken but fraught  issue of  Lawrence and Barden not having kids.  Lawrence is even more unsettled by their unwanted guests when their two sons (Domhall and Brian Gleeson) turn up, quarrelling over dad’s will. Things get ugly, someone dies,  a wake gets out of hand, the floor and walls bleed, Javier writes another bestseller, she gets pregnant and suddenly there’s an army of fans descending on the place, to his delight and her anger. Things turn apocalyptic, people riot, tearing the place apart for relics of the great man,  the army crashes  in shooting. What happens to the  baby is for strong stomachs only.

It’s operatically delirious and frequently surreal  stuff that has Lawrence, from whose perspective the entire thing is seen,  getting increasingly desperate and intense (particularly in the many extreme close-ups) and the creepily smiling and increasingly callous Bardem possessed of a demented good humour and cheer to allcomers, basking in their admiration. Cinephiles will enjoy picking apart nods to the likes of Rebecca, The Shining,   Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Exterminating Angel and much more, others will just wonder what the hell’s going on.

At the end of the day,  however, it boils down to Aronofsky’s recurring themes, specifically the selfish, consuming nature of the act of creation, the idolatrous and destructive nature of fame in which the artist draws on the love of others like a sort of vampire and is willing to sacrifice (here quite literally) those close to him to fuel his creativity.  That by way of parenthood, trophy objects and the male ego. It’s a real mutha! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A)

The third actor to play the webslinger on the big screen, Tom Holland made his debut cameoing in Captain America: Civil War, and this latest reboot is set a few months after those events. It opens, however, in the wake of the first Avengers movie as, mid-way through salvage work, New York contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is told all such operations involving alien material now comes under Damage Control. Still, he and his crew have stowed away enough to go into the super-weapons business, which is where we pick up events eight years later (no Spidey origin stories here). On a high after helping out The Avengers, making his own web diary footage of events to revel in on playback, gawky 15-year-old Queens high schooler Peter Parker (Holland) is keen to see more action in his Stark ‘internship’, but, with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his babysitter,  is advised by Tony (a typically snarky Robert Downey Jr) to keep his super-heroing on a neighbourhood level, although he does get a  new hi-tech suit (with its very own Jarvis in the vocal form of Jennifer Connelly) to go with the job, even if he has no idea what all its powers are or how to use them.

As such, things toddle along with his handling petty crime and helping out old ladies until he stumbles on a heist with a gang using alien-technology weapons. This, in turn, leads him to track down the suppliers and run foul of Toomes who now sports a pair of armoured flying wings (he’s essentially The Vulture, but is never really referred to as such until the end), and, although warned off from getting involved by Stark, climaxes in a near disaster aboard the Staten Island Ferry (in a sequence that mirrors Tobey Maguire saving the elevated train in the original movie) that requires Iron Man to come to the rescue and take back the suit.

On top of all this, Peter’s having to deal with the usual high school problems, such as the class bully, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the senior on whom he has a crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), but is too shy to say anything. Plus the fact that he’s accidentally revealed his secret identity to science partner and equally geeky best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and that his webslinging heroics force him to both duck out on the  Academic Decathlon (he’s busy saving the other students in the Washington Tower) and, finally going places with Liz, the homecoming ball. And now he’s stuck with his old homemade suit too.

It’s a little ADD in the early going, reflecting Peter’s uber-enthusiasm and desire to impress Stark, but it soon settles down into a solid and, importantly, hugely entertaining fanboy addition to the Marvel Universe. Although things have been tweaked, there’s still plenty of familiar notes from the comics, including a new spin on MJ (a dry, scene stealing Zendaya), a much younger Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), nods to the many variations the costume’s been through and even the theme from the animated 60s TV series, not to mention a tease of Maguire’s famous upside down kiss.

Holland brings a likeable wide-eyed boyish glee as well as a disarming vulnerability to Parker, regularly screwing up but always getting back on his feet,  while Keaton, who, like Doctor Octopus, is a human-scaled villain with mechanical appendages  and a moral ambiguity, is menacingly compelling and, essentially a victim of the Avengers fall-out himself,  comes with a truly unexpected kick of a twist. Downey Jr and Favreau reprise their familiar shtick and the film also finds room for cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and, albeit by  way of school training videos, the now disgraced Captain America. Filling out the supporting cast, Martin Starr makes the most of his scenes as the Decathlon coach and Bokeem Woodbine does duty as one of Toomes’ crew aka the Shocker. Climaxing in a mid-air battle atop an Avengers  jet, it may ultimately resort to the usual super-hero tropes, but getting there is a whole web of fun. (Vue Star City)

 

Victoria and Abdul  (PG)

An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown,  Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship.  This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.

Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the  many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers.  Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her  “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.

As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the  Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant,  bringing over his wife and mother-in-law  (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery,  the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby   (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor  (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.

Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed  all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal  any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot.   It’s pleasant and, once or twice  quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Wind River (15)

Having written Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan now makes an impressive bow behind the camera with another of his screenplays. Loosely based on real events, it’s set in a world of ‘snow and silence’, in the wintery landscape of the titular Native American reservation in Wyoming where, spending time with his young son while also out keeping predators  from the livestock,  in this case a mountain lion, divorced local game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) comes upon the  frozen body of an 18-year-old Native American. This is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille),  once the best friend of his own daughter, who died in similar  tragic circumstances for which he blames himself and which led  to the collapse of his marriage to his Native American ex-wife (Julia Jones). The fact that the dead girl, who died from inhaling sub-zero air,  also turns out to have been assaulted and raped compounds his determination to find those responsible and from whom she was running, barefoot. As it’s determined to be a homicide,  along comes no-nonsense, but inexperienced, FBI agent Jane Banner (a superbly nuanced Elizabeth Olsen) to take over from the tribal police chief   (Graham Greene) and, realising she’s in over her head, enlisting Lambert  to assist her.

Unfolding as a brooding procedural as the pair put the clues together, it would be unfair to real much more of the plot, but suffice to say the investigations lead to the dead girl’s druggie brother and subsequently her boyfriend, part of a local oil rig crew who were holed up for the winter and that, after long simmering tension, that film erupts into violence with both a harrowing flashback to what happened to Natalie, a bloody Peckinpah-like shoot-out and a final act of vengeance/justice.

But, as with his previous screenplays, hauntingly complemented by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s score, this is about troubled characters and troubled times rather than action, and Renner gives a magnetically compelling performance as the taciturn Lambert, a man of few, but meaningful words,  the  intimate scene between him and the dead girl’s father (Gil Birmingham) and the spare conversations with Olson weighed down with talk  of loss, grief and the hard path to recovery.  It may not have quite the same box office clout as his previous work, but this is quality filmmaking through and through. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

 

 

Album review: Semantics – Acid Test

Semantics’ debut EP promised much, but was plagued by preconceptions. The dapper, dark outfits, propulsive four-string fretwork and bull seal bellows meant the Birmingham four-piece were pigeonholed as post-punk before Peter Hook had chance to have his morning whiskey.

While EP proved much stronger than those assumptions, it is with Acid Test where, fittingly, the band have produced a strong, cohesive collection of songs. The references remain, but the three tracks inside show a band not only adept at intertextualising their influences, but adroit in shaping and contorting them into something highly original. The title track and opener begins with a typically twisting guitar riff, bolstered by wandering bass and Rob Lilley’s punctured prose, an oblique love song destined to enter the twisted pantheon reserved for the likes of ‘Doll Parts’ and ‘I Want You’.

For Acid Test, or AT, seems destined for the bedroom, the parlour where love burns red and anger burns hot. It is not the glamurous, airbrushed sex one might hope to find in their dreams, however – this is desperate longing, animalistic lust and bludgeoned souls. “I need to feel your pity,” Lilley croons on the stomping, beautifully brutalist ‘Another City’, which dissolves into a gorgeous breakdown propelled by Josh Rochelle-Bates’ nimble basswork and the twin tumble of Lilley and Bridie Georgia’s guitars, intertwining like tumultous kites in a darkening sky.

“It is time to assume your place at the head of the table,” eerily drones Lilley on the thrilling, drum-propelled ‘Painless’. If Semantics keep on churning out material as darkly compelling as this, there’ll be no assumptions needed. At last.

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 22-Thurs Sept 28

NEW RELEASES

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (12A)

Cheerfully  contriving to bring back not one but two characters who were clearly killed off in the first film, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek secret agent romp resurrects both failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), respectively head blown off and shot through the eye. Charlie returns in the kinetic opening sequence, a frantic car chase through the streets of London, as he, now equipped with a bionic arm,  and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) battle it out in the latter’s souped up taxi. He’s now in the employ of Poppy (Julianne Moore), deranged CEO of the world’s biggest – but secret – drugs cartel, the Golden Circle, who’s holed up in her own 50s-styled Poppyland theme park in Cambodia who, Charlie’s arm having hacked into Eggy’s computer, then sets about blowing up every Kingsman establishment in the country.

This leaves just two survivors, gadget-man Victor aka Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who, since we last saw him, has, in contradiction to Kingsman rules, acquired a Swedish Princess girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom); indeed, he’s after dinner with her and her parents, the  King and Queen, when  Poppy strikes, also taking out one his mates and his dog in the process.

Falling back on the Doomsday Protocol leads them to a secrets safe containing  bottle of bourbon and, from there to Kentucky and  an American secret  agent organisation, Statesman, operating  a distillery as a front as opposed to a gentleman’s tailors.  Named after drinks rather than Knights of the Round Table, they’re headed up by Champagne – Champs (Jeff Bridges) whose team includes wildcard Tequila (Channing Tatum), electric lasso-wielding Whisky (Pedro Pascal) and gadget girl Ginger (Halle Berry) and, after clearing up an initial misunderstanding the team join forces. It also turns out they also have in their keeping Harry, who, revived but now suffering from amnesia, thinks he’s a butterfly collector.

The plot per se finally kicks in when Poppy announces on television that she’s infected millions of drug users with a  toxin that causes a blue rash and eventual death and demands the President abandon the war on drugs so she and her empire can go legit. Needless to say, Tilde winds up as one of the afflicted, making it personal for Eggy while the President (Bruce Greenwood)  reckons Poppy would be doing him a favour, much to the horror of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson). All of which, after a set piece on a cable car in the Italian alps, climaxes with Victor, Harry and Eggsy invading Poppy’s hide-out for the big shoot-out finale.

All of which serves to throw in an inordinate amount of silliness to go with the carnage, ranging from Poppy quite literally making mincemeat of Circle member Keith Allen and then serving him up as a burger, Eggy having to implant a tracer on Charlie’s girlfriend (Poppy Delavigne) via a condom on his finger and, topping out her obsession with Elton John (she has robot dogs named Bennie and Jets), Poppy kidnapping the man himself for  private performances, though turning Elton into an action man may be pushing suspension of disbelief a touch too far. Playing deadpan, no one’s taking this seriously, which, of course adds to the fun and Vaughn rattles it along at a cracking pace, with some stylish suits and a couple of cute puppies along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end credits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be back for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom,; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 
Borg vs.McEnroe (12A)

Few who argue that the 1980 Wimbledon final, a four-hour, five-set showdown between people’s favourite four time champion Bjorn Borg and badboy contender John McEnroe, is the greatest match ever played, Borg losing seven match points before finally taking a record-breaking fifth title. It was  match between two very different tennis style and two very different personalities, Borg dubbed the machine for his ice cool composure, pre-match rituals and seeming lack of emotion, McEnroe the tantrum prone hothead with a reputation for disputing decision and swearing t umpire and spectators alike.

Directed by Denmark’s Janus Metz, making his feature debut with a screenplay by Swede Ronnie Sandahl, it is, perhaps, not too surprising that this biopic seeks to get inside  Borg slightly more than McEnroe, but, nevertheless, it does a good job in using flashbacks  presenting the childhoods and teenage years that formed the two players, scenes of a volatile adolescent Borg throwing the sort of tempers that made McEnroe’s name before he had it trained out of him.

Building towards the final, it cross-cuts between the two men’s preparations and pre-game psychological states (McEnroe refuses to speak to anyone, not even close friends like fellow player Peter Fleming), capturing the pressure felt by the defending champion and  the rage he bottled up behind his iceman persona while offering equal insight into the parental pressures that drove McEnroe’s intensity and outbursts. Stellan Skaarsgard is effective as  former Wimbledon player, Davis Cup captain and Borg’s longtime mentor Lennart Bergelin as is Tuva Novotny as Borg’s then fiancée and later wife Mariana Simionescu, both of whom get shut out in the hours before the game. However, the film like this lives or dies on its central stars and both are excellent. Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance in years as McEnroe. but even he’s eclipsed by Sverrir Gudnason who, in both looks and manners, to all intents and purposes is Bjorn Borg, the film more about the rival players who, obsessed, driven, tormented and flawed, ultimately, had more in common that wan realised, than the match itself. Somehow I can’t see anyone doing this about Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic (Cineworld 5 Ways. Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

American Assassin (18)

With the established stars of action movies now starting to get on a bit, Hollywood’s becoming increasingly desperate to find new and younger blood on whom to build franchises. Hence Michal Cuesta’s adaptation of Vince Flynn’s airport lounge pulp page turner knocking a decade or two off  its hero, Mitch Rapp, so as to cast Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien.

Opening with a scene that’s likely to be something of  raw nerve for many, Rapp is wounded and sees his girlfriend, to whom he’s just proposed, murdered when a bunch of armed Islamist terrorists start shooting up the Ibiza beach where they’re holidaying.  Fast forward 18 months and, recovered but seething with barely repressed rage, now sporting healthy face fuzz, Rapp has mastered  gun and martial arts skills  and learned Arabic so that he can infiltrate the Libyan terrorist cell responsible and take out them and their leader.  What he doesn’t know is that he’s being monitored by the CIA, who swoop in and do the job for him. Then. back in the USA, he’s invited by cool, no nonsense CIA  Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who reckons he has the exact psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine, to join her black ops team. So, it’s off to the woods for some boot camp training under the command of hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a suitably taciturn Michael Keaton). Meanwhile, Kennedy and her boss (David Suchet) have been meeting with some top level Iranians regarding the theft of weapons grade plutonium from Russia and ascertained that the man responsible has arranged to acquire a nuclear trigger, so he duly despatches Hurley, Rapp and fellow trainee Victor (Birmingham’s Scott Atkins), hooking up with Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar),  to take the arms dealer and the thief and recover the plutonium.

Needless to say, things go pear-shaped,  Rapp ignoring orders and taking off to finish the mission. Naturally, things get more complicated when it turns out the one who stole the plutonium calls himself Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) and is actually one of Hurley’s former protégés gone rogue and is playing to provide the Iranians with everything they need, scientist included, to make a nuke to attack Israel

Thus the stage is set for another maverick race against the clock  complete with several twists and reveals in the final stretch that steers this away from the  Islam-bashing narrative it first seems.

The result of four screenwriters, it’s fairly generic and cliché-bound, complete with the chiselled dialogue you might expect along with the stoicism in the face of pain patriotism (Keaton figures in a particularly nasty torture scene) and the repeated mantra about not making it personal. It’s not big on character depth or development, but, variously unfolding in Warsaw, Istanbul, Malta and Rome, it delivers the limited action sequences in workmanlike manner, building up to the big CGI effects climax, doing the job efficiently enough to ensure the sequel promised in the final shot.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

American Made (15)

In 1978, tapped for smuggling illegal Cuban cigars, TWA pilot Barry Seal was approached by the CIA to run secret surveillance missions over Colombia, a success that, through the early 80s,  led to him becoming a bag man between the CIA and Nicaragua’s General Noriega, delivering pay offs in return for information on Communist operations in South America. Then, he was approached by the Medelin Cartel, the biggest drugs operation in Colombia, headed up by Pablo Escobar, who recruited him to transport their cocaine to  the United States. Then, further concerned about the Communist-run Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA got him to fly arms to the supposedly opposing Contras, except instead, he ended up flying the guns to the Cartel  who armed their forces and  then got the Contras to smuggle cocaine into America. Before long Seal, who by now had been relocated by the CIA from Louisiana to Mena in smalltown Arkansas  was making so much money he was having to set up any number of front businesses to launder it, and even then he was still burying it in the garden and stuffing it into cupboards. And even when it went pear-shaped, and he was being pursued variously by state police, the FBI, CIA  and the DEA, he was still able to come out on top.

Unfolding between 1985 top 1986, it was one of the biggest covert operations ever run by the US government. His story’s been told before, but, screenwriter Gary Spinelli taking a cue from GoodFellas,  never as well or as entertainingly as here by director Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) with a permagrin Tom Cruise donning the aviator sunglasses as Seals. Played with an eye on the comedic element in the whole situation (rather akin to the recent similarly-themed War Dogs), it romps from one implausible but real scenario to the next as Seal’s ‘business’ empire continues to expand. Although initially wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) is oblivious to Barry’s double life, but when you’ve got wads of dollar bills all over the house, it’s hard to keep things that secret and she readily takes to the  wealth and the life, although things almost come crashing down thanks her to her self-serving slacker brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons he can deal himself an easy hand in the cash flow.

Not until the final act when, now working for the White House and Colonel Oliver North, he’s inadvertently outed as betraying the Cartel and becomes a marked man, while the Iran-Contra scandal blows up in the government’s face does it really involve any real tension, and even then, as he moves from motel to motel, recording the videotapes that would eventually reveal his story (and provide the film’s to camera framing device), it still manages to play for  edgy laughs as, each morning, he wonders if his car will explode.

Following the disappointment of The Mummy and a series of autopilot Jack Reacher  turns, Cruise is on peak form here, bringing a winning charm and charisma to the film’s anti-hero embodiment of the American Dream on speed. Liman’s also well served by a solid supporting turn from Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler Monty Shafer who gets to bask in the reflected glory of his protégé’s successes while turning a knowing blind eye to extracurricular activities as long as they serve to further the political agenda, and burning any trail when compromised. There’s evidence of some edit room chops (Jesse Plemons’ local sheriff and his suspicious wife  seemingly the biggest victims), but even so the film flows at an exhilarating rush, making it easily Cruise’s best since Collateral.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Annabelle : Creation (15)

A second attempt to establish a franchise for The Conjuring spin-off,  Lights Out director David F. Sandberg scores in relying on old-school horror tactics with half-glimpsed figures, shadows, doors opening of their own accord and teasing the audience with anticipation that’s not always fulfilled. This goes back to the 1950’s origins of the devil doll, as 12 years after their beloved daughter Bee (Samara Lee) is killed in an auto accident, former doll maker Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) opens up the rural California farmhouse he shares with his mysteriously invalided wife (Miranda Otto)  to serve as an orphanage for a group of young Catholic girls and their accompanying nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).

Central to the narrative are young  best friends Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the latter in a  leg brace after being stricken with polio. Shut out by the older girls, they end up sharing  room to themselves, next to a door which, Mulls advises them, is locked and will stay that way. So, naturally, when, one night, Janice is awoken by someone slipping  a note under the door bearing the words ‘find me’ (the same game the dead daughter played with her parents) and finds the forbidden room unlocked, she duly enters and discovers a white-frocked wooden doll locked  in a  cupboard. From which point, things start to get even more creepy with the doll mysteriously shifting locations (though you never actually see it move), scary noises and, eventually, Janice coming face to face with the dead daughter, who, naturally turns out to be a demon in disguise (the back story’s explained towards the end) which wants her soul.

The film makes effective use of the set and lighting design to build the tension, plus, of course, the soundtrack, as Janice draws ever closer to her ultimate fate (as detailed in previous instalments, to which the coda provides a direct link), Curiously, the film does little with its religious elements as regards the possession theme and is, at times, a little too cryptic for logic but, by placing two resourceful but nevertheless still young and vulnerable children (very effectively played Bateman and Wilson, respectively seen in Nine Lives and  Ouija: Origin of Evil) at the centre of the gathering horror, it adds to the suspense it seeks to evoke. (Vue Star City)

 

Captain Underpants – The First Epic Movie (U)

Having bonded over hearing the word Uranus as tots, first graders George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are firm friends with a mission to enliven school boredom with wild pranks. However, finally caught in the act by joyless principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), they face being put in separate classes to end their friendship. To prevent this, George uses a toy hypno-ring  from a cereal box to make Mr. Krupps think he’s really Captain Underpants, the decidedly dumb superhero character in red cape and white pants with a “Tra La Laaaa!” catchphrase in the comics they create together. Naturally chaos follows as he keeps switching between nice and nasty (the change triggered by splashes of water. However, with the arrival of their new Einstein-lookalike mad scientist teacher (Nick Kroll),  who, with the help of humour-challenged (“Like a chair, or a supermodel!”) class nerd Melvin, is determined to ride the world of laughter after being ridiculed because of his name, maybe, together, they can save the day and transform Krupps (who’s really just lonely) into a more pleasant person as well.

The fact that Kroll’s character is named Professor Poopypants should tell grown-ups not familiar with Dav Pilkey’s best-selling books what to expect from this animated big screen adaptation. The better news is that, although clearly aimed at the immature humour of  seven-year-olds with its giant robot toilet  with a smattering of subversive  adult jokes, it’s also  an enjoyably good-natured silly gigglefest about the power of friendship and laughter.  (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Cars 3 (U)

After the underevved Cars 2, Pixar shifts back up a gear as past his prime race car champ Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is dethroned by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), one of the new generation of faster, more hi-tech models with their number-crunching strategies. Following a nasty crash, it seems his track days are over, but, with the help of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonz), a young female trainer at the revamped state of the art Rust-eze Racing Centre run by his  sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion),  Smokey Yunick (Chris Cooper), the repair truck of his former mentor, Doc Hudson and the support of loyal buddies like  Luigi, Guido and goofball tow truck Mater, the humiliated McQueen trains hard to learn the tricks he needs to beat Storm in the Florida 500, getting back to his roots after a disastrous VR session, by taking part –  anonymously and not entirely successfully – in a demolition derby.

Carrying a believe in yourself message, this is very much a passing the torch story (Cruz never had the confidence to be a racer herself) and, while it lacks the emotional edge of the first film, it is sufficiently warm, funny and inspiring enough to make it to the finish line. (Reel; Showcase Walsall)

Despicable Me 3 (U)

The third (fourth if you count the Minions spin-off) in the animated series finds itself having to work hard to keep the spark going. Following their failure to capture  80s-obsessed washed-up Hollywood  child star turned  criminal, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker),  Gru (Steve Carrell) and wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are fired from their jobs as Anti-Villain League agents and, when he refuses to return to his super-villain ways, all but two of the Minions walk out on him too. His depression’s lifted when he learns he has a twin brother, Dru (Carrell), the pair apparently being separated when their parents (Julie Andrews voices their sour mom) divorced. The super cool Dru, who wears white in contrast to Gru’s black (cue a clever Yin/Yang symbol gag) not only has blonde hair but is a fabulously rich pig farm owner, but what he wants most is to follow in his brother’s – and as it turns out – father’s footsteps and become a  villain. Seeing this as a chance to recover the world’s biggest diamond, which Bratt has now stolen, and finally capture him, Gru pretends to go along with the idea, he just doesn’t tell Lucy.

The problem is that film’s split into three storylines.  Gru and Dru’s assault on Bratt’s HQ, the quest by Agnes, the youngest of  Gru’s young foster daughter,  to find a unicorn, and the misadventures of the Minions (who wind up in and escaping from prison), as well as Lucy trying to get a handle on this mom thing, the disparate characters  finally coming together as  Bratt, in his giant size Bratt doll, seeks to send  Hollywood into space on giant bubblegum balloons. Switching between them all rather saps the film’s energy.

There’s some inspired touches, Bratt  pulls off his heists to 80s tunes by the likes of Michael Jackson and Van Halen, there’s a dose of sentiment in the scenes with the three girls, and it always looks good, but the jokes are fewer and more far between this time round. Once again, the  Minions steal the film, most notably with their gibberish performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General from The Pirates of Penzance,  and, while this will undoubtedly keep the kids amused, it may be time for Gru to retire and let his yellow accomplices take over keeping the franchise alive.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza)

Detroit (15)

In the early hours of Sunday, July 23, during the hot summer of 1967, the police raided an all-black after-hours club in Detroit. Unable to access the rear of the building, the  men and women were taken out the front to be loaded into the police wagons. A crowd gathered and, despite pleas by the local Congressman for calm, the already brittle racial tension swiftly escalated into riots and looting, setting the almost exclusively African-American neighbourhood ablaze. A curfew was imposed and members of Michigan’s National Guard were brought in to help restore order.

Across town, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer with aspiring unsigned R&B outfit The Dramatics, smarting at having the group’s big-break at a show featuring Martha & The Vandellas cut short on account of the riots, takes a room at the Algiers Motel, and he and his younger friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), hook up with a couple of white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) looking to experience the sexual revolution. They  all go up to a room for drinks where, illustrating a familiar white cop black guy scenario,  one of the guests Carl (Jason Mitchell) pulls a prank with a starting pistol and then thinks it might be fun to shoot it out of the window at the National Guard. At this point everything goes to shit, as, believing there to be a sniper in the motel, bigot cops Krauss (a terrifyingly chilling Will Poulter) and Demens (Jack Reynor), storm the place and line all the guests, among them a Vietnam veteran , (Anthony Mackie), against the wall demanding to know who fired the gun and where it is. Before long, Carl is lying dead and things are going from bad to worse as Krauss, a baby-faced  bullying racist with a power complex, who’s already shot one looter in the back and is disgusted at what he assumes to be miscegenation,  seeks to torture and terrorise the others into giving up the shooter. Inevitably, either because they don’t know or are unwilling to talk, no one is saying anything. Also involved in this increasingly tense situation is Melvin Dismukes (a magnetically underplaying John Boyega), a black security guard who seeks to try and diffuse things, but  also wary of getting too involved.

Based on historical records, including news reports, eye-witness testimonies and the subsequent murder trials of  Krauss and his two fellow officers, albeit with a fair dose of dramatic licence, working from a  screenplay Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), director Kathryn Bigelow has crafted an electrifying and often uncomfortable drama about racial divides and police terrorism that, adopting documentary style techniques, both turns a spotlight on largely forgotten events and the domestic terrorism power keg that is a divided America today.

Combining archival footage with dramatic recreation, Bigelow gradually ratchets up the claustrophobia and horror until it explodes in sudden harrowing violence before the judicial proceedings aftermath that made a mockery of justice. It will, no doubt, be held up as an example of the police brutality that has ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, but, as a microcosm of racial violence and prejudices embracing the fears and attitudes of whites and blacks alike, it’s about far more than that.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird)

Dunkirk  (12A)

His shortest feature at a concise 106 mins, Christopher Nolan has executed a technical if not necessarily emotional triumph in his account of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940 with the help of a flotilla of small privately-owned vessels, dubbed Operation Dynamo,  following their collapse under the German offensive.

Essentially, this is more about the operation itself, and splitting the narrative into three interconnected stories (and, indeed, time frames), on land, sea and air, means there’s only limited engagement with  any of the characters involved. Unfolding over the course of a week, we’re first introduced to one of the soldiers, the generically named teenage Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he narrowly escapes German bullets (in a departure from the usual war films, the enemy are never seen other than as aircraft and two blurry figures in the final scene) to make it to the beach where the British Expeditionary Force  troops (some 400,000 in all) are awaiting a miracle. Hooking up with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard), they initially manage to get aboard a rescue ship berthed at the jetty by stretchering a wounded soldier, only for the ship to be sunk, leaving them back where they started.

Very much evoking 40s wartime features, the sea section, which takes place over one day,  begins back in England with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a local civilian skipper, his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, seeking to prove himself,  enthusiastic schoolfriend  George (Barry Keoghan) setting sail for Dunkirk to help with the rescue. En route they rescue an unnamed shellshocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) from  the wreck of his torpedoed ship, his reluctance to return to Dunkirk setting up a subsequent tragedy.

The air section, which covers just one hour, involves two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as. mostly behind oxygen masks, they take on the Messerschmitts and Heinkels wreaking havoc on the troops and ships, the three time scales coming together for the final moments as Dawson’s boat heads towards a bombed minesweeper while Tommy and a fellow soldier (singer Harry Styles acquitting himself well) flounder in the sea after their appropriated trawler, strafed by the unseen enemy as target practice, sinks. Rounding out the cast, Kenneth Branagh gives a quietly impressive performance as the highest-ranking naval offer at the scene, while James D’Arcy is his opposite number in the Army

As ever, making very effective use of sound design, especially in the opening gunshot moments, and keeping the dialogue sparse and to the point, Nolan delivers massive spectacle (no less than three ships sink, spewing survivors into the waves), but without feeling the need to offer the visceral graphics of a Saving Private Ryan (indeed, there’s almost no blood to be seen), tightly winding up the tension which, even if it circumvents the heart, has a firm grip on the nerves.

The film is largely shot in 70mm which, should you be fortunate to have a cinema capable of screening it as such, gives it an extra sense of immersion and depth, but whatever the format, this is the work of a master, if perhaps slightly clinical,  filmmaker and stunning stuff. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Emoji Movie: Express Yourself (U)

Basically, Inside Out in a Smartphone with a dash of Divergence, without the poignancy or existential philosophising.  The son of the morose Mel (Steven Wright) and Mary (Jennifer Coolidge) Meh, young Gene (T.J. Miller) is about to make his debut in the Cube as the new indifferent emoji. However, unable to control the fact that he’s actually happily upbeat and not limited to one expression when selcted, everything in Textopolis goes into meltdown, with Cube controller Smiler (Maya Rudolph) declaring him a malfunction and ordering his deletion. To which end, he and out of fashion emoji Hi-5 (James Cordon) recruit hacker Jailbreak (Anna Faris), who, it turns out has her own secret,  to help him navigate the apps (Spotify, YouTube, etc), avoid  the Internet Trolls and getting lost in the Trash, escape into the Cloud and get reprogrammed so he can fit in. All the while trying to avoid the illegal upgrade malware Smiler’s sent to eradicate them. Meanwhile, the phone’s owner, high schooler freshman Alex, whose texts to his crush, Addie, keep going awry, decides to have it wiped and reset, prompting the obligatory race against the clock.

Retreading the message about being who you are, individuality and not being defined by one trait, as well as the usual stuff about friendship, it’s a colourful affair populated with dozens of familiar emojis, among them Poop (Patrick Stewart) and Akiko Glitter (Christina Aguilera), allowing for any number of groan-inducing puns, although the comments about how emojis and texting limit real communication seem at odds with the film’s concept per se.  It may not be deep, but it’s undeniably fun.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Girls Trip (15)

At times feeling like an exercise to prove that  African-American women getting together for a riotous weekend can be every bit as filthy – yet also poignant – as Bridesmaids or the Hangovers  series, this brings together Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and newcomer Tiffany Haddish as four college friends back in the 90s (somewhat stretching credibility given the age differences), the infamous Flossy Posse, who’ve not seen each other for five years, having lost touch as they’ve followed their separate lives and careers. Ryan Pierce (Hall) has become a best-selling self-help author in partnership with her  retired NFL hero husband Stewart (Mike Colter); former top Times journalist Sasha (Latifah) now runs a failing scandal  blog after a business partnership with Ryan fell through when she got into bed with Stewart instead;  Dina (Haddish), a  libido-rampant hot-head with no filters,  is recently  unemployed after assaulting a co-worker for using her cup; and, once a wild child,  Lisa (Pinkett Smith) is now a divorced romance-challenged mother of two nurse who lives with her mother.

The four are reunited when Ryan invited them to join her at the upcoming Essence Festival in New Orleans where she’ll be  the keynote speaker on female empowerment  and where her agent, Liz (Kate Walsh), is looking to close a deal that will set up her and Stewart with a lucrative product line and talk show. This is being sold on her You Can Have It All ethos and her perfect marriage. Except Sasha has a paparazzi shot of Stewart cheating with Instagram model Simone (Deborah Ayorinde), an affair Dina can’t stop herself revealing to Ryan. As it turns out, she’s aware of it and argues that the pair of them are working things out, so why let it spoil their weekend, although Dina’s haranguing of Stewart has got them thrown out of their five star hotel and shacked up in a cheap flea pit  where some leary old bloke in search of his regular hooker flashes himself at the window. That’s just the first of many many moments involving male genitalia, either in reference, in the flesh or through Dina’s simulation of the, ahem, grapefruit technique (if you don’t know, don’t ask).

Essentially a vulgarity-enhanced black riff on Sex and the City, although intermittently taking time out to address friendship bonds, relationship cracks and lost self-belief, the bulk of  this wildly overlong largely entails moving from one crude or rowdy sequence to the next. Some of these, such as the girls tripping on absinthe at a nightclub, are hilarious, others, such as Pinkett Smith urinating on a crowd while hanging from a  trip wire between a New Orleans street are decidedly not.

The plot is as formulaic as the characters are generic (Haddish is basically the female equivalent to Zach Galifianakis’ overbearingly irresponsible character in The Hangover), but the four leads give a cocktail of ebullient and nuanced performances above and beyond such tired clichés (there’s even a dance off), Pinkett Smith especially good.

En route to its sentimental happy ending, it’s symptomatic of the film’s ‘noise’ that director Malcolm Lee feels the need to stuff it to overflowing with cameos from the likes of Common, Sean Combs, Mike Epps,  Ne-Yo, Morris Chestnut and, clearly with more tolerance than The House filmmakers, even a  brief glimpse of Mariah Carey.

Some it works, a lot of it doesn’t and you have to ask whether a comedy  with a  white director and cast could ever have gotten away with the liberal use of the N word like this does and, a mark of its uneven nature,  it undermines its feminist principles when it seems to say that all women need to get them out of a funk is big dick. Still, cheaper than a pair of Manolo Blahniks I guess. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

God’s Own Country (15)

Dubbed  a  Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain, first time writer-director as Francis Lee unfolds the relationship between teenager Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who, forced to stay behind and look after the family farm while his friends take off  for pastures new when his hardened, seemingly joyless father (Ian Hart) suffers a stroke, numbs his pain and frustrations with  binge drinking and casual sex with women he picks up at the livestock auctions. But then, one day, along comes Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), a reserved, quietly soulful Romanian migrant who his dad  hires for the  lambing season and whose presence prompts unexpected feelings in Johnny and a questioning of his sexuality, as well as his own relationship to the land,  as they work together repairing walls up on the moors.

Driven by terrific  lead performances, with solid support from Hart and Gemma Jones as Johnny’s stoic grandmother, it confidently balances its unsentimental but tender coming out romantic drama narrative with a gritty, almost documentary style depiction of the tough and often brutal realities of farm life, not least Gheorghe’s skinning of a dead lamb  so he can put the pelt on another, tricking the dead animal’s mother into feeding it. However, learning that his father will never recover sufficiently to resume running the farm, brings an almost catastrophic pressure to bear. It’s slow, but absorbingly affecting. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (15)

Ryan Reynolds teams with Samuel L Jackson for an empty but thoroughly entertaining variation on the mismatched enemies turned buddies road trip  that involves the former’s bodyguard, Michael Bryce, and the latter’s hitman, Darius Kincaid, in a  race against the clock to travel from Manchester to The Hague. The purpose being that Kincaid has been persuaded to give testimony  at the war crimes trial of genocidal Belarus dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (a suitably evil Gary Oldman) in exchange for immunity and freedom for his imprisoned wife (Selma Hayek, marvellously foul-mouthed in her  few scenes). Since that means that, with the help of the inevitable Interpol traitor (revealed early as Joaquim de Almeid’s Assistant Director), Dukhovich’s thugs are out to ensure he never gets there, Bryce has been brought in to facilitate self-passage.

He’s less than enthusiastic since, as the prologue reveals, formerly Triple A-rated, he’s slipped considerably down the personal security food chain since one of his clients was popped after safely boarding a plane. He’s still good at his job, but he’s gone from top of the range Jags to battered jalopies and from top diplomats and arms dealers to Richard E Grant’s cameoing coke-dealing London businessman.  On top of which, Kincaid has tried to kill him 28 times and , following an assault on the convoy transporting him, the Interpol agent whose enlisted him is Amelia Ryder (Elodie Yung), his former girlfriend whom he blames for selling him out on that airport job. The truth about which provides a particularly amusing reveal in a film that balances lethal and laughter in equal measure.

Essentially, it boils down to a series of  hops between cities (Coventry included) en route to the Amsterdam courtroom, including hitching  lift with a busload of nuns, punctuated by constant banter between the two, innumerable shoot outs and action sequences and some particularly thrilling high speeds chances, most notably one involving Amsterdam’s canals, vans, a motorbike and speedboat.

Jackson provides the larger than life side of the pairing, Kincaid regarding himself as one of the good guys and proving to be a hopeless romantic at heart (a flashback reveals how he and Sonia met and bonded when she slashed a guy’s carotid in a Cuban bar-fight) as he offers relationship advice to wounded soul Bryce, Reynolds handling the deadpan sarcasm and dry quips with Bryce’s plays safe approach constantly undermined by Kincaid’s street-smart bull by the horns attitude.

The whole romance element is, frankly, fairly superfluous to requirements other than as motivation drivers, and, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the spark and interplay between the two stars, who are clearly having a  lot of fun, and the frenetic, action-crammed energy with which it unfolds. It’s infectious. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

It (15)

Originally adapted as a mini-series back in 1990, Stephen King’s mammoth novel gets a  feature-length outing under  director Andy Muschietti.  Creepy without ever being as scary as it should, events spread over nine months, it’s been updated to the late 1980s and opens in smalltown Derry in Maine as young Georgie runs outside into the rain to float the paper boat made by his by his stutter-afflicted older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the boat drops into a culvert, he looks into it and is confronted by the face of a clown (Bill Skarsgarg), calling himself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who lures him closer, bites off an arm and the drags the boy into the sewers.

A year later, Bill still believes his brother is alive, enlisting three  schoolfriends, know-it-all wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sceptical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), to explore the sewer system looking for him. Bullied at school by the psychotic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, they’re the self-styled Losers Club, their number eventually swelled by shy chubby new kid Ben and homeschooled black kid Mike  (Chosen Jacobs), both of whom are also targeted by Bowers, and  the supposedly promiscuous tomboy  Beverly (Sophia Lillis), another bullied outsider.

All have their own terrifying encounters with It, as the film gradually reveals the shapeshifting monster preys on his victims’ fears and Ben’s research uncovers that it appears every 27 years, each period characterised by children going missing, something the town  seems unwilling to confront.

Naturally, all the kids (Bowers included) have their own torments, among them abusive or demanding fathers, an overprotective mother, guilt and, for Richie, a fear of clowns. But, while individually vulnerable, as Beverly points out, by staying together they may have a chance of surviving and destroying their nemesis.

Echoing the themes of friendship  and coming of age on which Stand By Me was founded (along with the cruelty of the adult world) with an added serving of horror, following various individual close calls, they all head to the decrepit old house they’ve identified as the clown’s lair.

The film makes effective use of its haunting imagery, most especially the red balloon while, although bereft of backstory,  Skarsgard’s white-faced monster, whispering “you’ll float too”, is a striking visual presence. However, while the opening is especially striking,  the more set pieces that are introduced to give each youngster a turn in the spotlight, the more repetitive  and the less effective they become. Likewise, the romantic rivalry between Bill and Ben over Beverly is never  developed.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective  piece of work and the young cast acquit themselves well, Lillis ably living up to the Molly Ringwald reference tossed her way by Richie. Of course, however, with the film closing on their vow to return in 27 years time to take on It once again, the best they can look forward to in Chapter Two are some fleeting flashbacks. (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 Jungle Bunch (U)

We’ve had a kung-fu panda, and now here’s a kung-fu penguin. That’ll be Maurice, who lives in the jungle and, raised by his adoptive  tiger mom, thinks he’s one too. Many years ago, she was part of The Champs,  a team of heroes who saved the jungle from deranged koala Igor and his crab sidekick. But now, years later, they’ve disbanded and Igor is back, determined to destroy the jungle using explosive mushrooms. So, now it’s up to Maurice, who, to be honest, isn’t the world’s most skilful kung-fu artist,  and his new team of misfits, Junior his adopted tiger fish son, Gilbert the tarsier, his would be  lover Batricia the bat, Miguel the not entirely with it gorilla, and Al and Bob the sarcastic toads, to stop him. Adapted from the children’s TV series, it never rises to even the lower heights of Pixar and their like, but it’s colourful and fun enough to keep undemanding six-year-olds happy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Limehouse Golem (15)

Riding on the back of the popularity of Penny Dreadful, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Ripper Street, with Jane Goldman adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel (and bringing a feminist note) director Juan Carlos Median’s thriller carefully blends historical fact with police procedural fiction, and a liberal helping of gore. Adopting the technique of starting at the end and then showing how matters arrived there, it’s set in 1880 London with Bill Nighy as Scotland Yard Inspector John Kildare, who’s assigned to investigate a series of brutal murders by a killer the press has dubbed the Limehouse Golem. A cautious,  methodical and reserved man who’s been passed over for promotion because of rumours about “not being the marrying kind”, he suspects he’s got the job as the force’s fall guy. None the less, taking on  constable  George Flood (Daniel Mays) as his assistant, linking the killings to an earlier slaughter of a family,  he sets about examining four potential suspects, all of whom visited the British Library Reading Room on a specific day, musical hall female impersonator comic Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), Karl Marx (Henry Goodman),  novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), all three real life characters, and fictional journalist and aspiring playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). The problem is Cree has just been found poisoned  and his wife, music hall star Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), is being tried for his murder.

Persuaded that she’s innocent, Kildare makes it his mission to prove her husband was the Golem, eliminating the others by comparing their handwriting to the lurid  notes written by the killer in a Thomas de Quincey book as a diary of his self-styled acts of creation. These are staged as imagined  recreations of the murders with each of the suspects in turn embodying the Golem. Meanwhile, in the trial and interviews with the imprisoned Lizzie sequences, the film delivers flashbacks to her rise from abused street urchin to music hall star under Leno’s tutelage to her unhappy marriage to Cree, taking in the vindictive jealousy of romantic rival and fellow entertainer Aveline (Maria Valverde) and the deaths of two other members of the company, dwarf  Victor and theatre manager Uncle (a creepy Eddie Marsan), both of whom, it is suggested, were killed by Cree in response to the way they treated Lizzie.

Enfolded in fog and shadows and with some suitably saucy music hall humour and melodrama, the film eventually becomes a race against the clock to save Lizzie from the gallows. There’s any number of  twists and turns to divert audience suspicions, although the hide in plain sight approach won’t be missed by armchair detectives, building the tension along with the increasingly visceral flashbacks. Departing from his recent comedic roles, Nighy is terrific, as indeed are Cooke and Booth, both of whom afford their characters intriguing complexities in what is a clever, literate and hugely involving work.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; MAC)

Logan Lucky (12A)

The return of director Steven Soderbergh to feature filmmaking should be cause for celebration, but instead what you get is a rather lacklustre and flat blue collar  retread of his Oceans’s trilogy, one which may have a cleverly intricate plot mechanism to the heist, but lacks any of those previous films’ fluidity,  comedic spark and banter. For reasons never quite made clear (but presumably involve being able to afford to follow his ex-wife –Katie Holmes – from Virginia  to Pittsburgh so he can still see his young daughter),  recently let go from a construction company on account of his insurance risk dodgy knee, former high school football star Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), persuades his one-armed Iraq-veteran bartender brother  Clyde (Adam Driver) to join him in a  plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, to which end, with their flaky hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) already onboard, they enlist the services of  celebrated safecracker Jo Bang (a scenery-chewing Daniel Craig with a white buzzcut); they just have to get him out of jail to do the job and back again before he’s missed. Which means they also need the assistance of his two dimwit brothers (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson).

Unfortunately, there’s a hiccup that means they have to bring the plan forward a week, which means that, instead of some low profile race meet, they’re hitting the NASCAR Coca -Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend. And, on top of which, after they pull the job, Jimmy’s got to get to his daughter’s pageant show.

It’s the first screenplay by Rebecca Blunt and, as such, you can often hear the gears grinding while things like the running gags about the supposed Logan family curse, Clyde’s hand  and John Denver’s music feel like Blunt being consciously ‘eccentric’ rather than an organic part of the plot. Likewise scenes involving Seth McFarlane’s loudmouth British energy drink creator race driver Max Chilblain which could have been cut without any loss to the narrative.

Admittedly, the way it all falls into place is well-handled and ( as with the Oceans films), there’s the inevitable reveals of things you didn’t see in the main narrative, but even so the late arrival of Hilary Swank’s FBI agent means the film has to try and crank things up again just after they’ve wound down post heist, something it never quite manages to do.  The cast are game enough, but never quite sparks in the way that Clooney et al. did and, while there’s some amusing touches, not least an amusing Game of Thrones gag as part of a prison riot demands and a witty background reference to Ocean’s Eleven,  ultimately this is enjoyable but forgettable fare. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Mother!  (18)

It certainly earns its exclamation mark! Darren Aronofsky pushes the boat out with this mindfuck of a psychological thriller that throws in haunted house horrors, biblical allegory (Cain and Abel and the plagues of Egypt included), relationship drama, home invasion and quite literally even a kitchen sink. It opens on a hallucinatory scene of  a woman burning alive, followed by a dream sequence involving a large red-veined crystal and the charred house gradually restoring itself before, finally, the camera pans in on Jennifer Lawrence waking up in bed and saying ‘baby?

Never given a  name, she’s married to Javier Barden’s equally unnamed and older character, a famous poet suffering writer’s block, while she’s restoring his isolated and previously ruined old  house to try and get his juices flowing again.  An early clue that it isn’t going to be especially straightforward comes when she puts her hands on the wall and has visions of a beating organ inside them. When she gets anxious she retreats to the bathroom to take some sort of yellow powder. One night, they get a visitor (Ed Harris) claiming to be a doctor who says he was told he could get a room. Bardem invites him to stay, enraptured with the stories he tells him, though Lawrence is clearly not happy about this.  The next morning along comes the man’s disrespectful wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who quickly taps into the unspoken but fraught  issue of  Lawrence and Barden not having kids.  Lawrence is even more unsettled by their unwanted guests when their two sons (Domhall and Brian Gleeson) turn up, quarrelling over dad’s will. Things get ugly, someone dies,  a wake gets out of hand, the floor and walls bleed, Javier writes another bestseller, she gets pregnant and suddenly there’s an army of fans descending on the place, to his delight and her anger. Things turn apocalyptic, people riot, tearing the place apart for relics of the great man,  the army crashes  in shooting. What happens to the  baby is for strong stomachs only.

It’s operatically delirious and frequently surreal  stuff that has Lawrence, from whose perspective the entire thing is seen,  getting increasingly desperate and intense (particularly in the many extreme close-ups) and the creepily smiling and increasingly callous Bardem possessed of a demented good humour and cheer to allcomers, basking in their admiration. Cinephiles will enjoy picking apart nods to the likes of Rebecca, The Shining,   Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Exterminating Angel and much more, others will just wonder what the hell’s going on.

At the end of the day,  however, it boils down to Aronofsky’s recurring themes, specifically the selfish, consuming nature of the act of creation, the idolatrous and destructive nature of fame in which the artist draws on the love of others like a sort of vampire and is willing to sacrifice (here quite literally) those close to him to fuel his creativity.  That by way of parenthood, trophy objects and the male ego. It’s a real mutha! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Electric;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rough Night (12A)

While inevitably suffering in arriving in the wake of the far more outrageous and much cruder Girls Trip, this female buddy movie from director Lucia Aniello, who co-wrote the Paul Downs, still doesn’t have a great deal to recommend it.  The basic plot is much the same, a group of former college buddies who’ve not seen each for some years, reunite for a weekend away, the excuse being a bachelorette party for bride to be aspiring senator Jess (Scarlett Johansson) who, frankly, would rather stay home  with her fiancé (Downs) and try and salvage her failing campaign.

Nevertheless, she’s off to Miami with real estate agent Blair (Zoë Kravitz), who’s in the middle of a custody battle, her  activist former girlfriend Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and self-proclaimed best friend party organiser Alice (Jillian Bell), the obligatory needy, over-enthusiastic  outsize,  arrested development jealous loner with no social life.  They’re subsequently joined by another of Jess’s friends, Australian oddball Pippa (Kate McKinnon).

Where the plot (essentially a gender reversal of 1998’s Very Bad Things) diverges is that Alice accidentally ends up killing the stripper Blair has arranged and the subsequent attempts to get rid of the body and evidence of their involvement (something which entails Kravitz in a ménage a trois with beachside swinger neighbours Ty Burrell and Demi Moore), while, in a silly subplot contrived to facilitate the climax, Peter, fuelled by pills and Red Bull, is driving to Miami in the belief that Jess wants to call off the wedding.

Although there’s a twist to come regarding the dead man, the film takes its time getting there with a series of aborted attempts to dispose of the body that are never as amusing as they think they are. Johanssen handles the dramatic and emotional moments well enough, but it’s clear she’s not a  natural comic, standing even less chance than Kravitz and Glazer to withstand the primal force of Bell (essentially in the Melissa McCarthy Bridesmaids  role) or the scene-stealing off the wall delivery and humour of McKinnon. But, even so, while there are laughs to be had, it’s not a  night  to remember. (Cineworld  NEC)

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A)

The third actor to play the webslinger on the big screen, Tom Holland made his debut cameoing in Captain America: Civil War, and this latest reboot is set a few months after those events. It opens, however, in the wake of the first Avengers movie as, mid-way through salvage work, New York contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is told all such operations involving alien material now comes under Damage Control. Still, he and his crew have stowed away enough to go into the super-weapons business, which is where we pick up events eight years later (no Spidey origin stories here). On a high after helping out The Avengers, making his own web diary footage of events to revel in on playback, gawky 15-year-old Queens high schooler Peter Parker (Holland) is keen to see more action in his Stark ‘internship’, but, with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his babysitter,  is advised by Tony (a typically snarky Robert Downey Jr) to keep his super-heroing on a neighbourhood level, although he does get a  new hi-tech suit (with its very own Jarvis in the vocal form of Jennifer Connelly) to go with the job, even if he has no idea what all its powers are or how to use them.

As such, things toddle along with his handling petty crime and helping out old ladies until he stumbles on a heist with a gang using alien-technology weapons. This, in turn, leads him to track down the suppliers and run foul of Toomes who now sports a pair of armoured flying wings (he’s essentially The Vulture, but is never really referred to as such until the end), and, although warned off from getting involved by Stark, climaxes in a near disaster aboard the Staten Island Ferry (in a sequence that mirrors Tobey Maguire saving the elevated train in the original movie) that requires Iron Man to come to the rescue and take back the suit.

On top of all this, Peter’s having to deal with the usual high school problems, such as the class bully, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the senior on whom he has a crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), but is too shy to say anything. Plus the fact that he’s accidentally revealed his secret identity to science partner and equally geeky best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and that his webslinging heroics force him to both duck out on the  Academic Decathlon (he’s busy saving the other students in the Washington Tower) and, finally going places with Liz, the homecoming ball. And now he’s stuck with his old homemade suit too.

It’s a little ADD in the early going, reflecting Peter’s uber-enthusiasm and desire to impress Stark, but it soon settles down into a solid and, importantly, hugely entertaining fanboy addition to the Marvel Universe. Although things have been tweaked, there’s still plenty of familiar notes from the comics, including a new spin on MJ (a dry, scene stealing Zendaya), a much younger Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), nods to the many variations the costume’s been through and even the theme from the animated 60s TV series, not to mention a tease of Maguire’s famous upside down kiss.

Holland brings a likeable wide-eyed boyish glee as well as a disarming vulnerability to Parker, regularly screwing up but always getting back on his feet,  while Keaton, who, like Doctor Octopus, is a human-scaled villain with mechanical appendages  and a moral ambiguity, is menacingly compelling and, essentially a victim of the Avengers fall-out himself,  comes with a truly unexpected kick of a twist. Downey Jr and Favreau reprise their familiar shtick and the film also finds room for cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and, albeit by  way of school training videos, the now disgraced Captain America. Filling out the supporting cast, Martin Starr makes the most of his scenes as the Decathlon coach and Bokeem Woodbine does duty as one of Toomes’ crew aka the Shocker. Climaxing in a mid-air battle atop an Avengers  jet, it may ultimately resort to the usual super-hero tropes, but getting there is a whole web of fun. (Vue Star City)

 

Victoria and Abdul  (PG)

An unofficial sequel to Mrs. Brown,  Stephen Frears persuades Judi Dench to reprise her role as Queen Victoria, approaching the end of her reign and set several years on from John Madden’s 1997 film in which she starred opposite Billy Connolly as the Scottish Highlander with whom she struck up an unlikely and close friendship.  This is pretty much the same story, except instead of Brown we have Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), disparagingly referred to as a brown Mr.Brown by Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Royal Household. A lowly prison clerk in Agra, he’s chosen, on account of his height, to travel to London and present the queen with a ceremonial coin along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, ultimately sidelined), a fellow Muslim drafted in as a replacement after an accident with an elephant.

Abdul’s told not to make eye contact during the presentation at one of the  many lavish dinners. Naturally, he does, catching the queen’s eye and finding himself and Mohammed enlisted as her personal retainers.  Before long, he’s teaching her Urdu and becoming her  “Munshi,” or teacher, inspiring and delighting her with all things Indian, since, while she may be Empress of India, she’s never been allowed to visit for fear of assassination.

As Abdul becomes ever closer and rises in position to become a member of the  Household with a cynical Mohammed as his own servant,  bringing over his wife and mother-in-law  (in full burqa) and being installed in his own ‘cottage’, needless to say, fuelled by racism and snobbery,  the Queen’s advisers, among them head of Household Sir Henry Ponsonby   (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor  (Paul Higgins), the PM (Michael Gambon) and her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), duly take umbrage at this Indian, and a commoner and a Muslim at that, having such sway over her. When she decides to knight him, revolt ensues.

Based on Karim’s memoirs, discovered in 2010 (Bertie allegedly destroyed  all references to him and his mother), it’s lush, picturesque and generally light, but, the political and (and not always accurate) historical threads are little more than lip service to a platonic summer/winter friendship and, while Dench is again magnificent as the lonely monarch finding joy again, firing up to exercise her royal command when faced with dissent, the film never really gives Fazal  any substantial depth or background to work with, leaving him to basically just smile a lot.   It’s pleasant and, once or twice  quite moving, it just isn’t very interesting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

War For The Planet Of The Apes (12A)

Following on from the Rise Of and Dawn Of  remakes, director Matt Reeves winds up the trilogy in triumphant, epic form. Picking things up after the end of Dawn, that saw Caesar (Andy Serkis) kill the human-hating Koba, he and his fellow apes, among them  sidekick orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and youngest son Cornelius, are now hiding out while being hunted down by Alpha-Omega, a rogue army of  surviving humans and renegade apes (referred to as Donkey – as  in Kong) headed up by the psychotic Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who, shaven-headed and obsessed, patently echoes  Brando’s Kurtz  with, following Kong: Skull Island, the second ape-themed nod to Apocalypse Now this year, indeed at one point the word Ape-pocalypse Now is seen scrawled on a tunnel wall.

After having his men driven back in an assault on the hideaway, the Colonel himself leads a second incursion, this time leaving Cornelia and Caesar’s eldest son, Blue Eyes,  dead, prompting Caesar to send the others to find the sanctuary Rocket (Terry Notary) and Blue Eyes discovered while setting off on a  personal mission of vengeance. To which end, Maurice, Rocket and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) insist on accompanying him. Along the way, the small band is augmented by the addition of a young girl (Amiah Miller), the victim of a plague mutation that renders its victims mute (which itself sets up a powerful scene explaining the Colonel’s driven crusade), and, providing some comic relief, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a small, hermit zoo ape survivor of the Simian Flu outbreak who’s learned to talk  and who is persuaded to guide them to the Colonel’s base in the frozen wastelands.

The third act shifts homages to take on Biblical echoes as, discovering the clan have been captured and imprisoned as slave workers by the Colonel, Caesar now becomes a sort of Moses, delivering his people from bondage as the film builds to a full on battle spectacular as (nodding to The Great Escape) the apes sees to escape the gulag with Maurice and Bad Ape exploiting the tunnels beneath the compound.

Combining western and war movie influences and motifs, the central performances deeply weighted in character with Serkis in particular bringing huge expression and emotional intensity  to his CGI-rendered Caesar,  it’s an often dark and sombre narrative, the prison camp sequences  particularly so, and, while action scenes are visceral, these are also balanced by lengthy philosophical moments addressing  such themes as loyalty, family, freedom and, especially for Caesar,  mindful of his own legacy, the blinding nature of vengeance. While ostensibly the final film of the series, the remainder of humanity seemingly eliminated in a final avalanche, with Cornelius inheriting his father’s mantle (and linking things back to the original Planet of the Apes), given the likely box office figures, further monkey business should not be ruled out yet.  (Vue Star City)

 

Wind River (15)

Having written Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan now makes an impressive bow behind the camera with another of his screenplays. Loosely based on real events, it’s set in a world of ‘snow and silence’, in the wintery landscape of the titular Native American reservation in Wyoming where, spending time with his young son while also out keeping predators  from the livestock,  in this case a mountain lion, divorced local game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) comes upon the  frozen body of an 18-year-old Native American. This is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille),  once the best friend of his own daughter, who died in similar  tragic circumstances for which he blames himself and which led  to the collapse of his marriage to his Native American ex-wife (Julia Jones). The fact that the dead girl, who died from inhaling sub-zero air,  also turns out to have been assaulted and raped compounds his determination to find those responsible and from whom she was running, barefoot. As it’s determined to be a homicide,  along comes no-nonsense, but inexperienced, FBI agent Jane Banner (a superbly nuanced Elizabeth Olsen) to take over from the tribal police chief   (Graham Greene) and, realising she’s in over her head, enlisting Lambert  to assist her.

Unfolding as a brooding procedural as the pair put the clues together, it would be unfair to real much more of the plot, but suffice to say the investigations lead to the dead girl’s druggie brother and subsequently her boyfriend, part of a local oil rig crew who were holed up for the winter and that, after long simmering tension, that film erupts into violence with both a harrowing flashback to what happened to Natalie, a bloody Peckinpah-like shoot-out and a final act of vengeance/justice.

But, as with his previous screenplays, hauntingly complemented by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s score, this is about troubled characters and troubled times rather than action, and Renner gives a magnetically compelling performance as the taciturn Lambert, a man of few, but meaningful words,  the  intimate scene between him and the dead girl’s father (Gil Birmingham) and the spare conversations with Olson weighed down with talk  of loss, grief and the hard path to recovery.  It may not have quite the same box office clout as his previous work, but this is quality filmmaking through and through. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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