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Marcel Lucont’s quick guide to French culture

French comedian Marcel Lucont

French flâneur Marcel Lucont returns to Birmingham with his brand new show, Whine List (7 April 2017, The Glee).

The appearance finds the self-proclaimed greatest French comedian currently in the UK sipping wine, and encouraging audience members to air their gripes and challenging experiences. He, or course, has to a few options of his own.

Discussing his before show regime, he says: “My preferred pre-show routine is the three Fs – food, fan mail and fellatio. Receiving not giving, in every instance.”

While on the topic of what he does post gig, he adds: “After a show in France I may saunter to a nearby café to discuss life’s many oddities over a carafe of fine wine.

“My post-show ritual in the UK more often entails strolling at pace through a city centre paved with anger and chips, attempting to avoid various oddities, be that bellowing men or tottering women who cannot decide whether they are angry, hungry or horny.”

Forever flying the flag for French cultural superiority, here’s Marcel Lucont’s one-stop guide to the very best of French culture…

Music:

Marcel: “Spend a day and night with the entire oeuvre of Serge Gainsbourg and tell me you have not gained some seductive powers, as well as a sudden desire for a maximum-strength cigarette.”

Film:

Marcel: “Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere” would be a strong start. If this semi-improvised, 13-hour 1971 classic is not for you, you should probably stop listing “culture” as one of your interests, French or otherwise.”

Literature:

Marcel: “After watching “Out 1…” why not find a suitable bed to make a start on “A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu,” Proust’s fairly comprehensive novella?”

Visual Art:

Marcel: “Abraham Poincheval, a performance artist who has lived inside a boulder for one week and the inside of a bear for two weeks. With the world as it is, it is difficult not to be at least a little jealous.”

  • Marcel Lucont brings his Whine List to The Glee Club, The Arcadian Centre, Birmingham, on Friday 7 April 2017. For more information, see: www.glee.co.uk

Interview: Binker & Moses

London jazz duo Binker and Moses

The debut album from Binker and Moses, 2015’s Dem Ones, has firmly established the duo as “the new sound of London jazz” (FT). Recorded live, in one day, it’s a remarkable, and ferocious, album from the saxophonist (Binker Golding) and drummer (Moses Boyd), who’ve been playing together, and with other artists, for the best part of a decade.

Since the album’s release (initially only on vinyl, though there are now CDs), B&M have won a MOBO (Best Jazz Act), a Parliamentary Jazz Award (Best Newcomer), and two JazzFM nods (Breakthrough Act and Best UK Jazz Act).

Now comes the real test for the duo: album number two. Due for release in May on Gearbox, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever is described by Binker as “a storybook, with a narrative, characters, places and hidden messages.”

BrumNotes caught up with Binker as the Londoners prepared for a visit the Hare and Hounds (30 March 2017).

Dem Ones was recorded in a day, straight to a vintage Studer 1/4″ tape machine – what approach to recording have you taken with Journey To The Mountain Of Forever?

The equipment, studio, engineer and process of straight to tape were the same for Journey… as they were for Dem Ones, we just chewed up a hell of a lot more tape because there were way more tracks – it’s a double LP. There were something like 48 tracks – not takes but individual tracks; we narrowed it down to 15 for the album. We love our engineer Ricky Damian – [he’s] best known for mastering [Mark Ronson’s] Uptown Funk. The sound desk and mics etc we used on Dem Ones were some of the best in the world, and they got the sound we wanted, so we didn’t need to change it for this album as we wanted some consistency. We spent two full days in the studio, from early to really late – Red Bull should sponsor us after this album! This album is a lot more thought out than Dem Ones was … Dem Ones was deliberately spur of the moment. The first LP is the duo, the second has features or multiple features on every track. The artists included are Tori Handsley on harp, Evan Parker on saxophones, Sarathy Korwar on tabla, Byron Wallen on trumpet and Yuseef Dayes from Yuseef Kamaal on drums and percussion. There were absolutely no overdubs, drop-ins or anything like that, it’s all completely real. For this sort of album we didn’t believe in using the studio to modify the tracks, but maybe one day. There were barely any second takes. We only did a few re-takes because some of the equipment started to pack up on the second day of recording. Couldn’t handle it I guess.

You’ve hinted that the album perhaps has a concept linking some of the tracks …. can you say a bit more?

You’ve done your research! We honestly don’t know where you could’ve heard that! We’ve been trying to keep everything under wraps, including the album name until the BBC leaked it. We’re gonna try not to give away too much about the concept behind the album and let audiences make up their minds & make their own readings of it. There’s at least two ways you could ‘read’ the material. But yes, it is a concept album and the music, titles and artwork are all one. To give a light description, it’s about a journey from the known to the unknown. It’s a lot more ambitious than Dem Ones.

What are some of the stand-out tracks for you personally, and why?

The duets I did with Evan Parker will always be special to me as he’s a hero of mine both as a player and a human being. There’s a track on the second disk called Echoes From The Other Side Of The Mountain, with Tori Handsley and Sarathy Korwar. I think that track came off particularly well. There’s a duo track on the first disk called Intoxication From Jahvmonishi Leaves … I like it ‘cos it shouldn’t have worked, but it did, so I see it as an achievement for us. So far from the ones that have been heard Fete By The River seems to be most peoples’ favourite.

You’ve known each other, and played together, for some years – 10-13 years now is it? What do you consider to be your, and your partners, strengths?

Moses has a good few strengths. I’d say mainly to keep a level head and not let problems, stress and things going wrong affect him/ us. As a result, he can often become the voice of reason in the group. My tendency is to lose it, so he balances that out. Moses also generally smiles a lot, which definitely balances out against me. He makes us a lot more approachable because of this. I’m almost incapable of smiling, despite being a happy person, more or less. I think my personal strength is to get the promoters to put more beer in the backstage fridge for the after party.

Did you have any drums/ sax guys in mind when you first started playing as Binker and Moses? Perhaps just drummers and saxophonist teams you admired …?

Quite a few. We’re certainly not the first people to do this. I think the recordings that ultimately made us go there were the duo segments of Kenny Garrett and Jeff ‘Tai’n Watts in the Songbook era, and the John Coltrane/ Rasheed Ali album Interstellar Space. The album Red And Black In Willisau by Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell is another great one that gave us ideas. There are other stand alone tracks like The Surrey With The Fringe On Top by Sonny Rollins and Philly Joe Jones,  and the second track from the Michael Brecker album called “Michael Brecker” where it starts with a duet with Jack DeJohnette – Syzygy.

Three major jazz awards last year – congratulations! What affect have they, and the earlier MOBO, had on your careers so far do you think?

They really had a great affect that we don’t take lightly. The combined awards put us on the map and forced people to pay attention to the group. We were both known at least on the London scene as individuals before that, but the awards combined with good reviews for the album and performances made people pay attention to us as a duo. We went from being the guys who made an angular, middle finger album … to the guys who you brought your girlfriend that doesn’t like jazz to the gig because you read about us in Jocks & Nerds or the Guardian. Either way, we’re still the same and didn’t change because of it.

You both have other projects outside of the duo, and work with other artists – can you say a bit more about your other activities?

Moses runs his band – Moses Boyd’s: Exodus – which has a number of EPs out and will be releasing an album this year. I also happen to be a part of that band, so you see we do spend a lot of time together. For me, it’s hard to explain what the Exodus does. You have to hear it, and especially see it live, in order to understand it. There’s a lot going on in that band and I can’t really describe it. There will be another Zara McFarlane album this year, which we’re both on. That should be out in the summer. I’ve also started leading a quartet again, which is something I did for many years and dropped for artistic reasons, but I’ve started up again but with guitar instead of piano. There’s a lot of delta blues, country and folk in the ensemble & writing. There should be an album soon with that also but its brand new so it will take a minute.

What are your plans for the coming months (once the album’s out)?

My personal plan for after the release and album launch is to get really drunk and then go to sleep for three days, as I’m already exhausted. We’ll be doing plenty of shows up and down the UK and in Europe after the album release. We’ll also be in the USA and Canada. Follow us on the Binker & Moses Facebook page and on Twitter at @ManLikeBinks and @MosesBoydExodus to get all the info. There will be too much to mention here…

* Binker and Moses appear at The Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, on Thursday 30 March 2017. More details/ tickets.

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Get Out (15)

Bringing a  welcome injection of fresh blood to horror movies, actor-writer turned first-time director Jordan Peele deftly revives the genre’s element of social commentary. Previously memorably  exercised in the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, Society and, most recently, The Witch, as with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Peele has constructed his film as a racial satire, one which chimes powerfully in America’s current climate of exacerbated white on black violence. Indeed, Peele’s darkly funny film riffs on the idea of whites finding a new way of subjugating blacks to slavery.

A rising star in the photography world,  Chris (Brit Daniel Kaluuya) has been persuaded to visit the family of  his girlfriend of five months, Rose  (Allison Williams), in their upstate home. He’s just a little wary of what sort of reaction he might get, specifically since she hasn’t told them he’s black. Indeed, his best friend, Rod (LilRel Howery providing the broad comedy) , a Homeland Security agent with the TSA  who reckons white folk want black sex slaves, thinks it’s a really bad idea. However, Rose reassures him that they’re progressive thinkers, Obama fans, and will be totally accepting about it.

Indeed,  neurosurgeon Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) and somewhat distant hypnotherapist wife Missy (Catherine Keener subverting her amiable persona) prove to be just that, the former perhaps over-egging their white liberal credentials by recalling how his had ran alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. Even so, Chris isn’t totally at ease and, even though Dean says that he’s almost embarrassed to fit the cliché of wealthy whites having live-in black servants, handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but, kept on after caring for his elderly parents, they’re  like part of the family, Chris finds their almost zombie-like behaviour a little unsettling. Likewise, Rose’s spoiled brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons Chris’s “genetic makeup” would make him a great MMA fighter and Missy’s insistence on hypnotising him to cure his smoking habit.

Clearly all is not what it might appear. The visit coinciding with an annual bash when all the rich folks come over the house, Chris feels there’s something familiar about the quietly polite black husband (Lakeith Stanfield)  of one of the middle-aged women. Audiences will too, since he was the man seen abducted on a deserted street at the start of the film. When Rod suggests he take a photo on his phone and send it to him to check out, the flash causes something in the man to snap, his meek demeanour falls away and he lurches at Chris telling him to ‘get out!’

It is, of course, rather too late for that  and  it’s not long before Chris wakes up to find himself strapped to a chair and  discovering just what is going on, why the servants act like they do and why so many black men have been vanishing in the area. To say more would spoil things, but suffice to say The Stepford Wives and Body Snatchers are not idle comparisons.

Peele cleverly marries the growing tension and horror with full on comedy (he’s co-star of the American sketch show Key and Peele)  and  barbed casual racism before cranking things up to a bloody and gory climax as well as a final gotcha. Scary, funny, thought-provoking and resonantly timely, this has the makings of a future classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Beauty and the Beast (PG)

The first (and, to date, only) animation to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, following on from Cinderella and The Jungle Book, this is the latest of Disney’s toons to get a live action update. Directed by Bill Condon, this very much plays to the original’s Oscar winning score and songs to make it a  full out musical, complete with three new numbers, although, in the shadow of La La Land, while parts are very good, it never quite takes off  as a whole. Likewise, while the design generally looks terrific, especially the woods and the Beast’s gloom-frozen castle, Belle’s village feels very much like a backlot set. It’s a qualification that tends to apply throughout. The CGI animated household objects into which the servants have been transformed are brilliantly rendered, but as voiced by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth, the clock), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere, the candelabra) and Emma Thompson (giving an inexplicable Cockney accent to Mrs. Potts, the teapot, although she does shine on the title song), they’re also often very irritating. Gugu Mbatha Raw is less so as feather duster Plumette, largely because she has little to say, but sadly the same does not hold true for Audra McDonald’s singing wardrobe or Stanley Tucci as her harpispchord hubbie.

And then, on the one hand, you have a serious turn by Kevin Kline as Belle’s guilt-haunted inventor father and a solid theatrical villain from Luke Evans as the arrogant, narcissistic Gaston, while, on the other, an over the top Josh Gad is almost unbearably hammy as his adoring, camp closet case sidekick LeFou, Disney’s coy first ‘gay’.  The problem extends to the central characters too. Despite channeling Bill Nighy, Dan Stevens is magnificent under the prosthetics and CGI as the horned, hulking, tortured Beast (albeit rather less so when restored to his true prince form), but, unfortunately, an often hesitant Emma Watson is all too prettily winsome and vanilla as Belle, though she can handle a tune passably enough. Only in the final, and genuinely moving, moments, does she ever really come to life, meaning that much of what goes before is ever so slightly boring, feeling, to paraphrase the song, that  moments do seem to last forever.

You’ll know the fairy tale and the film’s opening voice over makes short work of delivering the exposition as to why the prince was cursed by an enchantress, transformed into a  beast for having no love in his heart, and cursed to remain that way when the last petal falls from the red rose in the glass case if he’s not found someone to love him for who he is.

Lost during a storm, Belle’s father takes shelter in the hidden castle and is locked up by the Beast after stealing a white rose from the garden on his way out, Belle duly taking his place and, assisted by the matchmaking Lumiere,  her tender and wise nature soothing the Beast’s rage, lifting his depression and causing him to care as, bonding over a love of literature, she comes to see his inner soul. In addition, the film also takes a trip to Belle’s birthplace in Paris to add some backstory about what happened to her mother and why dad’s so protective.

At its best, as with a showstopping acid-trip rendition of the Be Our Guest dinner sequence that tips the visual hat to Busby Berkeley, the LeFou and Gaston tavern table hopping  musical routine, the action finale and, of course, the iconic ballroom waltz with that yellow dress and blue tunic, it’s fabulous, equal  and occasionally superior to the animation. Unfortunately, when it isn’t, it’s all rather forgettable. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Personal Shopper (15)

Having played  the personal assistant to Juliette Binoche’s actress in  director Olivier Assayas’s last film. The Clouds of Sils Maria, this time Kristen Stewart takes centre stage as Maureen, the introverted personal shopper to demanding  German supermodel/designer Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten). She’s in charge of selecting and collecting the clothes, shoes and jewellery for her client’s appearances at assorted high profile events, but is under strict orders not to try anything on. She does, of course, both borrowing the items and staying in Kyra’s plush apartment whenever she’s out of town.

In addition to this, she’s also trying to make contact with her dead twin brother Lewis, who also a  medium and with whom she shares the congenital heart defect that killed him. They vowed that whoever went first would try and make contact with the other, which she’s trying to do in the decaying  old Parisien house where he died, as well as seeking to rid it of any lingering spirits so his former girlfriend  (Sigrid Bouaziz)) can sell it and move on.

She senses a presence, although, as a letter scary scene reveals, it’s not that of her brother. But this isn’t the only tension at play in the film. Midway in, Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown caller, who creepily seems to know her every move as well as her fears and desires, providing her access to a hotel room where they never meet. And then there’s a murder to add another level of intrigue, though this and the killer’s reveal seem almost like a shrug in the narrative.

Weaving between states of mind and shifting genres, psychological or supernatural horror one moment, Hitchockian thriller the next, the film  is as enigmatic and hard to read as its central character, who may or may not be psychotic, consumed by guilt or riddled with a dark desire to be something or someone she is not. Stewart delivers a compellingly blank performance, one which makes the emotions all the  more powerful in the moments when they actually surface even when the film is frustratingly ambiguous, as for example, whether the mysterious texts are, she messages at one point, from the living or the dead.

Even if does at one point  deliver the CGI ectoplasmic  shock audiences expect, it is, as you might surmise, all rather arty and experimental, exploring notions of dislocation, physically and psychologically, as well as fetishism and auto-eroticism,  summoning an air of dread and foreboding, not least in a scene where doors open automatically to let through, well, apparently nobody . Its frequent fades to black and the open-ending won’t satisfy those who like things neatly tied up, but for those willing to succumb to its guile it has many rewards. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

NOW PLAYING

Elle (18)

Earning star Isabelle Huppert a Best Actress Golden Globe and several other gongs, the latest controversial offering by director Paul Verhoeven underlines her status as one of the best actresses of her generation.

Decidedly French, as such contains an inevitable  couple of awkward dinner table scenes, one involving a Christmas part that sees Michele Leblanc (Huppert) running her foot up the crotch of Patrick (Laurent Latiffe), the hunky neighbour married to devoted Catholic Rebecca (Virginie Efira),  who we’ve already seen her masturbating over while watching him through binoculars.

The other is a small get together with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anne (Anne Consigny), with whom she runs a company specialising in sexually charged violent video games, and her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), who she just happens to be screwing. It’s here that she drops the bombshell about a masked intruder breaking into her apartment and violently raping her. They’re understandably shocked, all the more so that she hasn’t reported it. However, given she’s the daughter of a mass murderer who butchered 27 people on their street and, as a child, was seen as guilty by association, she’s keen not to attract either police or media interest. Especially as dad’s mounting his latest appeal.

There’s also the fact that Michele’s a decidedly psychologically complex, emotionally damaged  character who’s drawn to risky relationships and  may or may not actually have gotten off on the assault, which both opens the film and is revisited in increasingly savage – and ultimately fictionalised – flashbacks. After the attack, she simply sweeps up the mess and has a bath. The next day she has the locks changed, buys some self defence gear and carries on as normal. Is that trauma or something else entirely?

When she realises the rapist is stalking her, the waters are further muddied by  a list of possible suspects, among them a  game designer she suspects might have created the simulation of her being violated by a monster. Indeed, Michele’s life seems to involve many different kinds of monsters, she as much of one as any.

She’s also having to deal  with her feckless son Valentine  (Jonas Bloquet) and his bullying pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), the baby, when born, clearly having nothing to do with him, as well as the prickly relationship with her mother who’s shacked up with a much younger man.

The actual identity of the rapist is revealed relatively early one, but subsequent events and relationships only further serve to compound the film’s problematic amoral and ambiguous nature. At times, it is also darkly funny.

Addressing themes of the connections between sex, violence and  power, it unfolds as a revenge thriller unlike most, never looking to underplay the effect of the rape, but also not defining the controlling Michele as powerless victim. It’s no easy watch and, arguably, it does falter in the schematic last act as Michele seeks, if not redemption, then at least to cleanse herself of the demons and guilt that have shaped her. Nevertheless, fuelled by Huppert’s mesmerising performance, this is raw and potent stuff.  (Electric)

 

Fallen (12A)

 When civil war broke out in Heaven,  those angels who had not declared for either Team God or Team Lucifer were apparently cast out and sent to Earth. Several millennia later, it appears that a  good many of them have wound up disguised as sulky teens at the Sword and Cross reform school. It’s to here that Lucinda (Addison Timlin), a  troubled kid prone to visions and  strange abilities, is sent after being wrongly blamed for killing a classmate in a  fire and where she finds herself in a  tug of love  between charismatic bad boy Cam (Harrison Gilbertson) and sullen Daniel (Jeremy Irvine), the latter seeming inexplicably familiar. Meanwhile, as the students and teachers  variously line up on the side of good and evil, Lucinda finds herself also having to make a choice.

 

Marking a decided  career low for director Scott Hicks, who made the Oscar-winning Shine, this is a sort of Twilight-lite, with angels rather than vampires and werewolves, but, between the functional direction, risible dialogue, ham-fisted acting and general visual cheesiness (check out the dismal superimposed CGI silvery wings shimmering a good foot away from Daniel’s back), it feels like a bad parody. It may attract stray readers of the bestselling young adult novels, but they might be better advised saving their money and picking it up from the DVD reduced bin a couple of months time.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Fences (15)

Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, Oscar winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard,  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fist Fight (15)

Back in 1987, in Three O’Clock High a nerd finds himself challenged to an after-class playground fight by the school bully. Thirty years later, Richie Keen revisits the plot, except this time the nerd and the bully are teachers. The former is Andy Campbell, an English teacher at Roosevelt High. It’s the last day of school and the leavers are running wild, pulling all manner of extreme pranks. Meanwhile, the staff are all attending meetings with the Principal (Dean Norris)  to find out if they’re going to be laid off. With a young daughter and another kid on the way, Campbell can’t afford to lose his job, and, as a result, is something of an eager to please bundle of nerves.

Taking on the bully role, Ice Cube is Mr. Strickland, the volatile history teacher who’s stressed out about the school’s  lack of discipline and antiquated facilities and intimidates pupils and staff alike. Things explode when he summons Campbell to explain why the VHS he’s trying to play the class keeps shutting down. Campbell susses that one of the kids is using a mobile phone to turn off the machine, proving the final straw as Strickland takes a fire axe to the student’s desk.

Summoned before the Principal, the pair are told that, since no one’s owning up to what happened, one of them will be fired. At which point, Campbell fingers Strickland and, in turn, Strickland challenges him to a parking lot fight after school.

Given there’s little doubt that Andy’s in for a beating, the rest of the plot sees him trying to get the fight called off through inept efforts which variously entail bribing the student to lie to the Principal and planting drugs on Strickland in an attempt to get him arrested. Meanwhile, he also has to somehow get to the interview about his job and across to his daughter’s talent show before the showdown.

Populated by an assortment of oddballs who include an oblivious  football coach (Tracy Morgan), the meth junkie guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) with the hots for one of the students, and the  drama teacher (Christina Hendricks) who, thinking Campbell’s a pervert, encourages Strickand to knife him.

Crude and vulgar, although it takes some time to build up its energy, it’s often very funny, even inclining towards the hilarious in the final stretch as Andy both gets increasingly desperate and overcomes his wussiness to get as mad as hell and stand up for himself. It also makes some pointed observations about the nature of the education system that sees  teachers as expendable, while it’s hard not to admire its comedic nerve  in having Campbell’s 10-year-old (Alexa Nisenson) deliver a particularly explicit Big Sean rap at her own school bully. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Founder (12A)

A fascinating history lesson in how McDonalds came to be a globe-spanning franchise, John Lee Hancock’s film also comes with a moral dilemma for its audiences. Should they applaud Ray Kroc (an inspired Michael Keaton) for his drive and ruthless tenacity in building an empire out of what was a simple single mom and pop fast food takeaway or condemn him for the greed that led him to walk all over the two McDonald brothers with whom he had gone into a Faustian partnership, breaking their contract and denying them their due royalties? Is the film being bitterly ironic or is it, like Wall Street, endorsing the idea that greed is good, especially when it is directly linked to the very idea of America?

When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling 52-year-old travelling salesman with a smooth line in patter  and a long line of failed ventures behind him, his latest being trying to persuade diners to invest in one of his multiple mixer machines for their shakes. No one wants to know until, to his disbelief, he’s told he has an order for six machines in San Bernardino, California. Heading out to from Illinois to see them, he finds eager-to-please Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his less trusting brother Dick (Nick Offerman) who tell him how they set up their burger stand and revolutionised it with their Speedee service system, delivering food in 30 seconds not thirty minutes, doing away with car hop service and plates. The world’s first fast food business.

 

Dazzled by the possibilities, silver-tongued Kroc persuades them to join forces and let him franchise the idea. Despite traditionally-minded Dick’s resistance to many of Kroc’s ideas, the concept becomes a huge success. The problem is, the deal means Ray’s still struggling to pay the bills and Dick won’t renegotiate. At which point, the banks refusing to lend any more money, enter both Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of the new franchisees and her ideas of introducing powdered milkshakes to save on the cost of refrigerating ice cream, and Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who, later to become Ray’s business manager, opens his eyes to the fact that real money lies in owning the land on which the restaurants are built. All of which eventually leads to the big break between Kroc  and the brothers.

“Business is war,” declares Kroc, his a take no prisoners approach in which his neglected, long suffering wife (Laura Dern) becomes collateral damage to his single-minded ambition and what ultimately turns out to be a David and Goliath battle between the ones with the integrity and the ones with the money, in which Goliath wins.

Given that the film shows how the whole foundation of McDonald’s global empire is built on an act of deliberate theft, it’s patently not a glowing product placement eulogy and it doesn’t take much effort to draw the dots between the almost evangelical identification of the Golden Arches with the American dream, a parable that won’t be lost on its post-Trump audiences.  (Sun-Wed: MAC)

 

The Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007, this is his  most lavish and ambitious to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, likely to reach beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, it’s designed to keep out a legion of monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a meteor crashed into a mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen, who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has killed one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle tethered to ropes, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Vue Star City)

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only now is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare) to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil),  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane), where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, Gianna herself going a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop one final bullet into every body, just to be sure.

Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Kong: Skull Island (12A)

Following Peter Jackson’s bloated 2005 remake, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts takes another swing at reviving cinema’s most famous ape. And  knocks it out of the park.

Clocking in at a tightly packed two hours, it balances explosive action, breathtaking effects, throwaway humour and some respectful nods to the original (effectively recreating that iconic Fay Wray/Kong moment) to wildly entertaining effect. However, the most striking thing  is that, set in 1973, it’s essentially Apocalypse Now with a  100 foot gorilla, Coppola’s movie very clearly referenced in any number of  shots  recreating that iconic image of the red streaked sun, both with and without helicopters blaring out rock music. In Samuel  L Jackson as Lt Col. Preston Packard, the army officer who doesn’t want to the war to end, especially not in ‘abandonment’, as he terms it, it also has its own crazed Kurtz.

Opening with a brief WWII  prologue as two young pilots, one American, one Japanese, are fighting to the death after crashing on some island when two giant hairy hands appear on the cliff top, it fast forwards to Bill Randa (John Goodman), who heads up  Monarch, a secret agency seeking  “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” as he convinces  a senator (Richard Jenkins) to back an expedition to a hitherto uncharted island “where myth and science meet.”

 

Requisitioning a military escort headed up by Packard and his  chopper squad (among them Shea Whigham, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell and Toby Kebbell) most of whom serve as cannon fodder along with the assorted scientists, Randa  and his team (Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing) also recruit ex SAS officer Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker  while, sensing a story, war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also inveigles a place on the mission.

However, no sooner have they battled their  way through the electrical storm shrouding the island  and started dropping seismic bombs, than they’re  being swatted out of the sky by an angry Kong.

Initially separated, the film charts their attempt to survive as they head for the pick up point, Conrad, Weaver and the rest of his group encountering Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the American pilot from the opening, who has been living with the natives ever since andwarns of even more dangerous beasts, against which Kong, the last of his kind, has become the island’s protector. Which means they now have to stop Packard from blasting the monkey to pieces.   With familiar  don’t screw with nature messages and observations on how war can make a man see enemies everywhere, it wastes little time on exposition and  gets on with mounting its spectacular action, introducing docile giant water buffalos, towering killer spiders and a humongous  octopus before finally bringing on lizard-like monsters  to raise the bloody body count tally further.

Essentially a prequel to Godzilla, given the thrills assembled here, those who hang around for the post credits scene will be pleased to note  references to such  other celebrated Japanese movie monsters as Mothra and Rodan, suggesting this monkey business is far from over yet.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Picking up six Oscars, including Best Director and Actress,  its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and  plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Logan (15)

The third and final chapter in Wolverine’s standalone  story wears its template on its sleeve in both referring to and showing clips from classic Alan Ladd Western Shane, the story of a loner drawn into a fight not of his making but which becomes inescapably personal. Not to mention Terminator 2.

Set in 2029, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are the last of the X-Men (it’s never stated what happened to the others, but an enigmatic reference suggests a cataclysmic tragedy) and something has blocked the birth of any new mutants. The conflicted Logan is now old, grizzled, limping,  his eyesight failing, his healing powers on the blink and the adamantium in his body poisoning him. Deadening his physical and emotional pain with drink, he’s working as a limo driver in Texas, shacking up at an abandoned industrial site near the Mexican border where, along with albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant-tracker, he’s looking after the  nonagenarian Professor X, who, hidden in a  rusting toppled water tower and suffering from Alzheimer’s, needs constant medication to prevent his powerful mental powers running out of control and causing seizures for anyone in the vicinity.

In one of his lucid periods, Xavier insists that he’s senses a new mutant, something Logan dismisses. Until, that it is, he encounters  Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a Mexican nurse offering a considerable wad of cash to drive her and her Hispanic daughter Laura ((Dafne Keen) to Canada. However, arriving at the motel to collect them, he finds the woman dead and, on returning to his hideout, discovers the girl had stowed away in the car. Although, she says nothing, it seems she is the mutant Xavier sensed. As to her powers, they’re bloodily revealed with the arrival of  Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg head of the paramilitary  Reavers. Much to Logan’s shock, she too sprouts deadly adamantium claws and has the same fast healing abilities. It transpires that she was genetically bred, along with other young mutants, by Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who runs shady bioengineering program Transigen, using Logan’s DNA. As Xavier points out, basically, she’s his daughter.

From here, the film becomes a chase road movie as the three set out to find Eden, the supposed mutant safe haven in the Dakota hills, despite Logan insisting it’s merely something dreamed up in one of the X-Men comics for which he has no time, with Pierce, Rice and the latter’s genetically created secret weapon, in pursuit.

Given Jackman’s stated this is his last outing as the character, the way things end won’t come as any real surprise. The fact that it is profoundly moving may well. Directed by James Mangold, from the opening scene as Logan slices his way through a bunch of would be carjackers, the film is spectacularly violent, both Logan and the feral Laura’s claws ripping off limbs and slashing through skulls in graphic detail. Yet this is balanced with moments of humour and  the tender ruminations on family (if Laura’s Logan’s genetic daughter, Xavier is his surrogate father), loneliness and redemption.

Giving a superbly nuanced performance, ranging from extreme rage to heavy weariness the mesmerising Jackman is terrific, as indeed is Stewart who lends the film his own imposing gravitas, while, in her debut role, an impressive eleven-year-old Keen, although wordless until the final stretch, has striking presence and a penetrating stare, something that bodes well should the Wolverine saga spin off to a second generation. In recent years, superheroes have become darker and more grown up, ending with an inspired final image this is among the best of them.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Moonlight (15)

Winner of the Best Film Oscar, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by Oscar nominee Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar winner  Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and who, in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel, played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forwards ten years,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night, he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened and inviting  him to visit. Briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways. Solihull;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Tue/Wed Electric )

 

Patriots Day (15)

Mark Whalberg reteams up with Lone Survivor/Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, for a third true  life drama, here about the events of April 15, 2013 when, towards the end of the  annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowds, killing three and wounding many others,  leading to a four day citywide manhunt for those responsible.

However, there’s nothing crassly jingoistic flag-waving here, simply a procedural thriller designed to honour those involved in the tragedy and seeking to protect their city.

Whalberg, as  fictionalised cop Tommy Saunders, is at the centre of the narrative, providing the audience’s eyes as things unfold. On duty just a few yards from the finishing line when the explosion occurs, he’s shocked, but swiftly swings into action  until the FBI, led by  Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), take over. But, although we get scenes of him with wife  (Michelle Monaghan), he’s only one of those in the spotlight as the film intercuts between different stories.

There’s the station Sergeant (JK Simmons) who’ll be at the heart of the eventual shoot-out, a newly married couple who’ll both lose their legs,  MIT campus cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who was killed when he refused to let the terrorists take his gun, and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was taken hostage when they hijacked his car, but risked his life to escape and call 911. All of whom get enough backstory to make them feel real rather than simply plot devices.

As the authorities desperately try and track down the bombers, DesLauriers is at loggerheads with the Police Commissioner (John Goodman) and governor (Michael Beach) about not releasing details of the suspects prematurely, Berg, using handheld cameras, grippingly captures the urgency of the situation.

It’s to the film’s credit too that the bombers, Chechen-born brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), aren’t cardboard cut out bad guys either, as the screenplay addresses their relationship and motivations, perhaps the most memorable moment from this perspective being the  scene between Tamerlan’s imperturbable white  American Muslim convert wife Kathleen Russell (Melissa Benoist)  and her equally implacable female interrogator  (Khandi Alexander).

As it heads towards the foregone conclusion, the action cranks up as the net closes in, leading to the fire-fight between the brothers and the cops and the eventual apprehension of  the second suspect in backyard boat. But, as well as celebrating the everyday heroism, it also poses the question as to what’s justified in  the fight against terrorism when Tommy is taken aback to learn orders have been given not to read the suspects their rights if captured.

Tommy’s monologue about good and evil, love and hate, is a misstep in an otherwise level-headed  avoidance of simplifications, but, as its  ends by merging docudrama  with documentary  footage of Red Socks’ Boston Strong celebration and the actual cops and victims involved, it serves reminder that sometimes, like in Hacksaw Ridge, Hollywood heroism is actually the stuff of real life. (Vue Star City)

 

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride Like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Split (15)

Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Vue Star City)

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Vue Star City; Sun/Tue: Electric)

 

Vicerory’s House (12A)

Anxious to divest itself a troublesome part of the Empire it could no longer effectively or economically rule, in 1947  the British government stitched up the Indian people by partitioning the country into India and Pakistan. The film, a strong comeback by director Gurinda Chadha and her writer-husband Paul Mayeda Berges after the misfiring It’s A Wonderful Afterlife  and Mistress of Spices, indicates (though some would disagree) that  it also stitched up Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), who was charged with finding a solution and overseeing the handover, unaware that a deal had already been done with Nehru by Churchill  for the creation of Pakistan.

Arriving with his wife, Lady Edwina (a perfectly accented Gillian Anderson), Lord Louis Mountbatten is to be the last Viceroy of India, his job to smooth the path to independence and self-governance, not an easy task given the  country’s in turmoil with increasing conflict between Hindus. Sikhs and Muslims, the latter wanting their own nation. As such the film follows two parallel stories. The first focuses on the Mountbattens, she the voice of reason  keen to see the people’s lot improved, he looking to maintain diplomacy while dealing with his own officials, notably Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay (Michael Gambon), who aren’t necessarily telling him everything, and the prime movers for independence, Nehru (Tanveer Ghani),  Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Ghandi (a brief but striking turn by Neeraj Kabi), as well as Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the man brought in for the nigh impossible task of drawing up the actual Partition boundaries that would divide not only the country, but families and communities.

In much the same manner as the recent United Kingdom, set in the same year, all of this affords an insight into the duplicitous nature of English politics and the motives behind the way the Partition was eventually set, while, set against this, is the fictional account of  two civilians,  Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Querishi), he part of the Viceroy’s retinue, she part of his wife’s. They are in love, but he’s Hindu and she’s Muslim and has already been promised in marriage by her father (the late Om Puri), a former political prisoner who went blind, but was looked after in jail by Jeet.

Their story is a rather schematic and clichéd contrivance designed to serve the narratyive microcosm  and, for all its romantic tribulations and some anguished moments, is less compelling than the account of the problems facing Mountbatten in trying to prevent the whole place descending into ever more ferocious bloodshed than it’s experiencing already.

Nonetheless, impressively mounted with some striking images and good use of original Movietone news footage, it holds the attention and casts light on a now rather overlooked period of British history, the end credits revelation of Chadha’s personal family investment in the telling bringing powerful resonance.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Band of Horses + Israel Nash, Birmingham 02 Institute – live review

Photo by Matthew Danser.

Band of Horses + Israel Nash

Birmingham 02 Institute

Monday 20 February

Singer-songwriter Israel Nash is a wounded soul. With his sandpaper growl and lank blond locks, he’s a troubled troubadour that soon gets the swelling Birmingham audience sharing his pain. Backed only by his acoustic and an eerily behatted pedal steel player, the act wears a little thin by the end of the set, but by this point he’s already won the crowd over, even if we’re applauding his sorrow.

“We’re called Band of Horses, because of our name,” deadpans frontman Ben Bridwell as the Seattle-born five-piece take to the stage. Bar this and a few ‘aw, shucks’-style thank yous, however, BoH mostly let the songs do the talking. It’s a good move, as their setlist is a rich compendium of their Sub Pop classics, their major label barnstormers (bar the unloved bombast of 2012’s Mirage Rock) and new cuts.

They open with ‘Dull Times / The Moon’, the closest the group have gotten to prog rock, as Bridwell laments his life as a father-of-four amid writing a record. Bleeding from an atmospheric shrug into a jagged rocker, this zeal soon careens straight into the arms-aloft earnestness of ‘The Great Salt Lake’.

Band of Horses’ new album, Why Are You OK?, saw Bridwell feel, once more, comfortable in his abilities, crafting songs that blend melancholic regret with bristling rock. ‘Solemn Oath’ and ‘Throw My Mess’ are rollicking jangles, ‘Casual Party’ soars with its fizzing guitar motif and the sweetly nostalgic ‘In A Drawer’ may not have its scene-stealing J Mascis cameo, but it has a volatility that was missing on record.

The beauty of BoH is their ability to shift gears with little effort, one of the reasons they achieved indie stardom so swiftly. A number of tracks are taken from their 2010 major-label debut Infinite Arms, including the bittersweet, breezy ‘Dilly’, the Foo Fighters-esque ‘Compliments’, the contemplative melodies of ‘Laredo’ and, even better, the aching country jangle of ‘Older’.

It’s when Bridwell and co reach deep into their Sub Pop days do they rustle the biggest cheers, however. ‘Islands in the Coast’ and ‘The General Specific’ are thrilling stabs of rock, the urgent ‘Is There A Ghost’ is still an arena-ready anthem, while the echo-laden coda that greets the crushing ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ ushers some of the biggest cheers.

“Can’t get out of here alive without playing this one,” chuckles Bridwell to himself, ironically, as he begins the twinkling intro to ‘The Funeral’, the group’s everlasting calling card. As the five-piece convivially exit the stage, they leave a brimming Birmingham audience in collective mourning.

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Mar 10-Thu Mar 16

 

NEW RELEASES

Kong: Skull Island (12A)

Following Peter Jackson’s bloated and cumbersome 2005 remake, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, hitting the blockbuster leagues after his small-scale coming of age drama Kings of Summer, takes another swing at reviving cinema’s most famous ape. And he knocks it out of the park.

Clocking in at a tightly packed two hours, it balances explosive action, breathtaking effects, throwaway humour and some respectful nods to the original to wildly entertaining effect,. However, the most striking and original thing  about it is that, set in 1973, it’s essentially a Vietnam war movie, More specifically it’s Apocalypse Now with a  100 foot gorilla, Coppola’s movie very clearly referenced in any number of  shots  recreating that iconic image of the red streaked sun, both with and without helicopters which, as it happens, come armed with reel to reel tape decks and speakers blaring out rock music. In Samuel  L Jackson as Lt Col. Preston Packard, the army officer who doesn’t want to the war to end, especially not in ‘abandonment’, as he terms it, it also has its own crazed Kurtz.

Opening with a brief WWII  prologue as two young pilots, one American, one Japanese, are fighting to the death after crashing on some island when two giant hairy hands appear on the cliff top, it fast forwards to Bill Randa (John Goodman), who heads up  Monarch, a secret agency seeking  “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” as he convinces  a senator (Richard Jenkins) to back an expedition to a hitherto uncharted island “where myth and science meet.”

Requisitioning a military escort headed up by Packard and his  chopper squad (among them Shea Whigham, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell and Toby Kebbell – who also provides the motion capture for Kong) most of whom serve as the film’s cannon fodder along with the assorted scientists, Randa  and his team (Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing) also recruit ex SAS officer Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker  while, sensing a story, self-styled anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also inveigles herself a place on the mission.

However, no sooner have they battled their  way through the electrical storm shrouding the island  and started dropping seismic bombs, than they’re  being swatted out of the sky by an angry Kong.

Initially separated, the film charts their attempt to survive as they head for the pick up point, Conrad, Weaver and the rest of his group encountering Hank Marlow (a scene-stealing John C. Reilly), the American pilot from the opening, who, now sporting bushy beard, has been living with the silent natives ever since and, joining them, warns of even more dangerous beasts, against which Kong, the last of his kind, has become the tribe and the island’s protector. Which means they now have to stop the single-minded Packard from blasting the monkey to pieces.  Along with the  film’s familiar  don’t screw with nature messages and observations on how war can make a man see enemies everywhere, Goodman also gets the ironically timely  line “Mark my word, there’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington.”

Wasting little time on exposition – or character depth – the film gets on with mounting its spectacular action, introducing docile giant water buffalos, towering killer spiders and a humongous  octopus before finally bringing on the lizard-like monsters  Marlow calls the Skullcrawlers to raise the bloody body count tally further.

Although Hiddleston’s surprisingly restrained action man presence (and perfectly groomed hair) won’t do those 007 prospects any favours, given the cast (Jackson and Reilly excepted) generally play second fiddle to the  effects, he’s solid enough for what’s required, while Vogt-Roberts wisely keeps the romantic interest to a minimum (but does effectively recreate that Fay Wray/Kong moment) in favour of moving things along.

Essentially a prequel to Godzilla (in which Monarch was mentioned), given the thrills assembled here, those who hang around for the post credits scene will be pleased to note  references to such  other celebrated Japanese movie monsters as Mothra and Rodan, suggesting this monkey business is far from over yet.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Elle (18)

Earning star Isabelle Huppert (looking a good 20 years younger than her 63 years) a rare Best Actress  Academy nomination for a foreign film as well as winning a Golden Globe and several other gongs, this maintains director Paul Verhoeven’s reputation for controversy and underlines her status as one of the best actresses of her or any other generation.

Adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel, it is decidedly French and, as such contains an inevitable  couple of awkward dinner table scenes, one involving a Christmas part that sees Michele Leblanc (Huppert) running her foot up the crotch of her understandably surprised Patrick (Laurent Latiffe), the hunky neighbour married to devoted Catholic Rebecca (Virginie Efira)   and who we’ve already seen her masturbating over while watching him through binoculars.

The other is a small get together with her failed novelist ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anne (Anne Consigny), with whom she runs a company specialising in sexually charged and violent video games, and her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), who she just happens to be screwing. It’s here that she drops the bombshell about a masked intruder breaking into her apartment and violently raping her. They’re understandably shocked, all the more so that she hasn’t reported it. However, given she’s the daughter of a mass murderer whose doing life for butchering 27 people on their street and, as a child innocently helping him burn evidence, was seen as guilty by association, she’s keen not to attract either police or media interest. Especially as dad’s mounting his latest appeal.

There’s also the fact that Michele’s a decidedly psychologically complex, emotionally damaged  character who is drawn to risky relationships and  may or may not actually have gotten off on the assault which both opens the film and is revisited in increasingly savage – and ultimately fictionalised – flashbacks. After the attack, she simply sweeps up the mess, has a bath  and orders dinner. The next day she has the locks changed, buys some self defence gear and carries on as normal. Is that trauma or something else entirely?

When she realises the rapist is stalking her, the waters are further muddied by  a list of possible suspects, among them one of her game designers whom she suspects might have created the game simulation of her being violated by a monster. Indeed, Michele’s life seems to involve many different kinds of monsters, she as much of one as any. As she says “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.”

She’s also having to deal  with her feckless son Valentine  (Jonas Bloquet) and his bullying pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), the baby, when born, clearly having nothing to do with him, as well as the prickly relationship with her mother who’s shacked up with a much younger man.

The actual identity of the rapist is revealed relatively early one, but subsequent events and relationships only further serve to compound the film’s problematic amoral and ambiguous nature. At times, it is also darkly funny.

Addressing themes of the interconnections between sex, violence and  power, it unfolds as a revenge thriller unlike most, never looking to underplay the effect of the rape, but also not defining the controlling Michele as powerless victim. It’s no easy watch and, arguably, it does falter somewhat in the slightly schematic last act as Michele seeks, if not redemption, then at least to cleanse herself of the demons and guilt that have shaped her. Nevertheless, fuelled by Huppert’s utterly mesmerising and finely nuanced performance, this is raw and potent stuff.  (Electric)

 

Fallen (12A)

 

When civil war broke out in Heaven,  those angels who had not declared for either Team God or Team Lucifer were apparently cast out and sent to Earth. Several millennia later, it appears that a  good many of them have wound up disguised as sulky teens at the Sword and Cross reform school. It’s to here that Lucinda (Addison Timlin), a  troubled kid prone to visions and  strange abilities, is sent after being wrongly blamed for killing a classmate in a  fire and where she finds herself in a  tug of love  between charismatic bad boy Cam (Harrison Gilbertson) and sullen Daniel (Jeremy Irvine), the latter seeming inexplicably familiar. Meanwhile, as the students and teachers  variously line up on the side of good and evil, Lucinda finds herself also having to make a choice.

 

Marking a decided  career low for director Scott Hicks, who made the Oscar-winning Shine, this is a sort of Twilight-lite, with angels rather than vampires and werewolves, but, between the functional direction, risible dialogue, ham-fisted acting and general visual cheesiness (check out the dismal superimposed CGI silvery wings shimmering a good foot away from Daniel’s back), it feels like a bad parody. It may attract stray readers of the bestselling young adult novels, but they might be better advised saving their money and picking it up from the DVD reduced bin a couple of moths time.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

I.T. (15)

When his presentation crashes mid way through a pitch for his new Uber-like app for jets, airline boss Mike Regan (Pierce Brosnan) is so impressed with the guy who fixes it, tech-savvy temp Ed Porter (James Frecheville), that he makes him fulltime and, no I.T. wiz himself,  invites him over to the house to patch up his dodgy Wi-Fi. Which he does – to his own advantage, enabling him to use the surveillance cameras to spy on every room in the house. Before long he’s gatecrashing family events and showing a worrying stalker-like interest in Mike’s teenage daughter, Kaitlyn (Stefanie Scott), to which end Regan first warns him off and then fires him. At which point, Porter determines to use his apparently military trained hacking skills to cause havoc, starting with doctoring documents to implicate Regan in fraud and prevent taking his company public and proceeding through sending Mike’s wife (Anna Friel in a thankless underwritten role) a breast cancer email from her doctor, posting a video of Kaitlyn masturbating in the shower online and taking remote control of Mike’s car brakes in an attempt to kill him.

When he fails to respond to his forceful warning to back off, Regan goes to the cops, but Porter makes it look like he’s the victim. At which point, Mike enlists the help of Henrik (a low key impressive Michael Nyqvist), a CIA-connected ‘cleaner’, to shut Porter out of their cyberlives and help gain the evidence he needs to take him down. Matters get worse, culminating in a violent home invasion and showdown.

Directed by John Moore, it’s a fairly predictable, but still suspenseful,  tech-thriller, Porter being given a troubled background but ultimately still fulfilling the function of the ruthless psychotic bad guy who takes off his shirt to stare at a  bank of monitors. As such, it’s down to Brosnan, sporting a more Irish accent than usual, to do the heavy lifting as the father protecting his family by whatever means necessary, something which, while not on a par with the cold steeliness of Liam Neeson in Taken, he does effectively and compelling enough. Given a timely note by the recent revelations about CIA surveillance, this may be generic but it will make you seriously think about the downside of the Internet of Things.  (Reel)

 

My Feral Heart (12A)

An independent young man with Down’s syndrome, when his elderly mother dies, Luke, is forced to live in a care home. Frustrated at  the restrictions on his freedom and less than impressed by the residents, he starts sneaking out to explore the surrounding countryside. When he’s caught by Pete, a troubled youth working as a gardener, they pair strike up an unlikely relationship, Pete covering for Luke and Luke helping in the garden. But then, during excursion to the adjoining field, Luke discovers a young girl in desperate need of his help. (Sat:MAC)

The Time of their Lives (12A)

Targeted firmly at the grey pound market, this teams Joan Collins and Pauline Collins as, respectively, Helen,  a washed up Hollywood star now broke and living in an old folks home, and Priscilla, a downtrodden housewife whose grumpy controlling husband (Ronald Pickup) still blames her for the death of their young son, 32 years ago.

Their paths cross when Priscilla accidentally wind up on the coach taking the OAPs to the seaside for the day and Helen persuades her to help her get to France for the funeral of the director of her biggest hit, which also happens to be one of Priscilla’s favourite films, not least because she wants to try and get the bigwigs attending to give her a job. Once there, Helen is forever  hogging attention, even when Priscilla saves a young French boy from the seas, However, when, after their stolen car runs out of petrol and they’re rescued by celebrated but reclusive Italian artist Alberto (a game Franco Nero, not least for his full frontal swimming pool scene), although, gold-digger instincts kicking in,  she brashly tries to seduce him, he is far more interested in the timid Priscilla, reawakening on her a passion she thought long dead. Meanwhile, her husband and daughter are en route to bring her home and, while she’s off with Alberto, Helen visits the deceased’s home and meets his daughter (Joely Richardson) and granddaughter, setting up the not entirely surprising revelation at the funeral.

Although it has fun in deflating OAP stereotypes with the pair indulging in, if not rock n roll, then at least sex and drugs, it’s a patchy, rambling, predictable and often repetitive (any number of times Priscilla declares she’s going home) narrative, the tone veering between affecting poignancy and heightened  melodrama. The uneven nature has much to do with the two leads.  Joan Collins adopts the sort of brash soap opera approach she had in Dynasty, while her opposite number, and far better actor, is subtly nuanced even in the face of the script clichés. Although there’s attempts to deglamourise the former to underline her sadness and the pathetic attempts to hold on to her glory days, it feels like artifice in the face of the latter’s authenticity. There’s also a problem in that Helen is frequently so mean and selfish that it’s a little hard to believe her protestations of regret, while sympathies lie firmly with the long0-suffering Priscilla.

That’s said, as opposite personalities the pair play well off each other. Priscilla’s storyline will, of course call to mind the virtually identical arc of her feature debut, Shirley Valentine, and, while this doesn’t remotely measure up to that, the road trip’s amiable enough that the plot holes don’t make for too uncomfortable a ride. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Reel)

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

20th Century Women (15)

A quintessential Sundance film, as with Beginners, for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar as the  75-year-old widower living his last years as a gay man, writer-director Mike Mills draws on his own family history and his mother for Dorothea (an outstanding Annette Bening)  a fifty-ish divorced nonconformist mother trying to raise her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with a proper moral outlook on life.

A free-thinking, heavy-smoking  independent woman, she owns a sprawling forever being renovated residence in southern California where she sublets rooms to Abbey (Greta Gerwig), a troubled  art school would be photographer recovering from cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a good guy handyman/mechanic but with no real sense of direction or purpose. The extended family also includes Jamie’s slightly older best friend,  Julie (Elle Fanning), the complicated daughter of a therapist, who regularly sleeps over with him, but, while she’s sexually active,  on a  purely platonic basis. Jamie, of course, would like their relationships to become something more and the film, a coming of age story for all the characters, essentially is an observation of self-discovery, identity, wants, needs, the mystery of sex (Jamie gets into a fight about the value of clitoral stimulation)  and family as Dorothea, who came up through the Depression, asks the other two women to help in raising her son.

Although Mills employs some quirky technical touches, including on screen quotes from such writers as Judy Blume, a clip from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi,  Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech and a reading from  a feminist anthology, as well as voiceovers about the future of America and the characters,  is very much an old fashioned and warmly poetic character study. At times reminiscent of both  John Irving and Richard Linklater, it’s full of poignant and insightful moments in vignettes, among them Dorothea discovering the musical differences between Black Flag and Talking Heads  in an attempt to understand Jamie and Abbey’s generation.

All the core performances are terrific, but this is undoubtedly Bening’s film, her Dorothea, graceful mischievous and anxious,  part bemused, part scared by the world into which her son is growing, dispensing lines like  “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.”  Given little by way of promotion and playing on very few screens, it’s likely to disappear without trace, but it’s one of the best films you won’t have seen this year. (MAC)

 

Contempt (15)

Directed by Jean Luc Godard, Michel Piccoli plays a French writer hired to revise a screenplay for an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey to be directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself) only for the conflicting demands between Lang and the American producer  (Jack Palance) leading to a marital crisis as his wife (Brigitte Bardot) thinks she’s being used as a pawn in the negoitiations. (Tue;MAC)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).

Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a  former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.

With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile,  the puritanical  Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.

Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.

Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie  (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.

The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a  few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino,  develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from  low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).

Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of  the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Vue Star City)

 

Fences (15)

Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, Oscar winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard,  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fist Fight (15)

Back in 1987, in Three O’Clock High a nerd finds himself challenged to an after-class playground fight by the school bully. Thirty years later, Richie Keen revisits the plot, except this time the nerd and the bully are teachers. The former is Andy Campbell, an English teacher at Roosevelt High. It’s the last day of school and the leavers are running wild, pulling all manner of extreme pranks. Meanwhile, the staff are all attending meetings with the Principal (Dean Norris)  to find out if they’re going to be laid off. With a young daughter and another kid on the way, Campbell can’t afford to lose his job, and, as a result, is something of an eager to please bundle of nerves.

Taking on the bully role, Ice Cube is Mr. Strickland, the volatile history teacher who’s stressed out about the school’s  lack of discipline and antiquated facilities and intimidates pupils and staff alike. Things explode when he summons Campbell to explain why the VHS he’s trying to play the class keeps shutting down. Campbell susses that one of the kids is using a mobile phone to turn off the machine, proving the final straw as Strickland takes a fire axe to the student’s desk.

Summoned before the Principal, the pair are told that, since no one’s owning up to what happened, one of them will be fired. At which point, Campbell fingers Strickland and, in turn, Strickland challenges him to a parking lot fight after school.

Given there’s little doubt that Andy’s in for a beating, the rest of the plot sees him trying to get the fight called off through inept efforts which variously entail bribing the student to lie to the Principal and planting drugs on Strickland in an attempt to get him arrested. Meanwhile, he also has to somehow get to the interview about his job and across to his daughter’s talent show before the showdown.

Populated by an assortment of oddballs who include an oblivious  football coach (Tracy Morgan), the meth junkie guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) with the hots for one of the students, and the  drama teacher (Christina Hendricks) who, thinking Campbell’s a pervert, encourages Strickand to knife him.

Crude and vulgar, although it takes some time to build up its energy, it’s often very funny, even inclining towards the hilarious in the final stretch as Andy both gets increasingly desperate and overcomes his wussiness to get as mad as hell and stand up for himself. It also makes some pointed observations about the nature of the education system that sees  teachers as expendable, while it’s hard not to admire its comedic nerve  in having Campbell’s 10-year-old (Alexa Nisenson) deliver a particularly explicit Big Sean rap at her own school bully. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007, this is his  most lavish and ambitious to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, likely to reach beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, it’s designed to keep out a legion of monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a meteor crashed into a mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen, who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has killed one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle tethered to ropes, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed up in in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only now is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Jackie (15)

Chilean director Pablo Larraín makes his English-language debut with Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay about Jackie Kennedy (Oscar nominee Natalie Portman) in the hours and days following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Based on an interview she gave to  Life magazine reporter  Theodore H White  (Billy Crudup), unnamed here,  the week after the shooting, with speculative conjecture thrown in, it covers the aftermath of the shooting, the return of Kennedy’s body to the White House, vexed arrangements for the funeral, Jackie’s accompanying of the coffin to Arlington cemetery, the breaking of the news to her two children, Caroline and Jack, and the understandably emotionally difficult preparations to move out of the White House to make way for incoming president Lyndon Johnson. Stitched into this is a recreation of the 1962 TV documentary tour she gave inside the White House to give the public an insight and explain why she was restoring artefacts from past presidencies.

Cutting back and forth to the interview, which Kennedy controls, instructing the reporter what he can and cannot publish, it paints a picture of a traumatised woman trying to hold it together, looking to make her husband’s death meaningful, preserving his legacy and her own dignity, but very clearly on the edge of a breakdown. There’s a telling scene with a candid priest (John Hurt) where she talks about her husband flaws and her own wanting to die and, in response to the inevitable question as to what the bullet sounded like when it hit her husband’s skull, a very graphic description, although Larrain wisely keeps the equally vivid visual recreation until the final moments.

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

She’s ably supported by strong performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as PA and close friend Nancy Tuckerman and Max Casella as Jack Valenti, Kennedy’s media liaison who became Johnson’s special assistant and, understandably, had no wish for his new boss to be exposed to another potential shooter during a funeral procession. There’s also a fine cameo by Richard E Grant as Bill Walton, the Kennedys’ gay friend who served as Jackie’s interior decorator adviser. Though not called on to do much in terms of the narrative, Caspar Phillipson does a reasonable job of looking like JFK.

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme effectively underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (Odeon Birmingham)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare) to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil),  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane), where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, Gianna herself going a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop one final bullet into every body, just to be sure.

Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Picking up six Oscars, including Best Director and Actress, but, memorably, not  Film, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and  plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Logan (15)

The third and final chapter in Wolverine’s standalone  story wears its template on its sleeve in both referring to and showing clips from classic Alan Ladd Western Shane, the story of a loner drawn into a fight not of his making but which becomes inescapably personal. Not to mention Terminator 2.

Set in 2029, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are the last of the X-Men (it’s never stated what happened to the others, but an enigmatic reference suggests a cataclysmic tragedy) and something has blocked the birth of any new mutants. The conflicted Logan is now old, grizzled, limping,  his eyesight failing, his healing powers on the blink and the adamantium in his body poisoning him. Deadening his physical and emotional pain with drink, he’s working as a limo driver in Texas, shacking up at an abandoned industrial site near the Mexican border where, along with albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant-tracker, he’s looking after the  nonagenarian Professor X, who, hidden in a  rusting toppled water tower and suffering from Alzheimer’s, needs constant medication to prevent his powerful mental powers running out of control and causing seizures for anyone in the vicinity.

In one of his lucid periods, Xavier insists that he’s senses a new mutant, something Logan dismisses. Until, that it is, he encounters  Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a Mexican nurse offering a considerable wad of cash to drive her and her Hispanic daughter Laura ((Dafne Keen) to Canada. However, arriving at the motel to collect them, he finds the woman dead and, on returning to his hideout, discovers the girl had stowed away in the car. Although, she says nothing, it seems she is the mutant Xavier sensed. As to her powers, they’re bloodily revealed with the arrival of  Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg head of the paramilitary  Reavers. Much to Logan’s shock, she too sprouts deadly adamantium claws and has the same fast healing abilities. It transpires that she was genetically bred, along with other young mutants, by Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who runs shady bioengineering program Transigen, using Logan’s DNA. As Xavier points out, basically, she’s his daughter.

From here, the film becomes a chase road movie as the three set out to find Eden, the supposed mutant safe haven in the Dakota hills, despite Logan insisting it’s merely something dreamed up in one of the X-Men comics for which he has no time, with Pierce, Rice and the latter’s genetically created secret weapon, in pursuit.

Given Jackman’s stated this is his last outing as the character, the way things end won’t come as any real surprise. The fact that it is profoundly moving may well. Directed by James Mangold, from the opening scene as Logan slices his way through a bunch of would be carjackers, the film is spectacularly violent, both Logan and the feral Laura’s claws ripping off limbs and slashing through skulls in graphic detail. Yet this is balanced with moments of humour and  the tender ruminations on family (if Laura’s Logan’s genetic daughter, Xavier is his surrogate father), loneliness and redemption.

Giving a superbly nuanced performance, ranging from extreme rage to heavy weariness the mesmerising Jackman is terrific, as indeed is Stewart who lends the film his own imposing gravitas, while, in her debut role, an impressive eleven-year-old Keen, although wordless until the final stretch, has striking presence and a penetrating stare, something that bodes well should the Wolverine saga spin off to a second generation. In recent years, superheroes have become darker and more grown up, ending with an inspired final image this is among the best of them.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Moonlight (15)

Winner, after that infamous gaff,  of the Best Film Oscar, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by Oscar nominee Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar winner  Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and who, in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel, played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forwards ten years,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night, he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened and inviting  him to visit. Briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways. Solihull; Electric;  Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Notes on Blindness (U)

A theology professor at Birmingham University, in 1983, after decades of steady deterioration and just before the birth of his first child, writer and academic John Hull became totally blind. To help him make sense of the upheaval in his life, he began keeping a diary on audiocassette. Over three years, he recorded over 16 hours of material, a unique testimony of loss, rebirth and renewal, excavating the interior world of blindness. Published in 1991 under the title Touching The Rock, the diaries were described by Oliver Sacks as “The most precise, deep and beautiful account of blindness I have ever read.” Following their Emmy winning 2014 short, filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney have expanded this into a full length feature of the same title, using actors to lip synch to recordings made by Hull (Dan Renton Skinner)  and his supportive wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby) to produce something occupying the middle ground between drama and documentary as, although  no longer able to see the light, Hull found himself with the unwanted gift of enhanced consciousness and set out to make the most of it by documenting his thoughts and experiences. Making effective use of sound (notably rain), at times hallucinatory (as with his vision of a tidal wave engulfing a supermarket’s  aisles), at others piercingly poignant (dancing with his wife to the Mamas and Papas), and inevitably, given his profession, containing questions about God, it’s an affecting work that serves as both testimony to Hull and asks you to appreciate what the ability to see truly means.  (Sun: MAC)

The Odyssey

A family drama based on real life events involving famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) who, in 1946 left his home and family on the Mediterranean coast and set off with his aqualung, new ship the Calypso and a crew of fellow adventurers to explore the seven seas. A decade later, his two sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe return from boarding school to find their father much changed, now an international celebrity with megalomaniac dreams of grafting gills to humans and creating underwater cities., prompting a clash between him and Philippe who’s concerned at the way progress and pollution are laying waste the underwater world. (Mon: MAC)

 

 

Patriots Day (15)

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Mark Whalberg reteams up with Lone Survivor/Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, for a third true  life drama, here about the events of April 15, 2013 when, towards the end of the  annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowds, killing three and wounding many others,  leading to a four day citywide manhunt for those responsible. However, there’s nothing crassly jingoistic flag-waving here, simply a procedural thriller designed to honour those involved in the tragedy and seeking to protect their city.

Whalberg, as  fictionalised cop Tommy Saunders, is at the centre of the narrative, providing the audience’s eyes as things unfold. On duty just a few yards from the finishing line when the explosion occurs, he’s shocked, but swiftly swings into action  until the FBI, led by  Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), take over. But, although we get scenes of him with wife  (Michelle Monaghan), he’s only one of those in the spotlight as the film intercuts between different stories.

There’s the station Sergeant (JK Simmons) who’ll be at the heart of the eventual shoot-out, a newly married couple who’ll both lose their legs,  MIT campus cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who was killed when he refused to let the terrorists take his gun, and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was taken hostage when they hijacked his car, but risked his life to escape and call 911. All of whom get enough backstory to make them feel real rather than simply plot devices.

As the authorities desperately try and track down the bombers, DesLauriers is at loggerheads with the Police Commissioner (John Goodman) and governor (Michael Beach) about not releasing details of the suspects prematurely, Berg, using handheld cameras, grippingly captures the urgency of the situation.

It’s to the film’s credit too that the bombers, Chechen-born brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), aren’t cardboard cut out bad guys either, as the screenplay addresses their relationship and motivations, perhaps the most memorable moment from this perspective being the  scene between Tamerlan’s imperturbable white  American Muslim convert wife Kathleen Russell (Melissa Benoist)  and her equally implacable female interrogator  (Khandi Alexander).

As it heads towards the foregone conclusion, the action cranks up as the net closes in, leading to the fire-fight between the brothers and the cops and the eventual apprehension of  the second suspect in backyard boat. But, as well as celebrating the everyday heroism, it also poses the question as to what’s justified in  the fight against terrorism when Tommy is taken aback to learn orders have been given not to read the suspects their rights if captured.

Tommy’s monologue about good and evil, love and hate, is a misstep in an otherwise level-headed  avoidance of simplifications, but, as its  ends by merging docudrama  with documentary  footage of Red Socks’ Boston Strong celebration and the actual cops and victims involved, it serves reminder that sometimes, like in Hacksaw Ridge, Hollywood heroism is actually the stuff of real life. (Cineworld Solihull; Vue Star City)

 

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Split (15)

 Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

 

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Vue Star City)

 

Ulysses Gaze (PG)

The third of the venue’s Odyssey-themed programme, this 1996 drama sees Harvey Keitel as a Greek filmmaker who returns from exile in the United States to attend a special screening of one of his highly controversial films. However, his real interest lies in discovering whether the mythical never seen reels of the debut  film  by the Manakia brothers, who, at the dawn of the age of cinema, tirelessly criss-crossed the Balkans recording  the region’s history and customs, actually exist. (Thu:MAC)

 

Vicerory’s House (12A)

Anxious to divest itself a troublesome part of the Empire it could no longer effectively or economically rule, in 1947  the British government stitched up the Indian people by partitioning the country into India and Pakistan. The film, a strong comeback by director Gurinda Chadha and her writer-husband Paul Mayeda Berges after the misfiring It’s A Wonderful Afterlife  and Mistress of Spices, indicates that  it also stitched up Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), who was charged with finding a solution and overseeing the handover, unaware that a deal had already been done with Nehru by Churchill  for the creation of Pakistan.

Arriving with his wife, Lady Edwina (a perfectly accented Gillian Anderson), Lord Louis Mountbatten is to be the last Viceroy of India, his job to smooth the path to independence and self-governance, not an easy task given the  country’s in turmoil with increasing conflict between Hindus. Sikhs and Muslims, the latter wanting their own nation. As such the film follows two parallel stories. The first focuses on the Mountbattens, she the voice of reason  keen to see the people’s lot improved, he looking to maintain diplomacy while dealing with his own officials, notably Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay (Michael Gambon), who aren’t necessarily telling him everything, and the prime movers for independence, Nehru (Tanveer Ghani),  Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Ghandi (a brief but striking turn by Neeraj Kabi), as well as Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the man brought in for the nigh impossible task of drawing up the actual Partition boundaries that would divide not only the country, but families and communities.

In much the same manner as the recent United Kingdom, set in the same year, all of this affords an insight into the duplicitous nature of English politics and the motives behind the way the Partition was eventually set, while, set against this, is the fictional account of  two civilians,  Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Querishi), he part of the Viceroy’s retinue, she part of his wife’s. They are in love, but he’s Hindu and she’s Muslim and has already been promised in marriage by her father (the late Om Puri), a former political prisoner who went blind, but was looked after in jail by Jeet.

Their story is a rather schematic and clichéd contrivance designed to serve the narratyive microcosm  and, for all its romantic tribulations and some anguished moments, is less compelling than the account of the problems facing Mountbatten in trying to prevent the whole place descending into ever more ferocious bloodshed than it’s experiencing already.

Nonetheless, impressively mounted with some striking images and good use of original Movietone news footage, it holds the attention and casts light on a now rather overlooked period of British history, the end credits revelation of Chadha’s personal family investment in the telling bringing powerful resonance.  (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

The Shins – ‘Heartworms’ review

The Shins’ mainstay James Mercer has always had a knack for idiosyncratic melodies, but Heartworms adds a welcome layer of melancholy to his usual frenetic vision. Sam Lambeth investigates.

Since ‘New Slang’ became synonymous with essentially every US indie film made in the noughties, The Shins have had an indefinite currency as one of rock’s delightfully askew statesmen. This is mostly down to their polymath frontman – and sole remaining original member – James Mercer, who weaves in swaths of different bands, old and new, all anchored by his rousing yelp. After the sleek polish of 2012’s Port of Morrow, Heartworms is a return to his indie – and his own – roots, and it certainly lives up to its emotionally-charged title.

Opener ‘Name For You’ has all the usual traits of a Shins song – Mercer’s warm howl, a Beach Boys-indebted slice of sunshine, and an infectious chorus that gallops over sun-kissed guitar chords. Even better is the kaleidoscopic keys of ‘Cherry Hearts’, which changes tack from scant, robotic rhythms to bursts of pounding propulsion.

Throughout Heartworms, there is a lingering sense of nostalgia and wistfulness that adds more weight to Mercer’s mercurial delivery. “Back at school, hitting the fire alarms, desperately wanting attention,” he sighs on the reverb-drenched AOR of ‘Fantasy Island’, while the rain-soaked ruminations of ‘Mildenhall’ ponder a childhood spent watching bands and learning guitar.

However, The Shins are at their best when they allow their individualism to shine through in the form of big-bodied power pop, as well as letting Mercer’s voice – a flailing tenor pitched between Kevin Parker and Ben Bridwell – hit the highs. He does this on the towering, mid-paced majesty of ‘So Now What’, powering mournful synths and a downbeat guitar coda.

‘Half a Million’ takes Fountains of Wayne’s brand of synth-addled, wry rock and bathes it in bruising guitar crunches and Mercer’s self-reflective refrains. For the most part, though, Heartworms is all about the heart – the title track is a floaty acoustic chug, while closing ‘The Fear’ is as grandiose as its title would suggest.

By reconnecting with his past, Mercer has revealed nostalgia is not always a compelling liar. “It’s a means to a terrible end,” he whines at one point. He’s been proven wrong.

 

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Mar 3-Thu Mar 9

 

NEW RELEASES

Logan (15)

Following Deadpool into 15-certificate territory, the third and final chapter in Wolverine’s standalone  story wears its template on its sleeve in both referring to and showing clips from

Classic Alan Ladd Western Shane, the story of a loner drawn into a fight not of his making but which becomes inescapably personal. Not to mention Terminator 2.

Set in 2029, many years after the events in X-Men:Apocalypse, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are the last of the X-Men (it’s never stated what happened to the others, but an enigmatic reference to an incident at the school in Westchester suggests a cataclysmic tragedy) and something or other has blocked the birth of any new mutants. Going under an alias, the conflicted Logan is now old, grizzled, limping,  his eyesight failing, his healing powers on the blink and the adamantium in his body poisoning him. Deadening his physical and emotional pain with drink, he’s working as a limo driver in Texas, shacking up at an abandoned industrial site near the Mexican border where, along with albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant-tracker, he’s looking after the  nonagenarian Professor X, who, hidden in a  rusting toppled water tower and suffering from Alzheimer’s, needs constant medication to prevent his powerful mental powers running out of control and causing seizures for anyone in the vicinity.

In one of his lucid periods, Xavier insists that he’s senses a new mutant, something Logan dismisses. Until, that it is, he encounters  Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a Mexican nurse offering a considerable wad of cash to drive her and her Hispanic daughter Laura ((Dafne Keen) to Canada. However, arriving at the motel to collect them, he finds the woman dead and, on returning to his hideout discovers the girl had stowed away in the car. Although, she says nothing, it seems she is the mutant Xavier sensed. As to her powers, they’re bloodily revealed with the arrival of  Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg head of the paramilitary  Reavers, who approached Logan earlier and is looking for her. Much to Logan’s shock, she too sprouts deadly adamantium claws and has the same fast healing abilities. It transpires that she was genetically bred, along with other young mutants, by Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who runs shady bioengineering program Transigen, using Logan’s DNA. As Xavier points out, basically, she’s his daughter.

From here, the film basically becomes a chase road movie as the three (Caliban having fallen foul of Pierce) set out to find Eden, the supposed mutant safe haven in the Dakota hills, despite Logan insisting it doesn’t exist, merely something dreamed up in one of the X-Men comics for which he has no time, with Pierce, Rice and the latter’s genetically created secret weapon, in pursuit.

Given Jackman’s stated this is his last outing as the character and the fact the posters proclaim ‘his time has come’, the way things end won’t come as any real surprise. The fact that it is profoundly moving may well.

Directed by James Mangold (who made The Wolverine and several of whose earlier films, like Copland, had Western influences), from the opening scene as Logan slices his way through a bunch of would be carjackers, the film is incredibly and spectacularly violent, both Logan and the feral Laura’s claws ripping off limbs and slashing through skulls in graphic detail. Yet this is balanced with moments of humour and  the tender ruminations on family (if Laura’s Logan’s genetic daughter, Xavier is his surrogate father), loneliness and redemption. Also, while in production  well before the Trump election, the fact that the border’s divided by a wall of sorts has a striking timely resonance, all the more so with Mexico being the destination to seek refuge from a liberty-encroaching USA.

Giving a superbly nuanced performance, ranging from extreme rage to heavy weariness the mesmerising Jackman, who often resembles Mel Gibson, just as the film has echoes of the recent Mad Max, is terrific, as indeed is Stewart who lends the film his own imposing gravitas, while, in her debut role, an impressive eleven-year-old Keen, although wordless until the final stretch, has striking presence and a penetrating stare, something that bodes well should the Wolverine saga spin off to a second generation. In recent years, superheroes have become darker and more grown up, ending with an inspired final image this rivals Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night as the best of them. . (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fist Fight (15)

Back in 1987, Phil Joanou directed Three O’Clock High, a high school parody of High Noon wherein a nerd finds himself challenged to an after-class playground fight by the school bully. Thirty years later, Richie Keen revisits the plot, except this time the nerd and the bully are teachers. The former is Andy Campbell, an English teacher at Roosevelt High. It’s the last day of school and the leavers are running wild, pulling all manner of extreme pranks. Meanwhile, the staff are all attending meetings with the Principal (Dean Norris)  to find out of they’re going to be laid off as part of the cuts. With a young daughter and another kid on the way, Campbell can’t afford to lose his job, and, as a result, is something of an eager to please bundle of nerves.

Taking on the bully role, Ice Cube is Mr. Strickland, the volatile history teacher who’s stressed out about the school’s  lack of discipline and antiquated facilities and intimidates the pupils and staff alike. Things explode when he summons Campbell to try and work out why the VHS he’s trying to play the class keeps shutting down. Campbell susses that one of the kids is using a mobile phone to turn off the machine, proving the final straw as Strickland takes a fire axe to the student’s desk.

Summoned before the Principal, the pair are told that, since no one’s owning up to whjat happened, one of them will be fired. At which point, Campbell fingers Strickland and, in turn, Strickland challenges him to a parking lot fight after school.

Given Strickland’s nature and any number of rumours about his past, there’s little doubt that Andy’s in for a beating, so the rest of the plot sees him trying to get the fight called off through inept efforts which variously entail bribing the student to lie to the Principal and planting drugs on Strickland in an attempt to get him arrested. Meanwhile, he also has to somehow get to the interview about his job and across to his daughter’s talent show before the showdown.

Populated by an assortment of oddball teachers who include the football coach (Tracy Morgan) who’s oblivious to the crude image being lawnmowered on to his pitch, the meth junkie guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) who has the hots for one of the students, and the  drama teacher (Christina Hendricks) who, mistakenly thinking Campbell’s a pervert, encourages Strickand to knife him.

While predictably crude and vulgar with a stream of dick jokes, although it takes some time to build up its energy, it’s often very funny, even inclining towards the hilarious in the final stretch as Andy both gets increasingly desperate and overcomes his wussiness to get as mad as hell, face down his fears and stand up for himself. It also makes some pointed observations about the nature of the American education system and the view that teachers are expendable (no less pertinent here), while it’s hard not to admire its comedic nerve  in having Campbell’s 10-year-old (Alexa Nisenson) deliver a particularly explicit Big Sean rap at her own school bully. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Trespass Against Us (15)

Populated by unpleasant characters doing  antisocial things, despite two charismatic performances, this is a very hard film to like. Directed by Adam Smith, making his feature debut after assorted BBC programmes like Doctor Who, it stars Michal Fassbender as Chad, the son of Colby Cutler, the patriarchal head of a group of travellers living on a backwoods makeshift site in Gloucestershire, from where he masterminds various robberies. Other than resenting having to pull the latest on a  Sunday, while vaguely discontented with his lot, Chad has no problem with the criminal lifestyle, but, illiterate himself, he does want his two kids to get a proper education, an issue at which he’s at odds with his father who reckons the Earth’s flat and has no truck with evolutionary theory, or indeed anyone’s efforts to better themselves.  Meanwhile, Chad’s missus, Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal), is building up a stash of money with plans to escape the life and get a proper home.

When the Sunday robbery at a stately home belonging to a  political bigwig goes belly up, it attracts the focused attention of the local cops who’ve been trying to pin something on the Cutlers for ages. But, even with a  SWAT-like dawn raid,  gathering the evidence is hard.

As such, there’s not a great deal of plot and what there is fairly clichéd and repetitive, many scenes consisting of frantic car chases between Chad and the police (largely represented by Rory Kinnear) that end up with him running off and hiding in the woods (or, indeed, under a  cow)while a helicopter circles overhead. Fassbender is solid enough while, clad in his black track suit, spouting nonsense and generally excluding menace, Gleeson is superbly unlikeable, but, while the Cutlers are apparently styled on a real life outlaw family in the Cotswolds,  they never feel more than characters on the page. It builds to a somewhat dramatic finale, but it still feels all a bit of  an anticlimax, and overly sentimental to boot, never really having got to grips with what it wants to actually be about.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Showcase Walsall)

 

Vicerory’s House (12A)

Anxious to divest itself a troublesome part of the Empire it could no longer effectively or economically rule, in 1947  the British government stitched up the Indian people by partitioning the country into India and Pakistan. The film, a strong comeback by director Gurinda Chadha and her writer-husband Paul Mayeda Berges after the misfiring It’s A Wonderful Afterlife  and his directorial debut Mistress of Spices, indicates that  it also stitched up Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), who was charged with finding a solution and overseeing the handover, unaware that a deal had already been done with Nehru by Churchill  for the creation of Pakistan.

Arriving with his wife, Lady Edwina (a perfectly accented Gillian Anderson), Lord Louis Mountbatten is to be the last Viceroy of India, his job to smooth the path to independence and self-governance, not an easy task given the  country’s in turmoil with increasing conflict between Hindus. Sikhs and Muslims, the latter wanting their own nation. As such the film follows two parallel stories. The first focuses on the Mountbattens, she the voice of reason  keen to see the people’s lot improved, he looking to maintain diplomacy while dealing with his own officials, notably Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay (Michael Gambon), who aren’t necessarily telling him everything, and the prime movers for independence, Nehru (Tanveer Ghani),  Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Ghandi (a brief but striking turn by Neeraj Kabi), as well as Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the man brought in for the nigh impossible task of drawing up the actual Partition boundaries that would divide not only the country, but families and communities.

In much the same manner as the recent United Kingdom, set in the same year, all of this affords an insight into the duplicitous nature of English politics and the motives behind the way the Partition was eventually set, while, set against this, is the fictional account of  two civilians,  Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Querishi), he part of the Viceroy’s retinue, she part of his wife’s. They are in love, but he’s Hindu and she’s Muslim and has already been promised in marriage by her father (the late Om Puri), a former political prisoner who went blind, but was looked after in jail by Jeet.

Their story is a rather schematic and clichéd contrivance designed to serve the narratyive microcosm  and, for all its romantic tribulations and some anguished moments, is less compelling than the account of the problems facing Mountbatten in trying to prevent the whole place descending into ever more ferocious bloodshed than it’s experiencing already.

Nonetheless, impressively mounted with some striking images and good use of original Movietone news footage, it holds the attention and casts light on a now rather overlooked period of British history, the end credits revelation of Chadha’s personal family investment in the telling bringing powerful resonance.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Cure for Wellness (18)

Licking his wounds after the critical and box office mauling of The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski returns with a visually stylish but narratively bloated  Gothic body horror thriller, which, tipping its hat to vintage Hammer, clocks in at a ludicrously overextended 146  minutes. Much could have been cut without any loss, notably the prologue in which a financial services salesman working late has a heart attack. It’s a effective, but serves no actual plot purpose, an accusation that can be levelled at several scenes throughout the film.

In a set up that makes no actual sense, ambitious exec Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to Switzerland and bring back the CEO from the wellness centre for the rich and powerful where’s he taken off for treatment. Apparently there’s a merger going through and they need him sign off some paperwork and, it’s hinted, serve as the fall guy for some dodgy book-keeping.

Arriving at the centre, located atop the Alps, he learns that the place was rebuilt following a  fire when the villagers, outraged that the baron was, to sustain a pure bloodline, marrying his sister, stormed in and burned it and her in the process. As the long-winded plot unfolds, clues dribbled out by a crossword puzzle-obsessive patient (Celia Imrie) reveal there was more to it than just incest.

Lockhart is also given the runaround by the clinic’s owner, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) in trying to get to see his boss, Harold Pembroke (Harry Groener), who first says he has no interest in returning, but then  agrees to leave that night. However, on his way back to the village to make arrangements, Lockhart’s car is struck by a  stag and he wakes up to find himself back in the clinic, a broken leg in plaster and Volmer saying he needs to get some rest and drink plenty of water. Pembroke, meanwhile has apparently been so stressed out at the thought of leaving, he’s having to have more treatment.

Further discoveries about the clinic’s past reveal the baron was conducting experiments on the local peasants, while  Lockhart also meets pale and enigmatic young patient Hannah (Mia Goth), who  Volmer says is like a daughter to him. She tells him she’s a special case and that he’ll never leave, no one ever does.

The longer it goes on the murkier – and more repetitive – it gets as Lockhart keeps wandering where he shouldn’t. seeing things he wasn’t supposed to and trying to get away, revealing more about the ‘cure’ the patients, mostly elderly, are receiving and forever shifting the goalposts about what happened that night many years ago (the time scale makes no sense) and the real purpose behind the experiments, both then and now.  Finally careering off into an overly protracted finale that’s more plain silly than actually creepy, it’s hard to take any of its seriously, given that Isaac is clearly up to no good from the start and his insistence on everyone drinking the water  patently a red alert.

Throw in long slippery eels (not to mention red herrings), bodies floating in underground chambers, an eviscerated deer, Lockhart’s trip to the clinic dentist that makes Dustin Hoffman’s ordeal in Marathon Man look like a simple scale and polish, and flashbacks to Lockhart’s mother and a childhood trauma involving his father that  serve only to further muddy the coherence and widen the plot holes, and even the most patient audiences are likely to have given up caring long before the (anti) climax.

It’s not quite as staggering awful as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and, indeed, there are many visually inspired moments, but ultimately it’s all atmosphere and style in the service of shallow substance. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).

Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a  former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.

With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile,  the puritanical  Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.

Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.

Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie  (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.

The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a  few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino,  develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from  low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).

Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of  the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Vue Star City)

 

Fences (15)

Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, Oscar winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival.

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard,  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (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 Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007, this is his  most lavish and ambitious to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, likely to reach beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, it’s designed to keep out a legion of monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a meteor crashed into a mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen, who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has killed one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle tethered to ropes, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed up in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only now is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952, she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated West Area Computing division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

Jackie (15)

Chilean director Pablo Larraín makes his English-language debut with Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay about Jackie Kennedy (Oscar nominee Natalie Portman) in the hours and days following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Based on an interview she gave to  Life magazine reporter  Theodore H White  (Billy Crudup), unnamed here,  the week after the shooting, with speculative conjecture thrown in, it covers the aftermath of the shooting, the return of Kennedy’s body to the White House, vexed arrangements for the funeral, Jackie’s accompanying of the coffin to Arlington cemetery, the breaking of the news to her two children, Caroline and Jack, and the understandably emotionally difficult preparations to move out of the White House to make way for incoming president Lyndon Johnson. Stitched into this is a recreation of the 1962 TV documentary tour she gave inside the White House to give the public an insight and explain why she was restoring artefacts from past presidencies.

Cutting back and forth to the interview, which Kennedy controls, instructing the reporter what he can and cannot publish, it paints a picture of a traumatised woman trying to hold it together, looking to make her husband’s death meaningful, preserving his legacy and her own dignity, but very clearly on the edge of a breakdown. There’s a telling scene with a candid priest (John Hurt) where she talks about her husband flaws and her own wanting to die and, in response to the inevitable question as to what the bullet sounded like when it hit her husband’s skull, a very graphic description, although Larrain wisely keeps the equally vivid visual recreation until the final moments.

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

She’s ably supported by strong performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as PA and close friend Nancy Tuckerman and Max Casella as Jack Valenti, Kennedy’s media liaison who became Johnson’s special assistant and, understandably, had no wish for his new boss to be exposed to another potential shooter during a funeral procession. There’s also a fine cameo by Richard E Grant as Bill Walton, the Kennedys’ gay friend who served as Jackie’s interior decorator adviser. Though not called on to do much in terms of the narrative, Caspar Phillipson does a reasonable job of looking like JFK.

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme effectively underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (Odeon Birmingham; Tue/Wed:Electric)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare) to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil),  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane), where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, Gianna herself going a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop one final bullet into every body, just to be sure.

Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Picking up six Oscars, including Best Director and Actress, but, memorably, not  Film, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Sat/Sun, Tue:Electric)

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and  plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Loving (12A)

In 1958, aptly named white construction worker Richard Loving married his pregnant black girlfriend Mildred in Washington DC. Unfortunately, they lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a state where interracial marriages were still illegal. One night, shortly after the marriage, the local sheriff broke into the house and arrested them. Richard made bail but Mildred was kept in a cell for a further five days. When taken to court they were advised by their lawyer to plead guilty, receiving a one year suspended prison sentence on the condition they left the state and did not return together for 25 years. They moved from the lush countryside where Richard was building their new home to room in a cramped house in a rundown Washington neighbourhood where they would have two further children.

Despite the fact that, five years later, their case was, on the instigation of Robert Kennedy, to whom Mildred wrote,  taken up by the Civil Rights Movement and led to a Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage a human right and overturning state laws against miscegenation their story has been largely forgotten.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose past work has included Mud and Midnight Special, that story is now the subject of this low key, slowly unfolding historical drama that’s anchored by breakout central performances by Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga.

There’s no courtroom dramatics (the eventual verdict is conveyed by a phone message to Mildred), indeed, save for that initial arrest and a tense nighttime scene involving headlights in Richard’s rearview mirror as he and Mildred return to Virginia for the birth, there’s no dramatics at all.

Faced with the judge at the Virginia court house, the couple, quiet and cowed, whisper their guilty pleas and there’s no strident protests about the iniquities of the situation. The most Richard does it mutter “It’s not right” when he’s arrested, unable to comprehend why two people in love cannot demonstrate that affection in public. They risk re-arrest to return to his midwife mother for the birth, and the law does come calling, but it was never an act of defiance. In Washington, they accept their lot, only an accident to one of the sons causing Mildred contact the Attorney General to try and move back to the quiet safety of the countryside. They are never part of the Civil Rights Movement,  but, while the taciturn Richard is reluctant to get involved and draw attention to them, when their lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), talks of it going to the Supreme Court, Mildred can see the bigger picture and, when the media take an interest, is the more vocal of the two.

It’s a conventional narrative taken at an unhurried pace in which, essentially, nothing happens for long stretches. But its impact lies in the way it underplays, most effectively as Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks (Marin Csokas) coldly and contemptously explains why their union is against God’s designs.  Likewise, a brick left on the back seat of Richard’s car is a far more effective than having one thrown through his window. It takes patience, but there is a quiet power here.  (MAC)

 

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

Oscar Best Actor winner,  Casey Affleck gives a low key career best performance as Lee Chandler, a taciturn, socially withdrawn and short-fused Boston janitor, who, called back to his Massachusetts hometown on the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), learns that, the boy’s alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mole) long having abandoned the family,  he’s been named as guardian for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), something for  which he feels singularly ill-equipped. Not least on account of the heartrending tragedy that led to his divorce from  wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and forced him to leave several years earlier  and which has tormented him ever since.

Returning to the scene, where people still give him looks, brings the pain to the surface once more as he tries to deal with both his and Patrick’s emotions and find a way to offload the responsibility to someone else, possibly Joe’s friend George (CJ Wilson). Yet, when his now dry  and remarried former sister-in-law makes unexpected contact, he’s wary of her re-entering Patrick’s life.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who won Best Screenplay, opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

Not that it’s unrelentingly downcast. With the lippy Patrick juggling two girlfriends, as well as an awkward dinner table moment involving Mol and Matthew Broderick, there’s an element of humour. But this too is coloured by the way Patrick deals with his father’s death by trying to hang on to the life he has as well as wanting to renovate the creaky and near clapped-out trawler in which the two of them (and, in earlier days, Lee) went fishing.

Working from Lonergan’s insightful BAFTA-winning screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Mon: Electric)

 

Moonlight (15)

Winner, after that infamous gaff,  of the Best Film Oscar, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by Oscar nominee Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and who, in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel, played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forwards ten years,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night, he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened and inviting  him to visit. Briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Patriots Day (15)

Mark Whalberg reteams up with Lone Survivor/Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, for a third true  life drama, here about the events of April 15, 2013 when, towards the end of the  annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowds, killing three and wounding many others,  leading to a four day citywide manhunt for those responsible. However, there’s nothing crassly jingoistic flag-waving here, simply a procedural thriller designed to honour those involved in the tragedy and seeking to protect their city.

Whalberg, as  fictionalised cop Tommy Saunders, is at the centre of the narrative, providing the audience’s eyes as things unfold. On duty just a few yards from the finishing line when the explosion occurs, he’s shocked, but swiftly swings into action  until the FBI, led by  Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), take over. But, although we get scenes of him with wife  (Michelle Monaghan), he’s only one of those in the spotlight as the film intercuts between different stories.

There’s the station Sergeant (JK Simmons) who’ll be at the heart of the eventual shoot-out, a newly married couple who’ll both lose their legs,  MIT campus cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who was killed when he refused to let the terrorists take his gun, and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was taken hostage when they hijacked his car, but risked his life to escape and call 911. All of whom get enough backstory to make them feel real rather than simply plot devices.

As the authorities desperately try and track down the bombers, DesLauriers is at loggerheads with the Police Commissioner (John Goodman) and governor (Michael Beach) about not releasing details of the suspects prematurely, Berg, using handheld cameras, grippingly captures the urgency of the situation.

It’s to the film’s credit too that the bombers, Chechen-born brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), aren’t cardboard cut out bad guys either, as the screenplay addresses their relationship and motivations, perhaps the most memorable moment from this perspective being the  scene between Tamerlan’s imperturbable white  American Muslim convert wife Kathleen Russell (Melissa Benoist)  and her equally implacable female interrogator  (Khandi Alexander).

As it heads towards the foregone conclusion, the action cranks up as the net closes in, leading to the fire-fight between the brothers and the cops and the eventual apprehension of  the second suspect in backyard boat. But, as well as celebrating the everyday heroism, it also poses the question as to what’s justified in  the fight against terrorism when Tommy is taken aback to learn orders have been given not to read the suspects their rights if captured.

Tommy’s monologue about good and evil, love and hate, is a misstep in an otherwise level-headed  avoidance of simplifications, but, as its  ends by merging docudrama  with documentary  footage of Red Socks’ Boston Strong celebration and the actual cops and victims involved, it serves reminder that sometimes, like in Hacksaw Ridge, Hollywood heroism is actually the stuff of real life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Prevenge (15)

Having written and starred in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, Alice Lowe adds director to the hyphenates, penning another serial killer warped black comedy,  this time involving a seven-month pregnant woman rather than sociopathic caravaners. A wry twist on antenatal depression, it has Lowe (who was herself pregnant during filming) as Ruth, a single mother-to-be following the death of her partner in (as hinted at in brief flashbacks) a  climbing Touching The Void-like tragedy. We first meet her in a pet shop run by a leering creep (Dan Renton Skinner) whose sales patter is loaded with sexual innuendo. As he bends down to show her one of the spiders, she cuts his throat. “One down”, she remarks. And so, adopting  a variety of different names, she moves around Cardiff adding others to the tally, among them DJ Dan (Tom Davis), a repulsive misogynistic pub DJ who pukes into his afro-wig in the back of the taxi and then slobbers all over her. But, it’s not just sexist men she kills. There’s also the kindly guy whose flat share ad she answers, and his flatmate, and also a  cold career woman spinster (Kate Dickie) who has no empathy for pregnant job applicants; but, disappointingly, not the very annoyingly upbeat midwife (Jo Hartley).

All of this is because Ruth’s under the delusion that her unborn baby is telling her to kill, though clearly it’s her own grief, anger and a twisted  pre-emptive revenge, fuelled by (most of) her victims’ attitudes to women, pregnancy and children,  that leads her to the murders and an eventual Halloween party confrontation with a guy (Kayvan Novak) who runs a climbing school.

A grim, grisly and bleakly black satire as well as an observation on how pregnancy can make you feel you no longer have control over your own body, as with Lowe’s deliberately flat monotone performance, it makes a virtue of the mundanity of the settings, its mood of disorientation underpinned by its nervy electronic score. And, although the fact that the victims don’t all conform to the same type muddles the argument about attitudes to pregnancy and the moral debate between conscience  and foetus feels overdone, this is an impressive – and impressively transgressive – debut. (Wed: Electric)

 

 

Rings (15)

Just like the recent Blair Witch reboot, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle  remakes, is that you watch a  certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a  flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend  Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, promoting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (and yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape, rather recklessly by taking it in turns to watch it, and Samara’s background. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?

Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast  provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas hasn’t been before while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently for to the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind  man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed.  (Vue Star City)

 

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Split (15)

 Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

Last seen in 2005, extreme sports action hero and agent for the xXx-program,  Xander Cage is resurrected for a franchise-reviving bout of all action popcorn nonsense that remembers to never take itself too seriously.

When a satellite plummets from orbit and crashes into New York, killing xXx-program founder Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) just as he’s recruiting a new agent and then a multi-cultural team invade a top secret briefing entailing assorted top government suits, take out all the security and steal the gizmo responsible, the so called Pandora’s Box, then new NSA head honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette) seeks out the long presumed dead Cage (Vin Diesel), who’s actually  living it up in the Dominican Republic, putting his skills to effective use to ensure the locals can watch the big match on cable TV.

Persuaded to return to action and having identified where the crew responsible for the attack are hanging out, as well as reclaiming his trademark fur coat, Cage insists on recruiting his own team of thrill-seekers, comprising punky green-haired crackshot Adele (Ruby Rose), crazy adrenaline junkie stuntman Tennyson (Rory McCann) and Nick, a DJ known as the Hood. To which end, they duly set off to the Philippines  where the other team of mercenaries, leader Xiang (Donnie Yen), fellow martial arts expert Talon (Tony Jaa), strongman Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the sexy but lethal Serena (Deepika Padukone) are hanging out, to recover the device. To complicate matters, Serena thinks it should be destroyed while Xiang wants to hang on to it, all of which is just an excuse for the three of them to play a  game of pass the grenade and for Xiang and Diesel to have a surfing motorbikes on water skies scene across the ocean.

At which point, it all starts to get a bit confusing to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, as well as even noisier and more action packed, a bit like Mission Impossible’s snotty OCD little brother.

Suffice to say, everyone ends up working together to track down the real bad guy and the other bigger and better Pandora’s Box, a nuts and bolts plot that serves to allow any number of fast cut fire, fist and feet fights, more eye-popping stunts, deliberately cheesy dialogue, and copious amounts of scenery chewing, much courtesy of the straight-faced Collette, as well as a delightful comic turn from Nina Dobrev as Marke’s bumbling geeky tech-op assistant.

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

 

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

 

 

 

Buzz Bin: Sam Hollis, ‘Leopard Print Velvet Heart’

A leopard print velvet heart feels like something you’d stumble across in the mothballed clothing section of a charity shop. Fittingly, Sam Hollis has created a soundscape that perfectly befits this bizarre, yet thrifty, scenario.

Beginning with an eerie, Doors-esque organ plod, spiky but languid guitars rollick over a brooding bassline as Hollis’ smooth brogue speaks distantly like the voyeur in an Amsterdam whore ranch. As the chorus hits its peak, his hitherto ominous baritone bleeds into a wounded falsetto, his cracked vocals pleading to be saved and intimidated in equal measure. “Love me…fuck me,” he commands, but his wounded demeanour suggests his heart wouldn’t be in either.

Atmospheric and highly enjoyable, ‘Leopard Print Velvet Heart’ bodes well for Hollis’ upcoming album, the Gizzard-esque titled Sam Hollis & the Glow in the Dark Lizards, due for release on April 21. For more of his tunes, head to his Soundcloud.

 

Irish rockers OTHERKIN to hit The Flapper

Dublin rockers OTHERKIN are making their Birmingham bow next month, performing a gig at Birmingham’s The Flapper on Thursday 9th March.

The Irish band come to Brum as part of their Bad Advice tour, which will see them also play dates across the UK.

The four-piece deal in big, anthemic grunge pop numbers, perfectly articulated on their 2016 EP, The New Vice, which had the scuzzy regret of VANT and The Vines, particularly the blistering ‘Yeah, I Know’ and the urgent shards of ‘White Heat’. They’re also scheduled to support fellow up-and-coming band The Amazons on their UK tour.

You can get tickets for the show here.

 

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Feb 24-Thu Mar 2

 

NEW RELEASES

Patriots Day (15)

Mark Whalberg teams up with his Lone Survivor/Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, for a third true  life drama about the events of April 15, 2013 when, towards the end of the  annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowds, killing three (including a young boy whose body had to remain until forensics had finished) and wounding many others,  leading to a four day citywide manhunt for those responsible. However, there’s nothing exploitative or crassly jingoistic flag-waving here, simply a procedural thriller designed to honour those involved in the tragedy and seeking to protect their city.

Initially seen making a drugs bust, Whalberg, as Tommy Saunders, a fictionalised cop serving probation  for  insubordination and sporting a  bad knee, is at the centre of the narrative, providing the audience’s eyes as things unfold. On duty just a few yards from the finishing line when the explosion occurs, he’s shocked, but swiftly swings into action  until the FBI, led by  Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), take over. But, although we get scenes of him with wife  (Michelle Monaghan), who has a narrow escape after coming to see him at the finishing line, he’s only one of those in the spotlight as the film intercuts between different stories.

There’s the station’s suburban Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons) who’ll be at the heart of the eventual shoot-out, a newly married couple who’ll both lose their legs,  MIT campus copy Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who was killed when he refused to let the terrorists take his gun, and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was taken hostage when they hijacked his car, but risked his life to escape and call 911. All of whom get enough backstory to make them feel real rather than simply plot devices.

As the authorities desperately try and track down the bombers using CCTV footage, Saunders enlisted to walk through the reconstructed scene in an abandoned warehouse to identify what cameras were where, and DesLauriers is at loggerheads with the Police Commissioner (John Goodman) and the governor (Michael Beach) about not releasing details of the suspects prematurely, Berg, using handheld cameras, gripping captures the urgency of the situation.

It’s to the film’s credit too that the bombers, Chechen-born brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), aren’t cardboard cut out bad guys either, as the screenplay addresses their relationship and motivations, indeed at one point, until he’s caught up in the momentum and his brother’s influence, the teenage Jahar appears to have reservations. Whatever their actions, they too are given backstories and personalities, with perhaps the most memorable moment from this perspective being the  scene between Tamerlan’s imperturbable white  American Muslim convert wife Kathleen Russell (Melissa Benoist), whose part in the attacks still remains unclear, and her equally cooly implacable female National Security interrogator  (Khandi Alexander).

As it heads towards the foregone conclusion the action cranks up as the net closes in, leading to the street fire-fight between the brothers and the cops and the eventual apprehension of  the second suspect in a boat in a Watertown backyard. But, as well as celebrating the everyday heroism, just as Oliver Stone did in World Trade Centre and Paul Greengrass in United 93, it also poses the question as to what’s justified in  the fight against terrorism when Tommy is taken aback to learn orders have been given not to read the suspects their rights if captured.

Tommy’s monologue about good and evil, love and hate, is a misstep in an otherwise level-headed  avoidance of simplifications, but, as its  ends by merging docudrama  with documentary  footage of Red Socks’ Boston Strong celebration and the actual cops and victims involved, it serves reminder that sometimes, like in Hacksaw Ridge, Hollywood heroism is actually the stuff of real life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A Cure for Wellness (18)

Licking his wounds after the not entirely justified  critical and box office mauling of The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski returns with a visually stylish but narratively bloated  Gothic body horror thriller, which, tipping its hat to the old Hammer horrors, clocks in at a ludicrously overextended 146  minutes. Much could have been cut without any loss, notably the prologue in which a financial services salesman working late has a heart attack, crashes into the water dispenser and dies. It’s a well  shot effective piece, but serves no actual plot purpose, an accusation that can be levelled at several scenes throughout the film.

In a set up that makes no actual sense, ambitious exec Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is ordered by his firm’s senior partners to go to Switzerland and bring back the CEO from the wellness centre for the rich and powerful where’s he taken off for treatment. Apparently there’s a merger going through and they need him sign off some paperwork and, it’s hinted, serve as the fall guy for some dodgy book-keeping, not least partly cooked up by Lockhart himself.

Arriving at the centre, located atop the Alps, overlooking the village where the residents (in true Hammer style) seem to have little affection for “the people on the hill”, he learns that the place was rebuilt following a  fire when the villagers, apparently outraged that the baron was, to sustain a pure bloodline, marrying his sister, stormed in and burned it and her in the process. As the long-winded plot unfolds, clues dribbled out by a crossword puzzle-obsessive patient (Celia Imrie) reveal there was more to it than just incest.

Lockhart is also given the runaround by the clinic’s owner, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) in trying to get to see his boss, Harold Pembroke (Harry Groener) who first says he has no interest in the business or returning, but then  agrees to leave that night. However, on his way back to the village to make arrangements, the car Lockhart’s in is struck bya  stag and he wakes up to find himself back in the clinic with a broken leg in plaster and Volmer saying he needs to get some rest and drink plenty of water. Pembroke, meanwhile has apparently been so stressed out at the thought of leaving, he’s having to have more treatment.

Further discoveries about the clinic’s past reveal the baron was conducting experiments on the local peasants, their dehydrated, mummified corpses later dug up in the grounds. Lockhart also meets time Hannah (Mia Goth), a pale and enigmatic young patient who  Volmer says is like a daughter to him. She tells him she’s a special case and that he’ll never leave, no one ever does.

The longer it goes on the murkier – and more repetitive – it gets as Lockhart keeps wandering where he shouldn’t seeing things he wasn’t supposed to and trying to get away, revealing more about the ‘cure’ the patients, mostly elderly, who contentedly wander around in white robes, playing croquet  or dancing, are receiving and forever shifting the goalposts about what happened that night many years ago (the time scale makes no sense) and the real purpose behind the experiments, both then and now.  Finally careering off into an overly protracted finale that’s more plain silly than actually creepy, it’s hard to take any of its seriously, even on its own terms, given that Isaac is clearly up to no good from the start and that his insistence on everyone drinking the water  patently a red alert.

Throw into this long slippery eels (not to mention red herrings), bodies floating in underground chambers, an eviscerated deer, Lockhart’s trip to the clinic dentist that makes Dustin Hoffman’s ordeal in Marathon Man look like a simple scale and polish, and flashbacks to Lockhart’s mother and a childhood trauma involving his father that  serve only to further muddy the coherence and widen the plot holes, and even the most patient audiences are likely to have given up caring long before the (anti) climax.

It’s not quite on the same level of staggering awfulness as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and, indeed, there are many visually inspired moments (Verbinski’s very fond of mirrored eye shots), but ultimately this is all atmosphere and style in the service of shallow substance. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).

Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a  former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.

With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile,  the puritanical  Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.

Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.

Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie  (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.

The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a  few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino,  develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from  low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).

Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of  the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Vue Star City)

 

Fences (15)

Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, BAFTA winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard,  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (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 Founder (12A)

A fascinating history lesson in how McDonalds came to be a globe-spanning franchise, John Lee Hancock’s film also comes with a moral dilemma for its audiences. Should they applaud Ray Kroc (an inspired Michael Keaton) for his drive and ruthless tenacity in building an empire out of what was a simple single mom and pop fast food takeaway or condemn him for the greed that led him to walk all over the two McDonald brothers with whom he had gone into a Faustian partnership, breaking their contract and denying them their due royalties? Is the film being bitterly ironic or is it, like Wall Street, endorsing the idea that greed is good, especially when it is directly linked to the very idea of America?

When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling 52-year-old travelling salesman with a smooth line in patter  and a long line of failed ventures behind him, his latest being trying to persuade diners to invest in one of his multiple mixer machines for their shakes. No one wants to know until, to his disbelief, he’s told he has an order for six machines in San Bernardino, California. Heading out to from Illinois to see them, he finds eager-to-please Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his less trusting brother Dick (Nick Offerman) who tell him how they set up their burger stand and revolutionised it with their Speedee service system, delivering food in 30 seconds not thirty minutes, doing away with car hop service and plates. The world’s first fast food business.

Dazzled by the possibilities, silver-tongued Kroc persuades them to join forces and let him franchise the idea. Despite traditionally-minded Dick’s resistance to many of Kroc’s ideas, the concept becomes a huge success. The problem is, the deal means Ray’s still struggling to pay the bills and Dick won’t renegotiate. At which point, the banks refusing to lend any more money, enter both Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of the new franchisees and her ideas of introducing powdered milkshakes to save on the cost of refrigerating ice cream, and Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who, later to become Ray’s business manager, opens his eyes to the fact that real money lies in owning the land on which the restaurants are built. All of which eventually leads to the big break between Kroc  and the brothers.

“Business is war,” declares Kroc, his a take no prisoners approach in which his neglected, long suffering wife (Laura Dern) becomes collateral damage to his single-minded ambition and what ultimately turns out to be a David and Goliath battle between the ones with the integrity and the ones with the money, in which Goliath wins.

Given that the film shows how the whole foundation of McDonald’s global empire is built on an act of deliberate theft, it’s patently not a glowing product placement eulogy and it doesn’t take much effort to draw the dots between the almost evangelical identification of the Golden Arches with the American dream, a parable that won’t be lost on its post-Trump audiences.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

The Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007, this is his  most lavish and ambitious to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, likely to reach beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, it’s designed to keep out a legion of monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a meteor crashed into a mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen, who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has killed one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle tethered to ropes, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed Unec, p in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only now is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor, but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare) to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil),  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane), where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, Gianna herself going a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop one final bullet into every body, just to be sure.

Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Having scored all of the big BAFTAs except Best Actor, and  likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Fri-Wed: Mockingbird)

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and  plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Loving (12A)

In 1958, aptly named white construction worker Richard Loving married his pregnant black girlfriend Mildred in Washington DC. Unfortunately, they lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a state where interracial marriages were still illegal. One night, shortly after the marriage, the local sheriff broke into the house and arrested them. Richard made bail but Mildred was kept in a cell for a further five days. When taken to court they were advised by their lawyer to plead guilty, receiving a one year suspended prison sentence on the condition they left the state and did not return together for 25 years. They moved from the lush countryside where Richard was building their new home to room in a cramped house in a rundown Washington neighbourhood where they would have two further children.

Despite the fact that, five years later, their case was, on the instigation of Robert Kennedy, to whom Mildred wrote,  taken up by the Civil Rights Movement and led to a Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage a human right and overturning state laws against miscegenation their story has been largely forgotten.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose past work has included Mud and Midnight Special, that story is now the subject of this low key, slowly unfolding historical drama that’s anchored by breakout central performances by Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga.

There’s no courtroom dramatics (the eventual verdict is conveyed by a phone message to Mildred), indeed, save for that initial arrest and a tense nighttime scene involving headlights in Richard’s rearview mirror as he and Mildred return to Virginia for the birth, there’s no dramatics at all.

Faced with the judge at the Virginia court house, the couple, quiet and cowed, whisper their guilty pleas and there’s no strident protests about the iniquities of the situation. The most Richard does it mutter “It’s not right” when he’s arrested, unable to comprehend why two people in love cannot demonstrate that affection in public. They risk re-arrest to return to his midwife mother for the birth, and the law does come calling, but it was never an act of defiance. In Washington, they accept their lot, only an accident to one of the sons causing Mildred contact the Attorney General to try and move back to the quiet safety of the countryside. They are never part of the Civil Rights Movement,  but, while the taciturn Richard is reluctant to get involved and draw attention to them, when their lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), talks of it going to the Supreme Court, Mildred can see the bigger picture and, when the media take an interest, is the more vocal of the two.

It’s a conventional narrative taken at an unhurried pace in which, essentially, nothing happens for long stretches. But its impact lies in the way it underplays, most effectively as Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks (Marin Csokas) coldly and contemptously explains why their union is against God’s designs.  Likewise, a brick left on the back seat of Richard’s car is a far more effective than having one thrown through his window. It takes patience, but there is a quiet power here.  (Electric)

 

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

BAFTA Best Actor winner,  Casey Affleck gives a low key career best performance as Lee Chandler, a taciturn, socially withdrawn and short-fused Boston janitor, who, called back to his Massachusetts hometown on the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), learns that, the boy’s alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mole) long having abandoned the family,  he’s been named as guardian for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), something for  which he feels singularly ill-equipped. Not least on account of the heartrending tragedy that led to his divorce from  wife Randi (Michelle Williams, also nominated) and forced him to leave several years earlier  and which has tormented him ever since.

Returning to the scene, where people still give him looks, brings the pain to the surface once more as he tries to deal with both his and Patrick’s emotions and find a way to offload the responsibility to someone else, possibly Joe’s friend George (CJ Wilson). Yet, when his now dry  and remarried former sister-in-law makes unexpected contact, he’s wary of her re-entering Patrick’s life.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

Not that it’s unrelentingly downcast. With the lippy Patrick juggling two girlfriends, as well as an awkward dinner table moment involving Mol and Matthew Broderick, there’s an element of humour. But this too is coloured by the way Patrick deals with his father’s death by trying to hang on to the life he has as well as wanting to renovate the creaky and near clapped-out trawler in which the two of them (and, in earlier days, Lee) went fishing.

Working from Lonergan’s insightful BAFTA-winning screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Electric)

 

Moonlight (15)

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and laden with Oscar nominations, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and who, in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel, played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forwards ten years,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night, he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened and inviting  him to visit. Briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)

Although the final scene keeps the door open for continuing adventures, this, the sixth in the series all written and mostly directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring wife Milla Jovovich, does draw a line under the long-running post-apocalypse saga of the battle between the Umbrella corporation and Alice (Jovovich), the enhanced is she/isn’t she clone of  Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the corporation’s murdered, co-founder, whose mind was used to create the Red Queen artificial intelligence programme which takes the hologram of a little girl, in a world devastated by the zombies created  as a side effect of  the T-Virus designed to eradicate all illnesses. It turns out that the apparently not dead Umbrella CEO Dr Isaacs (Iain Glenn) to unleash an airborne antidote to cleanse the world so that the rich and powerful, cryogenically frozen in The Hive, can then take over. Which is why, picking up a few weeks after the last installment and blithely dispensing with logical narrative continuity, the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), who wanted to destroy humanity in the previous film but now wants to save it,  tells Alice she has to get back to Raccoon City, where it all began and stop them. Of course, as she herself is infected, that means she’ll die too, Got all that?

Which basically boils down to a long Mad Max aping chase/battle with Isaacs in his armoured tank and the undead hordes in his wake and then another one at the survivors’ stronghold in Raccoon City, where she’s reunited with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from Extinction for another battle against Isaacs, this time inside The Hive itself.

As such, it does what’s expected of it, no more, no less, with an assortment of CGI creatures (this adds a dragon to the tally in a particularly inventive opener as she battles it with a Hummer), relentless explosions and fights, scenery chewing from Glen and the flat but ever-entertaining delivery by a leather-clad Jovovich, along with her impressive athleticism, which this time includes taking out a  bunch of tooled-up goons while suspended upside-down from a  harness. In a plot twist as incredulous and improbably as it is ingenious, she also gets to play another version of herself. Hardly great art or great cinema, nonetheless the series has been an entertaining ride and, if this really does close the book, it goes out in fine style. (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

Rings (15)

Just like the recent Blair Witch reboot, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle  remakes, is that you watch a  certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a  flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend  Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, promoting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (and yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape, rather recklessly by taking it in turns to watch it, and Samara’s background. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?

Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast  provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas hasn’t been before while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently for to the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind  man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

The signature  John Williams theme may be absent, but the first of the standalone Star Wars spin-offs  sets a high standard , serving as a prequel to 1997’s A New Hope  (hope being a word that occurs repeatedly) to detail how Princess Leia came to be in possession of the knowledge about the fatal flaw that enabled the rebellion to destroy the Death Star.

As with last year’s The Force Awakens, George Lucas’ contribution is limited to inspiration and acknowledgement, and, like its predecessor, the film is all the better for it. Directed by Nuneaton-born Gareth Edwards, taking an even greater leap into the blockbuster leagues after 2014’s Godzilla, and with a screenplay by Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), it opens on the volcanic planet of Lah’mu with Imperial-scientist-turned-farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) being tracked down by the hissably terse white-caped Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star project, and, his wife murdered, forced to return to finish the work he began on the weapon of mass destruction. His young daughter, however, escapes capture and is rescued  and raised by Rebel fighter  Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).

Fast forward 20 years and, going under an alias, the now grown Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a thief doing time on a labour camp prison, until, that is, she’s broken out by Rebellion spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his scene-stealing hulking reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (drolly voiced by Alan Tudyk providing the bulk of the spare sarcastic comedic lines).

It seems that her father persuaded an Imperial fighter pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), to defect, giving him a message about the Death Star  to pass to Gerrera, now a maverick zealot, with several mechanical body parts. The Rebellion need Jyn to get to Gerrera, to find out what the message contains.

In many ways, this is an old fashioned war movie (particularly in the aerial combat sequences as the film cuts from one Group Leader to the next, each delivering their couple of lines of gung ho dialogue) and, in many ways, the plot to infiltrate the Imperial base to find Jyn’s father and  retrieve the vital information recalls the likes of ultimate sacrifice WWII dramas such as The Heroes of Telemark, Where Eagles Dare or even The Dirty Dozen.

While there’s references to the Jedi, there aren’t actually any in the film, although you do get blind Jedha monk Zatoichi martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) striving to connect to the Force and who, along with sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), eventually forms part of the Rogue One team  leading the assault on the Imperial stronghold.

Likewise, not until the final moments is there even a glimpse of a lightsabre, although it has to be said, the moment it appears, flashing red in the hands of one of the two brief appearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones), the thrill is palpable.

Although you do get a cameos by C-3PO and R2-D2, there’s none of the playing young tone evident in the original Episodes, indeed, from Cassian shooting an informant in the back (Daniel May’s performance well deserving his fate) to the slaughter-crammed climax, this is predominantly  very dark and grown up. Edwards handles the set pieces well and the special effects rise to the occasion, not least in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Jedah and the spectacular attack by the Rebel X-wing fighters on the Imperial fleet. However, by far the most impressive is the digital  resurrection of Peter Cushing, who died 20 years ago, playing Death Star commander Moff Tarkin, the role he took back in 1977. Indeed, his is one the film’s best performances.  Given the fact it’s been splashed all over the media, it’s no spoiler to say there’s also another digital cameo, with  a brief final shot of the young Carrie Fisher as Leia.

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Vue Star City)

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Space Between Us (PG)

Director Peter Chelsom’s first since 2014’s dismal Simon Pegg  dramady  Hector and the Search For Happiness, this stars Asa Butterfield as 16-year-old Gardner who was born on Mars since  his astronaut mom didn’t realise she was pregnant when they set off to become the planet’s first colonists. She died in childbirth and, his existence kept secret from those back on Earth, he was raised by caregiver Kendra (Carla Gugino) under the watchful eye of colony head honcho Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman). Gardner’s struck up an online relationship with Colorado foster teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson), though she’s naturally unaware that he’s calling her from space, (he tells her he lives in a New York penthouse which he can’t leave because of a bone disease) and now he wants to visit Earth to meet her and try and find his father.

Despite Shepherd’s objections, he’s given permission, but,  with tests showing that, even with skeletal implants, his body can’t cope with Earth’s environment, he realizes they’ll want to send him back. So, while there’s still time and he and Tulsa take off to try and find the father he’s never known.

A cocktail of fish out of water, teen romance and search for identity and place road trip plot, a sort of adolescents answer to Starman, it may not be a patch of Chelsom’s earlier child-centred feature, The Mighty, Oldman and Butterfield are always good value and the intrinsic sweetness and poignancy at the film’s heart may just about overcome the clunkiness that surrounds it.  (Vue Star City)

 

Split (15)

 Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Toni Erdmann (15)

A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, directed by Maren Ade this is a bizarre, often very funny and at other mind-bogglingly surreal and absurd German art-house comedy that lasts for almost three hours. The title character doesn’t actually exist, rather it’s the alias that, donning fright wig and joke  buck-toothed dentures, shaggy, middle-aged, bored, divorced provincial music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) adopts to pull pranks on people like the postman. We first see the character at the start of the film, but then he doesn’t reappear until around half way through.

Wearing zombie make-up as part of a somewhat dubious farewell song by his class to a retiring teacher, he fetches up at his ex-wife’s to find his 30ish daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) back from Bucharest for an early birthday party. However, a work-obsessed business consultant for an international firm of specialising in oil trade restructuring (basically working out how many can be fired by outsourcing) , she’s barely off  her phone, leading  her father to sarcastically joke that he’s hired a substitute daughter in her place. Ines goes back to work, where she’s negotiating a deal and her father goes back home to his elderly sick dog. When the dog dies, with nothing else to concern him, he decides to visit Ines and try and rescue her from what he sees as her self-destructive (“Happy is a strong word”) isolation. Turning up unexpectedly, he proves both an inconvenience and an embarrassment as he imposes himself into her professional as well as personal space. She barely has time for him So, it’s a relief when he packs his bags and goes home. Until, that is, while out with a  couple of friends, who should turn up but dad. Or rather Toni, passing himself to her boss as a life coach to the CEO with whom they’re in negotiations. Forced to let him accompany her, Ines slowly finds that having him along tends to make people take her more seriously and, at the same time, she rather seems to enjoy going along with the masquerade.

As if this wasn’t odd enough, the film pushes further with a party scene in which  Ines is forced to deliver an impromptu full rendition of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love Of All and, later, a lengthy sequence where, following a wardrobe malfunction,  Ines blithely strips off completely,  telling the guests arriving for her birthday do that it’s a naked party and then her father turns up dressed as a ‘kukeri’, a  traditional hairy Bulgarian monster.

At times there s a feeling of everyone wondering what outrageousness they can come up with next, but, at heart, this is a serious-minded affair that subtly and often poignantly addresses such themes as parent-child relationships,  work and family, cultural divides, business ethics, corporate culture, workplace sexism, the dehumanising nature of modern technology. Driven by outstanding central performances, he a cocktail of Sir Les Patterson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Peter Sellers, she a cross between Tilda Swinton and Juliette Lewis, it builds to an emotional catharsis; there’s laughs, but when, at one point he snaps, “Are you really human?”, there’s also a sharp intake of breath.  (MAC; Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

Last seen in 2005, extreme sports action hero and agent for the xXx-program,  Xander Cage is resurrected for a franchise reviving bout of all action popcorn nonsense that remembers to never take itself too seriously.

When a satellite plummets from orbit and crashes into New York, killing xXx-program founder Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) just as he’s recruiting a new agent and then a multi-cultural team invade a top secret briefing entailing assorted top government suits, take out all the security and steal the gizmo responsible, the so called Pandora’s Box, then new NSA head honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette) seeks out the long presumed dead Cage (Vin Diesel), who’s actually  living it up in the Dominican Republic, putting his skills to effective use to ensure the locals can watch the big match on cable TV.

Persuaded to return to action and having identified where the crew responsible for the attack are hanging out, as well as reclaiming his trademark fur coat, Cage insists on recruiting his own team of thrill-seekers, comprising punky green-haired crackshot Adele (Ruby Rose), crazy adrenaline junkie stuntman Tennyson (Rory McCann) and Nick, a DJ known as the Hood. To which end, they duly set off to the Philippines  where the other team of mercenaries, leader Xiang (Donnie Yen), fellow martial arts expert Talon (Tony Jaa), strongman Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the sexy but lethal Serena (Deepika Padukone) are hanging out, to recover the device. To complicate matters, Serena thinks it should be destroyed while Xiang wants to hang on to it, all of which is just an excuse for the three of them to play a  game of pass the grenade and for Xiang and Diesel to have a surfing motorbikes on water skies scene across the ocean.

At which point, it all starts to get a bit confusing to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, as well as even noisier and more action packed, a bit like Mission Impossible’s snotty OCD little brother.

Suffice to say, everyone ends up working together to track down the real bad guy and the other bigger and better Pandora’s Box, a nuts and bolts plot that serves to allow any number of fast cut fire, fist and feet fights, more eye-popping stunts, deliberately cheesy dialogue, and copious amounts of scenery chewing, much courtesy of the straight-faced Collette, as well as a delightful comic turn from Nina Dobrev as Marke’s bumbling geeky tech-op assistant.

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (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