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MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 19-Thu Jan 25

 

NEW RELEASES

The Post   (12A)

Some 40 years after All The President’s Men told how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, Steven Spielberg serves up this swiftly made prequel about the 1971  leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. These were a classified report into the role of the US in IndoChina commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that, initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst with the Rand Corporation (and whose story was told in a 2003 TV movie), revealed how the US administration, from Truman to Nixon, had been lying to the American public about policy towards Vietnam, prolonging a war  they knew could never be won – at the cost of American lives – to avoid humiliation.

With  the Times barred from publishing further details by the Attorney General, when The Washington Post, a regional daily under the managing editorship of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the socialite who had inherited the company following her husband’s suicide,  acquired the rest of the papers, they prepared to take up the story.

Opening with the Post initially having a  run-in with the White House when Nixon refused to let it cover his daughter’s wedding, the  film focuses on the pressures and decisions around whether to publish or not; Graham was in the process of  taking the company public on the Stock Exchange and any “catastrophic occurrence”  could cause investors to pull out and potentially cause the paper to collapse. Equally, there was the possibility they could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for treason, again bringing the paper to its knees. As the film tells it, Graham was also under pressure from members of her Board of Directors who did not feel she had the experience and strength to handle matters, not least being a woman. This strand runs parallel with Bradlee’s race against the clock to obtain the papers and get the articles written in the event Graham, who was a close friend of McNamara, elected to give the go-ahead  to publish.

Unfolding a confrontation between the press and the government, it’s a taut, suspenseful thriller about the freedom of the press to hold those in power accountable, a throwback to the days of hot metal type when a regional newspaper actually meant something rather than filling its pages with lightweight ‘user generated’  dross.  Streep and Hanks (in rolled up shirt sleeves snapping out lines like “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”) are terrific, especially in the scenes they share, and are well supported by a  cast that also includes  Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie,  Bradley Whitford and, as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who tracked down Ellsberg to get hold of the papers, Bob Odenkirk. Spielberg drives things along at pace that captures the urgency of the situation as the deadline for going to print approaches and there’s much here to make veteran newshounds nostalgic, but, more to the point, it’s a potent reminder of the power of great journalism in the cause of the public interest at a time when the press is under increasing pressure from those who would prefer the truth of their deception and corruption remained unreported. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Coco (PG)

Following 2014’s The Book of Life, it’s now Pixar’s turn to take animation audiences on a journey into the afterlife, as celebrated in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a lively, colourful festival to remember friends and family members who have passed on and who, at least here, cross over to (unseen) spend time with their relatives. As with all the best Pixar films, there’s a definite darkness as it delivers  familiar messages about family, friendship, passion and being true to yourself. Boldly, the title character, while pivotal to the story, isn’t actually the focus of the narrative. She’s an old Mexican woman drifting in and out of dementia and hovering around death’s door. As a child, her heart was broken when her father left to pursue his dream of being a musician, to which end her mother banned music from the home and family and went into the shoemaking business. Two generations later, the business is thriving, but ban still stands, much to the frustration of 12-year-old  Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who, having secretly taught himself to play guitar, wants to emulate his hero, the late legendary film and singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

When his gran smashes his guitar,  looking to take part in a talent show, Miguel ‘borrows’ the one that belonged to de la Cruz from his shrine and suddenly finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead where his assorted dead relatives, all friendly-looking skeletons,  offer to give him the blessing he needs (involving bright orange marigold petals) to return home before  he becomes a skeleton like them, but, his great-grandmother  insists it’s on the condition he renounces music. Miguel, however, decides to track down his idol, as huge a star in death as he was in life, and seek his blessing instead,  and who, to his surprise and delight, he’s discovered he was his great-great grandfather . To do so, however, he needs the help of Hector (Gael García Bernal), a skeleton and a bit of a con artists who says he knows Ernesto and wants to get back to the Land of the Living and see his daughter one last time before, with no one putting up his photo on the Day of the Dead, he’s forgotten and lost forever.

Full of  traditional Mexican music, with  songs (notably the soaring ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen,  and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of  sight gags and a  scraggly, tongue-lolling  hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Commuter (15)

Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time  for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old  ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work),  insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant.  Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.

Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions,  threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and  hook up with the FBI,   Is it the  black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or  the student  with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?

As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.

Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a  feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a  tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a  gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this  delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Downsizing  (15)

An awkwardly assembled environmental end of days Swiftian allegory, Alexander Payne’s latest is an interesting concept flawed by its telling. With over-population and climate change putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, a team of Norwegian scientists headed up by Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) come up with a means of miniaturising people to around six  inches, creating a colony and eventually announcing their discovery to the world. It’s not long before hundred are volunteering to downsize and moving to purpose built communities such as Leisureland where, apparently, going small means you can live a much grander life. Overstretched as they are, that certainly appeals to occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and, convinced by a friend (Jason Sudeikis) who’s opted for a Lilliputian life, and the fact that their $152,000 asserts are worth $12m in Leisureland, having had the sales spiel and seen the presentation (hosted by a cameoing Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) he and his wife Audrey (Kirstin Wiig) decide to follow suit.

However, waking up after the procedure (during which all body hair has to be  removed along with any dental fillings), while peering under the sheet and happily finding that certain things have shrunk in proportion, he’s then shocked to learn Audrey backed out at the last moment.

Now, he has to make a new life for himself alone. At which point the film introduces a couple of new narrative strands in the form of his playboy Eurotrash neighbour, Dusan (Christopher Waltz), who’s made a fortune on the black market by smuggling contraband from the ‘outside’ world, and his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), leg, the embittered sole only survivor of Vietnamese dissidents who were shrunk by her government as a punishment. Now with an ill-fitting artificial  leg, she lives in Leisureland’s equivalent of ghettoised housing projects with the other ‘undesirables’ and it is through her that Paul begins to  learn to see the world and his life in a different perspective,  helping her distribute leftover food to the  less fortunate.  Inevitably an unlikely romance sparks. Then comes news that the world is facing an extinction event.

Encased in a  glass-dome, Leisureland is clearly America in microcosm, with all the same racial and class inequalities still writ large, but the Faustian bargain screenplay never seems to quite find its focus or tone, veering between satirical comedy, mutual healing romance,  eco parable and commentary on the economic crisis. Not helped by a running gag about the mispronunciation of his character’s name, a rather bland Damon never feels quite comfortable in the role while Waltz and, as his equally hedonistic partner in crime, Udo Kier, turn up the dial on their performances to an almost camp degree.  Unexpectedly, initially appearing to be something of an ethnic stereotype with her broken English and rapid speaking patters, Chau hijacks the film, proving genuinely funny (her list of the different types of American fuck is hilarious) and giving  the film’s strongest  and most emotional performance as Ngoc emerges as the most interesting and complex character. Feeling like a film written to fit the title pun, it’s a big idea but it comes up short.(From Wed: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

All The Money In The World (15)

It would be a pity if the now 80-year-old Ridley Scott’s film about the kidnapping of Paul Getty, the grandson of J Paul Getty, the richest man in the history of the word, was overshadowed by the fact that, in the wake of  sexual harassment allegations,  he had to reshoot large elements to replace Kevin Spacey  with, ironically, his original choice for the role of Getty Sr., Christopher Plummer. It’s likely to prove even more ironic should Plummer get the Oscar nomination his performance warrants.

Adopting a thriller approach, the film unfolds  the 1973 kidnapping of  the teenage Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) by a faction from the left-wing Red Brigade in Italy and how Getty Sr. flatly refused to pay the $17 million ransom to secure his release. It then follows the investigations by the Italian police alongside attempts by Paul’s mother, and Getty’s former daughter—in-law, Abigail (Michelle Williams), to get the old man to relent and negotiations with those responsible by Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who now works as fixer for the Getty family.  When the gang get fed up of waiting, they sell the boy on to another, more highly connected syndicate, and the stakes get higher.

However, while it offers the procedural details and duly places a focus on one of the kidnappers  (Romain Duris) who developed a sympathy for and friendship with Paul and, at least in this telling, helped him escape from his second set of captors and later avoid getting killed, as written by David Scarpa, the film isn’t actually about the abduction, but is, rather, a morality meditation on the nature of wealth and power, where value and worth are not necessarily the same.

There’s a chilling moment when, asked how much he’d pay to ransom his grandson,  Getty replies with a cold smile and a shrug, “nothing”.  Pragmatically, that makes sense, in the same way governments don’t openly negotiate with terrorists, but here it’s all about the deal, the terms and conditions, where human life becomes just another asset, to be invested in or not depending on whether  the return justifies the investment. It’s brilliantly underscored in a later sequence (revisited at the end in an almost Rosebud moment), where, you assume, Getty has come to negotiate for his grandson’s release, only to learn that, after declaring he has no money free, it’s about something else entirely. Even when he gathers Abigail, her junkie ex, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), her lawyer  and the Getty board round the table to propose agreeing to the ransom, it’s only because he’s found a way to make it tax deductible. More to the point, the terms of the loan indicate a resentful and bitter Getty’s long-game dynastic agenda regarding his grandchildren, his ‘blood’ (suggesting he felt that Abigail had already  kidnapped them when she traded alimony for custody).  The film’s point is that money and power are addictive and can destroy you if not controlled (underlined by a 1971 flashback sequence that shows how Getty was reunited with his estranged and broke son with an out of his league offer that would lead to dissolution and divorce), and Getty, who supposedly believed himself  the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian,  has no intention of not being in control, even if it means sacrificing those he loves.

Keeping the pace and tension ratcheted, at times it also sports a black humour, not least in the, presumably true, touch of Getty having had a telephone kioks installed in his English stately country pile for guests to use  because, as he tells his young grandson in the flashback, “a Getty is nobody’s friend.” On the other hand, there’s also the grisly moment when young Getty has his ear graphically sliced off.

Suitably shot in cold greys and dark browns with flickers of firelight and shadows, it’s magnificently realised and, while Plummer may be the film’s  lightning rod, the other central actors, Williams, Whalberg and the young Plummer, and are all rock solid, delivering a thoughtful morality play for the mammon generation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Darkest Hour  (PG)

The third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (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 Disaster Artist (15)

Released in 2003, starring and written, produced and directed by tinsel town wannabe Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and  nationality (sporting a  strangled, word-mangling Eastern European accent, several belts, shades, straggly black hair and a weathered appearance, he claimed to be  19  and from New Orleans) and with no perceptible talent in front of or behind the camera, making Ed Wood seem like Hitchcock, The Room was swiftly proclaimed to be one of the worst films ever made. However, rather than vanishing into oblivion, it gradually gained cult status for its stilted acting, erratic subplots  and staggeringly terrible script, eventually being tagged the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It even made back its $6million budget and turned a profit.

Now, James Franco, who, let’s face it, has known his fair share of awful movies, has produced, written,  directed and starred in this hysterical biopic based on the book of the same name documenting the film’s production. In what could prove the ultimate irony, it could even find itself among the Oscar nominees.

Franco’s brother Dave plays the baby-faced Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book), a struggling actor in San Francisco who, after  murdering Waiting for Godot, is impressed by classmate Tommy’s fearless bravura  reading  of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire  in an acting workshop (headed by Melanie Griffiths) and the pair form an unlikely friendship, eventually resolving to stick together and head to L.A. to make it in the movies. Inevitably, singularly ungifted,  neither get any breaks and so, on impulse, they decide to make their own movie, with Tommy in the lead as the man betrayed by his girlfriend with Greg in a major supporting role. However, when the cameras begin to roll, Greg quickly realises that Tommy might not quite be the man he’d imagined him to be, his lack of talent rendering scenes excruciating while his quirks (such as recreating a set exactly the same as the alley next to where they’re filming) make things a nightmare for everyone involved.

With a crew that includes Seth Rogen as  script supervisor (and ostensible director) Sandy Schklair,  Josh Hutcherson as 27-year-old cast as a mentally disabled teenager, Jacki Weaver as the actress trying to fathom out her pointless breast cancer subplot  and Zak Efron unrecognisable as a gangster, the film also includes priceless cameos from Judd Apataw as a testy producer and Sharon Stone as Greg’s agent while Alison Brie sparkles as the bartender who becomes his girlfriend and Bryan Cranston as himself. Plus, of course, Wiseau in person.

Franco is mesmerising as the unfathomable, indefatigable and seemingly oblivious Tommy, the film brilliantly recreating scenes from Wiseau’s film note for note as seen in the side-by-side comparisons over the end credits, his sympathetic performance underscoring the core message about believing in yourself even when that belief may be misguided,  pointedly reinforced in the film’s finale as monumental disaster and unqualified triumph go hand in hand.

Ultimately, although it hints at insecurities and hang ups and Franco’s screenplays offers moments  between Wiseau and Sestero that feed into The Room , you learn no more about Tommy or his motivations on screen than anyone knows about him off it, but that’s really not the point. No one ever sets out to make a bad film and this is a terrific love letter to the fire that drives someone to get behind a camera and make something for audiences to share and enjoy.  (Mockingbird)

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hostiles  (15)

Set in 1892, when a violent Comanche raid on their homestead leaves her husband and two young daughters dead, young pioneer wife  Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) escapes into the woods clutching her murdered baby. At which point, Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper switches focus to a fort in New Mexico as  Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a steeped in blood legend of the  so-called “Indian Wars”, for whom killing savages is his job,  is given no choice but to accepts an order direct from the President to escort cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi exuding typical gravitas), a former nemesis responsible for the deaths of many of his men,  back home to Montana,  along with his family (Q’orianka Kilcher among them), to die.  Blocker’s last mission before retirement, assembling a small hand-picked troupe (Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet), they set off north, naturally coming across the burned out cabin and adding the understandably traumatised but ultimately resilient Rosalie along the way.

Inevitably the numbers in the party dwindle as the journey progresses, variously through the selfsame Comanches, fur trappers, a murderer deserter (Ben Foster) Blocker acquires en route to be delivered to prison and, eventually a final shoot-out with landowners in Montana who don’t take kindly to Indian burials.

A slow, deliberate Western road trip to redemption as Blocker’s anti-Indian hatred is slowly replaced by compassion, to the extent he ends up calling Yellow Hawk ‘friend’, it’s a pretty straightforward and, at times, simplistic commentary on the way Native Americans were dispossessed and treated as less than human (at one point, one of Blocker’s soldiers, haunted by his guilt, apologises to the Chief and asks for mercy before committing his own act of redemption),  but also about how the past should be buried if there’s ever to be any hope of moving forwards. Even so, Rosalie’s bonding with Yellow Hawk’s young grandson and the final cathartic moments feel honestly and authentic, not least thanks to yet another deeply nuanced and world-weary  performance from Bale, his soul-shaking torments perfectly matched by Pike in some hugely emotional moments of her own. It’s slow and, at two hours plus, a tad overlong, the emphasis more on introspection than on action (though what there is brutal), but, while unlikely to attract a large audience, those who invest in a ticket won’t be disappointed.  (Cineworld NEC;  MAC; Showcase Walsall)

 

Insidious: The Last Key  (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jane (PG)

The subject of some 40 films, mostly shown on television, and the author of 15 books (as well as 11 for children), born in 1934, Jane Goodall is a  British anthropologist considered world’s leading  expert on chimpanzees and whose research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionised our understanding of the natural world. Drawing on over 100 hours of previous unseen footage from the National Geographic archives, director Brett Morgan has put together a biographical documentary  about her life and work that’s is being talked up as an Oscar contender.  (Tue-Thu:MAC)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  game sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Molly’s Game (15)

Having penned the screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, not to mention TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is already one of the great screenwriters and he now makes his Scorsese-influenced debut as a hyphenate, both writing and directing the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful who, her career shattered by a frozen stick on a ski course, went on to set up and run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game before until arrested by heavily armed FBI agents.

Based on Bloom’s  titular memoir in which she declined to identify the celebrities and other high fliers who took part in the games, the film cuts back and forth between the run up to the court case  and the events leading up to the bust. In the former, with the Feds pressuring her to name names, specifically the members of the Russian Mafia she’d unwittingly welcomed into her circle.she’s represented by initially reluctant and alpha male defence attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba as  a fictionalisation of Bloom’s actual  -white – lawyer, Jim Walden) increasingly frustrated by his client’s seemingly self-destructive streak. The backstory begins in California with Bloom becoming personal assistant to a guy (Jeremy Strong) running a sideline underground poker game, gradually becoming the brains and making connections with the regulars, most notably malicious movie star Player X (Michael Cera allegedly based on Tobey Maguire). When her boss gives her the elbow, Bloom relocates to New York and sets up on her own game with an even bigger buy-in, recruiting sexy hostesses, poaching his players and quickly pulling in a well-heeled array of  others and somewhat inevitably developing  drug habit that ultimately affects her judgement.

In many ways its entwined themes of power, money and pride are a gender spin mirror The Wolf of Wall Street, without the excess, being Sorkin, it’s inevitably packed with rapidly delivered dialogue and a heady barbed and witty exchanges, but he still keeps up a cracking sense of pace and tension while exploring moral codes, the importance of reputation (at one point Bloom refuses to disclose names  because her reputation and dignity are all she has left) and women trying to succeed in a world dominated by high-powered men.

Eventually devolving into a court room drama (presided over by Grahame Green’s judge), the ending is, as in real life, something of an anti-climax, but the back and forth tables turning scene between Bloom, Jaffey and the FBI prosecutors is up there with the best of John Grisham.  As the complex, determined yet also vulnerable Bloom who seemingly has no private  life, Chastain gives another Oscar-worthy performance to rival last year’s Miss Sloane and, although often  confined to reaction or exposition advancing sequences Elba makes for an imposing, magnetic figure and does get arguably the best speech . As Bloom’s tough-love psychologist father, Kevin Costner delivers another outstanding support turn, highlighted by a scene with Chastain at the ice skating rink in Central Park where he delivers several years of psychoanalysis in a few minutes while Chris O’Dowd provides dry humour as the poetic-tongued, drinking problem player who sets up the Russian introductions.  It may be Sorkin’s first time at the director’s table, but this holds a Royal Flush. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Already a Golden Globes triumph and heading up the BAFTA nominations, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls,  decides to poke things back into life.

The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar contender Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye.  Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet aslo sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.

With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.

When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works,  as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.

McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  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

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Jan 12-Thu Jan 18

NEW RELEASES

Darkest Hour  (PG)

The third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill,  directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken  Neville Chamberlain after losing  Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to  the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.

Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty,  who, despite being generally disliked by his own party,  was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister  and head a coalition government as  the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.

The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.

Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background,  it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC)  it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as  his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.

Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing  the film’s most powerful emotional moment.

The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Insidious: The Last Key (15)

Despite the fact  her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes)  in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary)  and determined to beat it out of her.

Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a  man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up.  Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom  also turns out to have the gift.

The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie)  involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a  ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help,  and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys.  There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.

Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the  fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that  Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri   (15)

Already a Golden Globes triumph and heading up the BAFTA nominations, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.

The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls,  decides to poke things back into life.

The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar contender Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye.  Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet aslo sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.

With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.

When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works,  as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.

McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,

Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a  deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

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All The Money In The World (15)

It would be a pity of the now 80-year-old Ridley Scott’s film about the kidnapping of Paul Getty, the grandson of J Paul Getty, the richest man in the history of the word, was overshadowed by the fact that, in the wake of  sexual harassment allegations,  he had to reshoot large elements to replace Kevin Spacey  with, ironically, his original choice for the role of Getty Sr., Christopher Plummer. It’s likely to prove even more ironic should Plummer get the Oscar nomination his performance warrants.

Adopting a thriller approach, the film unfolds  the 1973 kidnapping of  the teenage Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) by a faction from the left-wing Red Brigade in Italy and how Getty Sr. flatly refused to pay the $17 million ransom to secure his release. It then follows the investigations by the Italian police alongside attempts by Paul’s mother, and Getty’s former daughter—in-law, Abigail (Michelle Williams), to get the old man to relent and negotiations with those responsible by Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who now works as fixer for the Getty family.  When the gang get fed up of waiting, they sell the boy on to another, more highly connected syndicate, and the stakes get higher.

However, while it offers the procedural details and duly places a focus on one of the kidnappers  (Romain Duris) who developed a sympathy for and friendship with Paul and, at least in this telling, helped him escape from his second set of captors and later avoid getting killed, as written by David Scarpa, the film isn’t actually about the abduction, but is, rather, a morality meditation on the nature of wealth and power, where value and worth are not necessarily the same.

There’s a chilling moment when, asked how much he’d pay to ransom his grandson,  Getty replies with a cold smile and a shrug, “nothing”.  Pragmatically, that makes sense, in the same way governments don’t openly negotiate with terrorists, but here it’s all about the deal, the terms and conditions, where human life becomes just another asset, to be invested in or not depending on whether  the return justifies the investment. It’s brilliantly underscored in a later sequence (revisited at the end in an almost Rosebud moment), where, you assume, Getty has come to negotiate for his grandson’s release, only to learn that, after declaring he has no money free, it’s about something else entirely. Even when he gathers Abigail, her junkie ex, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), her lawyer  and the Getty board round the table to propose agreeing to the ransom, it’s only because he’s found a way to make it tax deductible. More to the point, the terms of the loan indicate a resentful and bitter Getty’s long-game dynastic agenda regarding his grandchildren, his ‘blood’ (suggesting he felt that Abigail had already  kidnapped them when she traded alimony for custody).  The film’s point is that money and power are addictive and can destroy you if not controlled (underlined by a 1971 flashback sequence that shows how Getty was reunited with his estranged and broke son with an out of his league offer that would lead to dissolution and divorce), and Getty, who supposedly believed himself  the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian,  has no intention of not being in control, even if it means sacrificing those he loves.

Keeping the pace and tension ratcheted, at times it also sports a black humour, not least in the, presumably true, touch of Getty having had a telephone kioks installed in his English stately country pile for guests to use  because, as he tells his young grandson in the flashback, “a Getty is nobody’s friend.” On the other hand, there’s also the grisly moment when young Getty has his ear graphically sliced off.

Suitably shot in cold greys and dark browns with flickers of firelight and shadows, it’s magnificently realised and, while Plummer may be the film’s  lightning rod, the other central actors, Williams, Whalberg and the young Plummer, and are all rock solid, delivering a thoughtful morality play for the mammon generation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Ballad Of Shirley Collins (12A)

Both with her older sister Dolly and in her own right, Hastings-born Shirley Collins was a founding member and pivotal part of the English folk revival of the 60s, friends with Ewan McColl and lover of Alan Lomax, with whom she travelled southern America helping to document the country’s  traditional folk music. Ths sisters’ 1969 album, Anthems in Eden, is regarded as one of the seminal releases in the English folk music heritage, as are her own Sweet England, False True Lovers and Sweet Primeroses.

However, in 1979 then married to Albion Dance Band founder Ashley Hutchings and working with him as part of the National Theatre, her husband abruptluy announced he was leaving her for another woman. Confronted with this woman coming to shows and staing in front of her wearing her husband’s jumpers, Collins suffered a trauma that left her unable to sing. Diagnosed with dysphonia and forced to abandoned the only career she wanted, she ended up working, among other things, in her local benefits office.

Featuring archive home movie footage, voice recordings and interviews with Collins, Rob Curry and Tim Plester’s documentary both reflects on her history and follows her as, then 81, she nervously prepared to record Lodestar, her first album in 40 years. A touch slow going at times with a few too many shits of sleepy idyllic landscapes, nevertheless it’s an insightful and illuminating portrait of one of the great names in English folk music who at her best, as she says without any hint of “was the essence of English folk.” At one point, regretting her experiences, she muses, “There are some great female voices around now, but I’m not one of then. And I wish I was.” This documentary proves she is.  (Tue: MAC)

 

 

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Empire Great Park;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hostiles  (15)

Set in 1892, when a violent Comanche raid on their homestead leaves her husband and two young daughters dead, young pioneer wife  Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) escapes into the woods clutching her murdered baby. At which point, Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper switches focus to a fort in New Mexico as  Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a steeped in blood legend of the  so-called “Indian Wars”, for whom killing savages is his job,  is given no choice but to accepts an order direct from the President to escort cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi exuding typical gravitas), a former nemesis responsible for the deaths of many of his men,  back home to Montana,  along with his family (Q’orianka Kilcher among them), to die.  Blocker’s last mission before retirement, assembling a small hand-picked troupe (Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet), they set off north, naturally coming across the burned out cabin and adding the understandably traumatised but ultimately resilient Rosalie along the way.

Inevitably the numbers in the party dwindle as the journey progresses, variously through the selfsame Comanches, fur trappers, a murderer deserter (Ben Foster) Blocker acquires en route to be delivered to prison and, eventually a final shoot-out with landowners in Montana who don’t take kindly to Indian burials.

A slow, deliberate Western road trip to redemption as Blocker’s anti-Indian hatred is slowly replaced by compassion, to the extent he ends up calling Yellow Hawk ‘friend’, it’s a pretty straightforward and, at times, simplistic commentary on the way Native Americans were dispossessed and treated as less than human (at one point, one of Blocker’s soldiers, haunted by his guilt, apologises to the Chief and asks for mercy before committing his own act of redemption),  but also about how the past should be buried if there’s ever to be any hope of moving forwards. Even so, Rosalie’s bonding with Yellow Hawk’s young grandson and the final cathartic moments feel honestly and authentic, not least thanks to yet another deeply nuanced and world-weary  performance from Bale, his soul-shaking torments perfectly matched by Pike in some hugely emotional moments of her own. It’s slow and, at two hours plus, a tad overlong, the emphasis more on introspection than on action (though what there is brutal), but, while unlikely to attract a large audience, those who invest in a ticket won’t be disappointed.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Molly’s Game (15)

Having penned the screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, not to mention TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is already one of the great screenwriters and he now makes his Scorsese-influenced debut as a hyphenate, both writing and directing the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful who, her career shattered by a frozen stick on a ski course, went on to set up and run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game before until arrested by heavily armed FBI agents.

Based on Bloom’s  titular memoir in which she declined to identify the celebrities and other high fliers who took part in the games, the film cuts back and forth between the run up to the court case  and the events leading up to the bust. In the former, with the Feds pressuring her to name names, specifically the members of the Russian Mafia she’d unwittingly welcomed into her circle.she’s represented by initially reluctant and alpha male defence attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba as  a fictionalisation of Bloom’s actual  -white – lawyer, Jim Walden) increasingly frustrated by his client’s seemingly self-destructive streak. The backstory begins in California with Bloom becoming personal assistant to a guy (Jeremy Strong) running a sideline underground poker game, gradually becoming the brains and making connections with the regulars, most notably malicious movie star Player X (Michael Cera allegedly based on Tobey Maguire). When her boss gives her the elbow, Bloom relocates to New York and sets up on her own game with an even bigger buy-in, recruiting sexy hostesses, poaching his players and quickly pulling in a well-heeled array of  others and somewhat inevitably developing  drug habit that ultimately affects her judgement.

In many ways its entwined themes of power, money and pride are a gender spin mirror The Wolf of Wall Street, without the excess, being Sorkin, it’s inevitably packed with rapidly delivered dialogue and a heady barbed and witty exchanges, but he still keeps up a cracking sense of pace and tension while exploring moral codes, the importance of reputation (at one point Bloom refuses to disclose names  because her reputation and dignity are all she has left) and women trying to succeed in a world dominated by high-powered men.

Eventually devolving into a court room drama (presided over by Grahame Green’s judge), the ending is, as in real life, something of an anti-climax, but the back and forth tables turning scene between Bloom, Jaffey and the FBI prosecutors is up there with the best of John Grisham.  As the complex, determined yet also vulnerable Bloom who seemingly has no private  life, Chastain gives another Oscar-worthy performance to rival last year’s Miss Sloane and, although often  confined to reaction or exposition advancing sequences Elba makes for an imposing, magnetic figure and does get arguably the best speech . As Bloom’s tough-love psychologist father, Kevin Costner delivers another outstanding support turn, highlighted by a scene with Chastain at the ice skating rink in Central Park where he delivers several years of psychoanalysis in a few minutes while Chris O’Dowd provides dry humour as the poetic-tongued, drinking problem player who sets up the Russian introductions.  It may be Sorkin’s first time at the director’s table, but this holds a Royal Flush. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; 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

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 5 – Thu Jan 11

NEW RELEASES

All The Money In The World (15)

It would be a pity of the now 80-year-old Ridley Scott’s film about the kidnapping of Paul Getty, the grandson of J Paul Getty, the richest man in the history of the word, was overshadowed by the fact that, in the wake of  sexual harassment allegations,  he had to reshoot large elements to replace Kevin Spacey  with, ironically, his original choice for the role of Getty Sr., Christopher Plummer. It’s likely to prove even more ironic should Plummer get the Oscar nomination his performance warrants.

Adopting a thriller approach, the film unfolds  the 1973 kidnapping of  the teenage Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) by a faction from the left-wing Red Brigade in Italy and how Getty Sr. flatly refused to pay the $17 million ransom to secure his release. It then follows the investigations by the Italian police alongside attempts by Paul’s mother, and Getty’s former daughter—in-law, Abigail (Michelle Williams), to get the old man to relent and negotiations with those responsible by Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who now works as fixer for the Getty family.  When the gang get fed up of waiting, they sell the boy on to another, more highly connected syndicate, and the stakes get higher.

However, while it offers the procedural details and duly places a focus on one of the kidnappers  (Romain Duris) who developed a sympathy for and friendship with Paul and, at least in this telling, helped him escape from his second set of captors and later avoid getting killed, as written by David Scarpa, the film isn’t actually about the abduction, but is, rather, a morality meditation on the nature of wealth and power, where value and worth are not necessarily the same.

There’s a chilling moment when, asked how much he’d pay to ransom his grandson,  Getty replies with a cold smile and a shrug, “nothing”.  Pragmatically, that makes sense, in the same way governments don’t openly negotiate with terrorists, but here it’s all about the deal, the terms and conditions, where human life becomes just another asset, to be invested in or not depending on whether  the return justifies the investment. It’s brilliantly underscored in a later sequence (revisited at the end in an almost Rosebud moment), where, you assume, Getty has come to negotiate for his grandson’s release, only to learn that, after declaring he has no money free, it’s about something else entirely. Even when he gathers Abigail, her junkie ex, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), her lawyer  and the Getty board round the table to propose agreeing to the ransom, it’s only because he’s found a way to make it tax deductible. More to the point, the terms of the loan indicate a resentful and bitter Getty’s long-game dynastic agenda regarding his grandchildren, his ‘blood’ (suggesting he felt that Abigail had already  kidnapped them when she traded alimony for custody).  The film’s point is that money and power are addictive and can destroy you if not controlled (underlined by a 1971 flashback sequence that shows how Getty was reunited with his estranged and broke son with an out of his league offer that would lead to dissolution and divorce), and Getty, who supposedly believed himself  the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian,  has no intention of not being in control, even if it means sacrificing those he loves.

Keeping the pace and tension ratcheted, at times it also sports a black humour, not least in the, presumably true, touch of Getty having had a telephone kioks installed in his English stately country pile for guests to use  because, as he tells his young grandson in the flashback, “a Getty is nobody’s friend.” On the other hand, there’s also the grisly moment when young Getty has his ear graphically sliced off.

Suitably shot in cold greys and dark browns with flickers of firelight and shadows, it’s magnificently realised and, while Plummer may be the film’s  lightning rod, the other central actors, Williams, Whalberg and the young Plummer, and are all rock solid, delivering a thoughtful morality play for the mammon generation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Brad’s Status  (15)

Generally associated with such lowbrow crowdpleasers as Meet The Parents, Zoolander and Night At The Museum, it can be forgotten that Ben Stiller is actually an impressive serious dramatic actor, it’s just that those films rarely surface above the art house radar. This sees him teamed with Mike White, the writer of such diverse titles as  Chuck & Buck,  The Good Girl, School of Rock, Year of the Dog and, most recently, Pitch Perfect 3 all of which, to some extent or another, deal with misfits and underachievers looking to come good. This treads a similar path with Stiller playing Brad Sloan, the happily married head of a Sacramento-based non-profit organisation most would regard as having a  fairly comfortable life. Not Brad, however, he’s in a mid-life crisis, forever  stewing in resentment over the fact that his college friends have apparently done so much better; Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) is a politician turned celebrity TV pundit; Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement) retired early to a tropical island and two girlfriends after making a start-up fortune; Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) is a hedge-fund founder with a private jet; and Nick Pascale (White) is a hugely successful Hollywood director. Constantly beating himself up by following their social media profiles and wallowing in self-pity, Brad lives in the land of ‘why not me’, delivering  voice over commentary on his ‘failures’, constantly imaging what life might have been and regretting the decisions he took in the name of idealism. At one point he even imagines envying his own son.

His epiphany comes when he heads to Boston so that musical prodigy  son Troy (Austin Adams) can check out potential universities. Troy has his mind, set on Harvard, but arrives a day late for the interview, leading his father to swallow his pride and get in touch with Craig who, with his contacts, might be able to swing a meeting. In the process, he also learns that  he was the only one of the group who didn’t get an invite to Nick’s flamboyant gay wedding, further reinforcing his lack of self-worth and sense of masculinity. In the two days that follow, Craig’s given a reality check talking to by Annaya (Shazi Raja), a Harvard student and one of Troy’s former classmates has an awkward dinner with the smarmy Craig and learns some his friends’ glamourous lifestyles might not be all he’s fantasised.

There’s no real surprises to the plot and White’s screenplay signposts pretty much everything, but even so, for every inanity there’s a sharp insight and, while Jenna Fischer as Brad’s exasperated wife has little to do, both Stiller and a subtly nuanced Abrams, and the naturalness of the connection between them, bring the film warmth and poignancy and a reminder that our regrets may be the aspirations of others.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza,; Vue Star City)

 

Hostiles  (15)

Set in 1892, when a violent Comanche raid on their homestead leaves her husband and two young daughters dead, young pioneer wife  Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) escapes into the woods clutching her murdered baby. At which point, Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper switches focus to a fort in New Mexico as  Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a steeped in blood legend of the  so-called “Indian Wars”, for whom killing savages is his job,  is given no choice but to accepts an order direct from the President to escort cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi exuding typical gravitas), a former nemesis responsible for the deaths of many of his men,  back home to Montana,  along with his family (Q’orianka Kilcher among them), to die.  Blocker’s last mission before retirement, assembling a small hand-picked troupe (Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet), they set off north, naturally coming across the burned out cabin and adding the understandably traumatised but ultimately resilient Rosalie along the way.

Inevitably the numbers in the party dwindle as the journey progresses, variously through the selfsame Comanches, fur trappers, a murderer deserter (Ben Foster) Blocker acquires en route to be delivered to prison and, eventually a final shoot-out with landowners in Montana who don’t take kindly to Indian burials.

A slow, deliberate Western road trip to redemption as Blocker’s anti-Indian hatred is slowly replaced by compassion, to the extent he ends up calling Yellow Hawk ‘friend’, it’s a pretty straightforward and, at times, simplistic commentary on the way Native Americans were dispossessed and treated as less than human (at one point, one of Blocker’s soldiers, haunted by his guilt, apologises to the Chief and asks for mercy before committing his own act of redemption),  but also about how the past should be buried if there’s ever to be any hope of moving forwards. Even so, Rosalie’s bonding with Yellow Hawk’s young grandson and the final cathartic moments feel honestly and authentic, not least thanks to yet another deeply nuanced and world-weary  performance from Bale, his soul-shaking torments perfectly matched by Pike in some hugely emotional moments of her own. It’s slow and, at two hours plus, a tad overlong, the emphasis more on introspection than on action (though what there is brutal), but, while unlikely to attract a large audience, those who invest in a ticket won’t be disappointed.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Human Flow (12A)

Directed  by and unobtrusively featuring the celebrated Chinese artist and activist  Ai Weiwei, this is an epic  140 minute documentary about the global refugee crisis, caused variously by famine and conflict; one which moves from one country to another (23 in all) observing and interacting with those forced to become part of a seemingly constant and generally perilous migration. Using drone footage, particularly effective in an aerial shot of what appears to be a mass of black dots that come into focus as a seething tide  of refugees, while flashing up statistics and quotes from poems and scriptures or talking to those on both sides of the crisis, it ranges from the almost organised arrangements on Lesbos, a first port of call for many Syrians, to the chaos of those left to fend for themselves, offering images and stories that go beyond the headlines. It doesn’t seek to analyse, rather to simply resent the globe-spanning enormity of the problem of those displaced from their homes and the seeming impossibility of  others to provide them the safety and shelter they need. There is though, one success story, ironically a tiger that wound up in a zoo  after   straying through a  tunnel from Egypt to Gaza is  flown to South Africa and released into the wild. Conclusions are left to be drawn.  (MAC)

Lost In Paris (12A)

Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel  are an Australian/Belgian husband and wife comedy duo who, as writers, director and stars, take their physical comedy influences very much from the silent movies of Chaplin, Tati and Keaton. As such they can be as irritating as they can be charming, the latter as in their previous outing, The Fairy, the former often  the case here.

A gawky Canadian librarian living in some snowbound outpost, the dorky Fiona takes off to Paris after receiving a letter from her increasingly senile Aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), posted in a rubbish bin, saying she needs help to avoid being put in a retirement home. Wearing an oversized backpack sporting a  Canadian flag,  she arrives in Paris to find her aunt not at home and contrives to fall into the Seine, losing bag and phone in the process. The former’s fished out of the river by the homeless Dom who immediately sets about enjoying himself  with the money in her purse, their paths inevitably crossing in a meandering plot that involves his persistent courtship of her, crashing a funeral,  and the pair of them joining forces to climb the Eiffel Tower in the hope of tracking down Martha.

Built around unlikely coincidences with  a  running gag about a Canadian Mountie that soon wears out is welcome,  the narrative’s primarily one long stream of sight gags, pratfalls and physical comedy, some of which, like the pair tangoing on a floating restaurant,  are inspired and funny and some of which aren’t.  Still, featuring a touching dance sequence in Père Lachaise Cemetery between Riva, whose passing last year adds a poignant touch to the film’s denouement, and fellow French cinema icon Pierre Richard, its gentle innocence makes a welcome change from the usual Hollywood brashness.  (Sat/Mon: MAC)

 

NOW PLAYING

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the  sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared.  (Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Molly’s Game (15)

Having penned the screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, not to mention TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is already one of the great screenwriters and he now makes his Scorsese-influenced debut as a hyphenate, both writing and directing the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful who, her career shattered by a frozen stick on a ski course, went on to set up and run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game before until arrested by heavily armed FBI agents.

Based on Bloom’s  titular memoir in which she declined to identify the celebrities and other high fliers who took part in the games, the film cuts back and forth between the run up to the court case  and the events leading up to the bust. In the former, with the Feds pressuring her to name names, specifically the members of the Russian Mafia she’d unwittingly welcomed into her circle.she’s represented by initially reluctant and alpha male defence attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba as  a fictionalisation of Bloom’s actual  -white – lawyer, Jim Walden) increasingly frustrated by his client’s seemingly self-destructive streak. The backstory begins in California with Bloom becoming personal assistant to a guy (Jeremy Strong) running a sideline underground poker game, gradually becoming the brains and making connections with the regulars, most notably malicious movie star Player X (Michael Cera allegedly based on Tobey Maguire). When her boss gives her the elbow, Bloom relocates to New York and sets up on her own game with an even bigger buy-in, recruiting sexy hostesses, poaching his players and quickly pulling in a well-heeled array of  others and somewhat inevitably developing  drug habit that ultimately affects her judgement.

In many ways its entwined themes of power, money and pride are a gender spin mirror The Wolf of Wall Street, without the excess, being Sorkin, it’s inevitably packed with rapidly delivered dialogue and a heady barbed and witty exchanges, but he still keeps up a cracking sense of pace and tension while exploring moral codes, the importance of reputation (at one point Bloom refuses to disclose names  because her reputation and dignity are all she has left) and women trying to succeed in a world dominated by high-powered men.

Eventually devolving into a court room drama (presided over by Grahame Green’s judge), the ending is, as in real life, something of an anti-climax, but the back and forth tables turning scene between Bloom, Jaffey and the FBI prosecutors is up there with the best of John Grisham.  As the complex, determined yet also vulnerable Bloom who seemingly has no private  life, Chastain gives another Oscar-worthy performance to rival last year’s Miss Sloane and, although often  confined to reaction or exposition advancing sequences Elba makes for an imposing, magnetic figure and does get arguably the best speech . As Bloom’s tough-love psychologist father, Kevin Costner delivers another outstanding support turn, highlighted by a scene with Chastain at the ice skating rink in Central Park where he delivers several years of psychoanalysis in a few minutes while Chris O’Dowd provides dry humour as the poetic-tongued, drinking problem player who sets up the Russian introductions.  It may be Sorkin’s first time at the director’s table, but this holds a Royal Flush. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (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

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 29-Thu Jan 4

NEW RELEASES

The Greatest Showman (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Molly’s Game (15)

Having penned the screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, not to mention TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is already one of the great screenwriters and he now makes his Scorsese-influenced debut as a hyphenate, both writing and directing the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful who, her career shattered by a frozen stick on a ski course, went on to set up and run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game before until arrested by heavily armed FBI agents.

Based on Bloom’s  titular memoir in which she declined to identify the celebrities and other high fliers who took part in the games, the film cuts back and forth between the run up to the court case  and the events leading up to the bust. In the former, with the Feds pressuring her to name names, specifically the members of the Russian Mafia she’d unwittingly welcomed into her circle.she’s represented by initially reluctant and alpha male defence attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba as  a fictionalisation of Bloom’s actual  -white – lawyer, Jim Walden) increasingly frustrated by his client’s seemingly self-destructive streak. The backstory begins in California with Bloom becoming personal assistant to a guy (Jeremy Strong) running a sideline underground poker game, gradually becoming the brains and making connections with the regulars, most notably malicious movie star Player X (Michael Cera allegedly based on Tobey Maguire). When her boss gives her the elbow, Bloom relocates to New York and sets up on her own game with an even bigger buy-in, recruiting sexy hostesses, poaching his players and quickly pulling in a well-heeled array of  others and somewhat inevitably developing  drug habit that ultimately affects her judgement.

In many ways its entwined themes of power, money and pride are a gender spin mirror The Wolf of Wall Street, without the excess, being Sorkin, it’s inevitably packed with rapidly delivered dialogue and a heady barbed and witty exchanges, but he still keeps up a cracking sense of pace and tension while exploring moral codes, the importance of reputation (at one point Bloom refuses to disclose names  because her reputation and dignity are all she has left) and women trying to succeed in a world dominated by high-powered men.

Eventually devolving into a court room drama (presided over by Grahame Green’s judge), the ending is, as in real life, something of an anti-climax, but the back and forth tables turning scene between Bloom, Jaffey and the FBI prosecutors is up there with the best of John Grisham.  As the complex, determined yet also vulnerable Bloom who seemingly has no private  life, Chastain gives another Oscar-worthy performance to rival last year’s Miss Sloane and, although often  confined to reaction or exposition advancing sequences Elba makes for an imposing, magnetic figure and does get arguably the best speech . As Bloom’s tough-love psychologist father, Kevin Costner delivers another outstanding support turn, highlighted by a scene with Chastain at the ice skating rink in Central Park where he delivers several years of psychoanalysis in a few minutes while Chris O’Dowd provides dry humour as the poetic-tongued, drinking problem player who sets up the Russian introductions.  It may be Sorkin’’s first time at the director’s table, but this holds a Royal Flush. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

                             

NOW PLAYING

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Disaster Artist (15)

Released in 2003, starring and written, produced and directed by tinsel town wannabe Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and  nationality (sporting a  strangled, word-mangling Eastern European accent, several belts, shades, straggly black hair and a weathered appearance, he claimed to be  19  and from New Orleans) and with no perceptible talent in front of or behind the camera, making Ed Wood seem like Hitchcock, The Room was swiftly proclaimed to be one of the worst films ever made. However, rather than vanishing into oblivion, it gradually gained cult status for its stilted acting, erratic subplots  and staggeringly terrible script, eventually being tagged the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It even made back its $6million budget and turned a profit.

Now, James Franco, who, let’s face it, has known his fair share of awful movies, has produced, written,  directed and starred in this hysterical biopic based on the book of the same name documenting the film’s production. In what could prove the ultimate irony, it could even find itself among the Oscar nominees.

Franco’s brother Dave plays the baby-faced Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book), a struggling actor in San Francisco who, after  murdering Waiting for Godot, is impressed by classmate Tommy’s fearless bravura  reading  of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire  in an acting workshop (headed by Melanie Griffiths) and the pair form an unlikely friendship, eventually resolving to stick together and head to L.A. to make it in the movies. Inevitably, singularly ungifted,  neither get any breaks and so, on impulse, they decide to make their own movie, with Tommy in the lead as the man betrayed by his girlfriend with Greg in a major supporting role. However, when the cameras begin to roll, Greg quickly realises that Tommy might not quite be the man he’d imagined him to be, his lack of talent rendering scenes excruciating while his quirks (such as recreating a set exactly the same as the alley next to where they’re filming) make things a nightmare for everyone involved.

With a crew that includes Seth Rogen as  script supervisor (and ostensible director) Sandy Schklair,  Josh Hutcherson as 27-year-old cast as a mentally disabled teenager, Jacki Weaver as the actress trying to fathom out her pointless breast cancer subplot  and Zak Efron unrecognisable as a gangster, the film also includes priceless cameos from Judd Apataw as a testy producer and Sharon Stone as Greg’s agent while Alison Brie sparkles as the bartender who becomes his girlfriend and Bryan Cranston as himself. Plus, of course, Wiseau in person.

Franco is mesmerising as the unfathomable, indefatigable and seemingly oblivious Tommy, the film brilliantly recreating scenes from Wiseau’s film note for note as seen in the side-by-side comparisons over the end credits, his sympathetic performance underscoring the core message about believing in yourself even when that belief may be misguided,  pointedly reinforced in the film’s finale as monumental disaster and unqualified triumph go hand in hand.

Ultimately, although it hints at insecurities and hang ups and Franco’s screenplays offers moments  between Wiseau and Sestero that feed into The Room , you learn no more about Tommy or his motivations on screen than anyone knows about him off it, but that’s really not the point. No one ever sets out to make a bad film and this is a terrific love letter to the fire that drives someone to get behind a camera and make something for audiences to share and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Vue Star City)

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)

Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transfmring into a video cartridge, the  sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Odeon Broadway Plaza, Vue Star City)

Wonder (12A)

In many ways, a pre-teen variation on Mask, the 1985 movie starring Eric Stoltz and Cher about a boy with a facial disfigurement, this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel charts a year in the life of science geek and all round brainy 10-year-old Auggie Pullman as, after being home-schooled, he enters middle school for the first time. Directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it features another outstanding turn from young Jacob Tremblay, the child star of Room, as August ‘Auggie’ Pullman who, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation inherited from both his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), has had  extensive reconstructive surgery on his face.

With scars along his cheeks that pull down the corners of his eyes, he’s not as disfigured to the extent Stoltz’s character was, but, if even the slightest blemish can be an embarrassment for any child entering puberty, understandably Auggie’s condition makes him particularly hyper-sensitive, so that whenever he ventures outside with his folks he wears a toy astronaut’s helmet.  He even sometimes wears it at dinner.

However, his mother, who put her career on hold to raise him, feels it’s now time that he goes out into the world sand mixes with others, to which end the understanding school principal (Mandy Patinkin) has arranged for three kids to show him around before school starts, self-absorbed Charlotte (soon forgotten),  the spoiled Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes the bully of the piece, and Jack (Nate Jupe), a scholarship kid who becomes Auggie’s best friend and science partner, albeit not without a hiccup in the relationship along the way.

By the end of the day, he’s been nicknamed after one of his Star Wars favourites, Barf Hideous (in a conceit that doesn’t always work there’s fantasised appearances by both Darth Sideous and Chewbacca) while the bullying and ostracisation he endures from many of his classmates also lead him to be befriended by Summer (Millie Davis).

As such, this would be more than enough to make for a heart-tugging tearjerker as Auggie predictably struggles with rejection along the journey to acceptance, spelling out the moral lesson about difference and tolerance as it goes, but the narrative also features chapters, focusing (partly through flashbacks) on three other characters as we see things through their eyes. One is Jack who see being persuaded  to do the right things and be the new kid’s friend, and the pressures under which he feels, while another turns the spotlight in Auggie’s  older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who dearly loves her brother but, nevertheless feels that all the attention lavished on him at home, especially by her mother, has  been to her expense, leaving her feeling like a minor planet orbiting her brother’s sun, climaxing in a powerful scene between her and Isabel. Following her own journey to self-discovery and confidence, it sees her trying out for the school production of Our Town and striking up a romance with classmate Justin (Nadji Jeter).

Also in the group is Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), one her best friend but, since they returned to school after the summer, seemingly wanting nothing to do with her. Miranda too gets her own chapter, offering up events that lead us to reassess any judgements we have passed. The same cannot be said of Julian, who remains the  cruel bully, although in a scene involving his parents, it’s easy to see where he gets it from.

It is all rather pat and, inevitably, somewhat manipulative, but, that said, thanks to a combination of the writing and the performances, Tremblay especially, and with a touching cameo from Sonia Braga as Via’s late grandmother, the emotions are honestly earned and genuinely heartfelt.  (MAC; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

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

NEW RELEASES

Pitch Perfect 3 (12A) 

The final sing out for the Barden Bellas may not offer up much by way of a plot, the female buddy  narrative about individual scenes designed to  facilitate the girls doing their a capella thing, but they nevertheless bow out in appealingly entertaining style.

Having graduated college, the girls are now trying to make it in the real world, Chloe (Brittany Snow) applying to vet school, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) presenting her one-woman street show Fat Amy Winehouse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) working as a music producer, although she quits after a run in with a singularly untalented white rapper.

Invited by now-senior Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)  for an alumni graduation event, the whole crew turn up expecting to perform, only to find they’re just there to watch. However, with everyone gathered back together and having a crap time of things, Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they give it one more shot and wangles it with her forever absent army officer father to get the group invited on to a USO tour performing for American troops serving overseas, albeit in non-hostile and glossily photogenic locations like Dubai, Spain and Italy.

Arriving to find they’re sharing the bill with a rap duo, a country rock band and  the competitive Evermoist,  an all-girl  punk-pop quartet going by the names Charity, Serentity, Veracity and Calamity (Ruby Rose), using, horror, actual instruments, they also learn that DJ Khaled (playing himself badly) will choose one of the acts to open for him on the final, televisised show in France (presumably the troops at the other non-televised shows have to be content with the no-name acts) and get signed up to his label, thereby prompting the inevitable competition.

However, before we get to any of this, the film actually opens aboard a luxury yacht with the Bellas giving a performance of Brittany Spears’ Toxic to three men before Amy crashes through the skylight, sprays the men with a fire extinguisher and the boat explodes, flashing back to the run up to this and introducing Amy’s lost estranged father (John Lithgow with cod Aussie accent), an international criminal who’s re-entered his daughter’s life for reasons that become clear later.

It is, however, a wholly superfluous and generally unfunny subplot as, indeed, is that involving series regulars John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the snarkyTV commentators who, for no apparent reason are making a documentary on the Bellas. Along the way, Khaled’s producer Theo (Guy Burnet ), army hunk Chicago (Matt Lanter) and  shy hip hop artist Zeke (Troy Ian Hall) emerge as respective potential boyfriends for Beca, Chloe and Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the silent type beat boxer who finally gets to speak and reveal her real name,  there’s assorted disasters, the obligatory song battle riff offs between the rival acts and Beca is faced with a choice between solo fame and staying loyal to her Bellas family.

As ever, Kendrick, Wilson and Snow do the heavy lifting  regards the comedy, emotion and vocals, with the other troupe members largely there to make up the numbers (there’s even a gag about how surplus to requirements Jessica and Ashley are), but, while often half-hearted, unfocused and thin  with  the lengthy end credits black and white  outtakes suggesting  some ruthless editing, it ultimately manages enough funny moments,  sentimental messages about female friendship and, as ever, those a capella routines, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and George Michael’s O Freedom particular highlights,  to make it worth pitching up one last time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW PLAYING

A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

This seasonal offering reunites the main cast of the original movie, a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms, for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Empire Great Park;  Vue Star City)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Disaster Artist (15)

Released in 2003, starring and written, produced and directed by tinsel town wannabe Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and  nationality (sporting a  strangled, word-mangling Eastern European accent, several belts, shades, straggly black hair and a weathered appearance, he claimed to be  19  and from New Orleans) and with no perceptible talent in front of or behind the camera, making Ed Wood seem like Hitchcock, The Room was swiftly proclaimed to be one of the worst films ever made. However, rather than vanishing into oblivion, it gradually gained cult status for its stilted acting, erratic subplots  and staggeringly terrible script, eventually being tagged the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It even made back its $6million budget and turned a profit.

Now, James Franco, who, let’s face it, has known his fair share of awful movies, has produced, written,  directed and starred in this hysterical biopic based on the book of the same name documenting the film’s production. In what could prove the ultimate irony, it could even find itself among the Oscar nominees.

Franco’s brother Dave plays the baby-faced Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book), a struggling actor in San Francisco who, after  murdering Waiting for Godot, is impressed by classmate Tommy’s fearless bravura  reading  of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire  in an acting workshop (headed by Melanie Griffiths) and the pair form an unlikely friendship, eventually resolving to stick together and head to L.A. to make it in the movies. Inevitably, singularly ungifted,  neither get any breaks and so, on impulse, they decide to make their own movie, with Tommy in the lead as the man betrayed by his girlfriend with Greg in a major supporting role. However, when the cameras begin to roll, Greg quickly realises that Tommy might not quite be the man he’d imagined him to be, his lack of talent rendering scenes excruciating while his quirks (such as recreating a set exactly the same as the alley next to where they’re filming) make things a nightmare for everyone involved.

With a crew that includes Seth Rogen as  script supervisor (and ostensible director) Sandy Schklair,  Josh Hutcherson as 27-year-old cast as a mentally disabled teenager, Jacki Weaver as the actress trying to fathom out her pointless breast cancer subplot  and Zak Efron unrecognisable as a gangster, the film also includes priceless cameos from Judd Apataw as a testy producer and Sharon Stone as Greg’s agent while Alison Brie sparkles as the bartender who becomes his girlfriend and Bryan Cranston as himself. Plus, of course, Wiseau in person.

Franco is mesmerising as the unfathomable, indefatigable and seemingly oblivious Tommy, the film brilliantly recreating scenes from Wiseau’s film note for note as seen in the side-by-side comparisons over the end credits, his sympathetic performance underscoring the core message about believing in yourself even when that belief may be misguided,  pointedly reinforced in the film’s finale as monumental disaster and unqualified triumph go hand in hand.

Ultimately, although it hints at insecurities and hang ups and Franco’s screenplays offers moments  between Wiseau and Sestero that feed into The Room , you learn no more about Tommy or his motivations on screen than anyone knows about him off it, but that’s really not the point. No one ever sets out to make a bad film and this is a terrific love letter to the fire that drives someone to get behind a camera and make something for audiences to share and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Vue Star City)

 

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call worthwhile. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transfmring into a video cartridge, the  sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever. (From Wed: Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

Loving Vincent  (15) 

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

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

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

The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)

There can be few people who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ self-published 1843 festive ghost story of redemption  which, it’s fair to say, was hugely instrumental in the way Christmas came to be celebrated. However, equally, it’s fair to say that few will be aware of its genesis and the autobiographical elements it contains. Based on Les Standiford’s non-fiction book about its writing, director Bharat Nalluri offers up a warm slice of Sunday afternoon family movie entertainment as the film traces how the famous story came together.

Dickens (Dan Stevens, most recently seen as the shaggy half of Beauty and the Beast) is in a slump. His last two novels, Martin  Chuzzelwit and Barnaby Rudge, weren’t exactly bestsellers  and his recent account of his travels in America remains gathering dust on bookshop shelves. About which smarmy rival William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) isn’t reticent in reminding him. On top of which, he’s hit a writing block, is living somewhat beyond his means (redecorating the grand London house he’s just bought) and on top of which his father (Jonathan Pryce), a kind but irresponsible sort who, never good with money, has taken to flogging his son’s signatures, has turned up from Bristol with Charles’ mother (Ger Ryan) to spend the Christmas holidays. And, to add to the money worries, his long-suffering wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark) has announced she’s expecting their fifth child.

Needing funds, with the help of his ‘manager’, John Forster (Justin Edwards), he convinces his publishers that he’s working on a new book, a Christmas story which he intends to have in the shops before Christmas Day, just a  few weeks away. Now all he has to do is come up with a story and write it.

Passing a cemetery, he bumps into a grumpy old codger, the only mourner at a funeral, and inspiration begins to form. Next thing you know, he’s being visited by the character he’s inspired, eventually naming him Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who comes to serve as a sort of ghost-writer, advising him on plot details and the like.

Likewise, other people  he encounters are translated into characters in the book (a bit like The Wizard of Oz), a couple dancing the streets become the Fezziwigs, banker-lawyer Haddock (Donald Sumpter) is recast as Jacob Marley the new maid Tara (Anna Murphy), whose bedtime tale  to the children sparked the idea of a ghost story, surfaces as the Ghost of Christmas Past while Forster (in a  sitting for Simon Callow’s preening illustrator) inspires Christmas Present and Dickens’ sister, brother-in-law and their invalid son provide the template for the Cratchits. Readers will also note how snatches of dialogue from those Dickens meets also find their way into the story.

Quite how much of this is based on fact and how much speculation is uncertain, but it makes for suitably whimsical telling while, as Dickens is struggling to come up with an ending as the deadline approaches, things take a dark turn with memories of a revisit to the shoe blacking factory to which he was consigned as a boy when his father as carted off to debtor’s prison as well as moments that show his self-centred, narcissistic and short-tempered uglier side as he lashes out at those around him as his ‘blockage’ becomes an increasing problem.

The film does a good job of bringing the writing process to life, but, part due to a typically vanilla performance from Stevens, it never comes to life in the same way as the similarly conceived Shakespeare In Love, which imagined the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet, but it should still go down nicely with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie. (MAC)

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that its Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Vue Star City)

Wonder (12A)

In many ways, a pre-teen variation on Mask, the 1985 movie starring Eric Stoltz and Cher about a boy with a facial disfigurement, this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel charts a year in the life of science geek and all round brainy 10-year-old Auggie Pullman as, after being home-schooled, he enters middle school for the first time. Directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it features another outstanding turn from young Jacob Tremblay, the child star of Room, as August ‘Auggie’ Pullman who, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation inherited from both his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), has had  extensive reconstructive surgery on his face.

With scars along his cheeks that pull down the corners of his eyes, he’s not as disfigured to the extent Stoltz’s character was, but, if even the slightest blemish can be an embarrassment for any child entering puberty, understandably Auggie’s condition makes him particularly hyper-sensitive, so that whenever he ventures outside with his folks he wears a toy astronaut’s helmet.  He even sometimes wears it at dinner.

However, his mother, who put her career on hold to raise him, feels it’s now time that he goes out into the world sand mixes with others, to which end the understanding school principal (Mandy Patinkin) has arranged for three kids to show him around before school starts, self-absorbed Charlotte (soon forgotten),  the spoiled Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes the bully of the piece, and Jack (Nate Jupe), a scholarship kid who becomes Auggie’s best friend and science partner, albeit not without a hiccup in the relationship along the way.

By the end of the day, he’s been nicknamed after one of his Star Wars favourites, Barf Hideous (in a conceit that doesn’t always work there’s fantasised appearances by both Darth Sideous and Chewbacca) while the bullying and ostracisation he endures from many of his classmates also lead him to be befriended by Summer (Millie Davis).

As such, this would be more than enough to make for a heart-tugging tearjerker as Auggie predictably struggles with rejection along the journey to acceptance, spelling out the moral lesson about difference and tolerance as it goes, but the narrative also features chapters, focusing (partly through flashbacks) on three other characters as we see things through their eyes. One is Jack who see being persuaded  to do the right things and be the new kid’s friend, and the pressures under which he feels, while another turns the spotlight in Auggie’s  older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who dearly loves her brother but, nevertheless feels that all the attention lavished on him at home, especially by her mother, has  been to her expense, leaving her feeling like a minor planet orbiting her brother’s sun, climaxing in a powerful scene between her and Isabel. Following her own journey to self-discovery and confidence, it sees her trying out for the school production of Our Town and striking up a romance with classmate Justin (Nadji Jeter).

Also in the group is Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), one her best friend but, since they returned to school after the summer, seemingly wanting nothing to do with her. Miranda too gets her own chapter, offering up events that lead us to reassess any judgements we have passed. The same cannot be said of Julian, who remains the  cruel bully, although in a scene involving his parents, it’s easy to see where he gets it from.

It is all rather pat and, inevitably, somewhat manipulative, but, that said, thanks to a combination of the writing and the performances, Tremblay especially, and with a touching cameo from Sonia Braga as Via’s late grandmother, the emotions are honestly earned and genuinely heartfelt.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

NEW RELEASES

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Not so much and ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them,  the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the  Millennium Falcon,  Rey (Daisy Ridley),  has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having  awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either.

As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition,  Rose  (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.

Things are further divided into myriad  subplots  (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that  flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like  a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.

Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, one things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.

As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.

Initially slightly stiff  (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that its Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo  return of two  iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off.  Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half- hour bridge between more interesting chapters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ferdinand (U)

Previously adapted as a 1938 Disney animated short, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 book about a flower-loving bull now gets the full-length treatment by Rio director  Carlos Saldanha, but, despite some amusing moments and not inconsiderable charm,  never quite hits the bullseye. Born on Casa del Toros, a Spanish ranch dedicated to rearing bulls for the bullring, Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) would rather smell flowers than butt heads with his motley crew of fellow calves, among them the bullying, ultra-competitive Valiente (Bobby Cannavale).  On learning that his father – and all the other bulls –  never got out of the ring alive, Ferdinand breaks out and winds up in the countryside where he’s taken in by flower farmer Juan and his daughter Nina (Lily Day) and raised as the family pet.

However, now grown to massive size, an unfortunate mishap at the local flower festival, where he literally becomes a bull in a china shop, sees him declared a dangerous beast and he’s duly carted off by the authorities, winding up back at Casa del Toros to where famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) has come to select his opponent for his farewell bullfight. Those, like Tres,  that don’t make the cut are duly shipped off to the factory up the hill to become meat.

Refusing to fight, Ferdinand, with the help of Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a sort of  mangy calming goat trainer variation on the old boxing coach getting a  final shot with a contender, and three scrappy hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), resolves to escape again. This time taking the other bulls, including Angus (David Tennnant), a Highland bull whose hair makes it impossible to see where he’s going, and Valiente whose confrontation with Ferdinand has left him destined for the butcher’s knife, with him. To do so, however, first requires crossing the paddock occupied by a trio of  preening Lipizzaner horses (Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips). Suffice to say, although the animals get away, following a frantic chase through the Madrid streets, Ferdinand himself winds up in the bullring facing off against Primero.

It’s a fairly slight, somewhat repetitive tale, beefed  up with things like the dance battle between the bulls and the horses and,  even if  all turns out well in the end, the grim spectre of the meat factory may prove a touch upsetting for younger audiences. On the other hand, it’s visually very attractive and fluidly animated, its familiar messages about being true to yourself  and not being bullied sitting alongside an understated but clear criticism of bullfighting per se. Although Spanish accents (and music) are largely absent (her father has one, but Nina speaks pure American), even if Tennant does rather overplay things,  the voice work, especially from Cena and the scene stealing McKinnon, is appealing with sufficient quirk and cute to keep kids and adults amused and make the cattle call wortwhile. (From Sat: Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.

Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transfmring into a video cartridge, the  sucks in  teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive  panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top  type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission  to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.

Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of  the clutches of  the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.

Wisely, Kasdan and the  four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.

Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a  man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as  better, more confident people  at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.

While played for thrills and  laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two.  Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece  but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun.  Get that jungle fever. (From Wed: Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

This seasonal offering reunites the main cast of the original movie, a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms, for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park;  Vue Star City)

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story this year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (MAC)

Better Watch Out (15)

Arriving a year after its US release, this provides the obligatory seasonal black comedy horror and fully deserves to become a festive season  favourite with its cocktail of Home Alone and  Funny Games. When squabbling husband and wife, the Lerners (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) set off for a dinner party, they leave their beloved 12-year-old Lukas (Levi Miller, last seen in Pan) in the safe hands of his regular babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). What neither they nor she know, is that Lukas has the hots for her and he and his geeky best friend  Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have devised a plan for  Lukas to make a move on her. The idea is that they’ll fake an intruders in the house scenario so that Lukas can come to the ‘rescue’, except things don’t quite go that way and, far from being a  sweet if overly hormonal pubescent, Lukas is a psychopath in waiting.

Suffice to say Ashley finds herself bound and gagged to a chair, her current and former boyfriends don’t fare too well and what begins as a prank turns murderously sadistic, bloody and horrific. Laced with knowing irony and a solid set of jump moments, effectively directed and well acted by its largely unknown cast, this makes a welcome counterpoint to Hollywood’s predictable baubles and bonhomie of  Christmas cheer.  (Vue Star City)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behavior between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Disaster Artist (15)

Released in 2003, starring and written, produced and directed by tinsel town wannabe Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and  nationality (sporting a  strangled, word-mangling Eastern European accent, several belts, shades, straggly black hair and a weathered appearance, he claimed to be  19  and from New Orleans) and with no perceptible talent in front of or behind the camera, making Ed Wood seem like Hitchcock, The Room was swiftly proclaimed to be one of the worst films ever made. However, rather than vanishing into oblivion, it gradually gained cult status for its stilted acting, erratic subplots  and staggeringly terrible script, eventually being tagged the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It even made back its $6million budget and turned a profit.

Now, James Franco, who, let’s face it, has known his fair share of awful movies, has produced, written,  directed and starred in this hysterical biopic based on the book of the same name documenting the film’s production. In what could prove the ultimate irony, it could even find itself among the Oscar nominees.

Franco’s brother Dave plays the baby-faced Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book), a struggling actor in San Francisco who, after  murdering Waiting for Godot, is impressed by classmate Tommy’s fearless bravura  reading  of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire  in an acting workshop (headed by Melanie Griffiths) and the pair form an unlikely friendship, eventually resolving to stick together and head to L.A. to make it in the movies. Inevitably, singularly ungifted,  neither get any breaks and so, on impulse, they decide to make their own movie, with Tommy in the lead as the man betrayed by his girlfriend with Greg in a major supporting role. However, when the cameras begin to roll, Greg quickly realises that Tommy might not quite be the man he’d imagined him to be, his lack of talent rendering scenes excruciating while his quirks (such as recreating a set exactly the same as the alley next to where they’re filming) make things a nightmare for everyone involved.

With a crew that includes Seth Rogen as  script supervisor (and ostensible director) Sandy Schklair,  Josh Hutcherson as 27-year-old cast as a mentally disabled teenager, Jacki Weaver as the actress trying to fathom out her pointless breast cancer subplot  and Zak Efron unrecognisable as a gangster, the film also includes priceless cameos from Judd Apataw as a testy producer and Sharon Stone as Greg’s agent while Alison Brie sparkles as the bartender who becomes his girlfriend and Bryan Cranston as himself. Plus, of course, Wiseau in person.

Franco is mesmerising as the unfathomable, indefatigable and seemingly oblivious Tommy, the film brilliantly recreating scenes from Wiseau’s film note for note as seen in the side-by-side comparisons over the end credits, his sympathetic performance underscoring the core message about believing in yourself even when that belief may be misguided,  pointedly reinforced in the film’s finale as monumental disaster and unqualified triumph go hand in hand.

Ultimately, although it hints at insecurities and hang ups and Franco’s screenplays offers moments  between Wiseau and Sestero that feed into The Room , you learn no more about Tommy or his motivations on screen than anyone knows about him off it, but that’s really not the point. No one ever sets out to make a bad film and this is a terrific love letter to the fire that drives someone to get behind a camera and make something for audiences to share and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; MAC; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)

There can be few people who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ self-published 1843 festive ghost story of redemption  which, it’s fair to say, was hugely instrumental in the way Christmas came to be celebrated. However, equally, it’s fair to say that few will be aware of its genesis and the autobiographical elements it contains. Based on Les Standiford’s non-fiction book about its writing, director Bharat Nalluri offers up a warm slice of Sunday afternoon family movie entertainment as the film traces how the famous story came together.

Dickens (Dan Stevens, most recently seen as the shaggy half of Beauty and the Beast) is in a slump. His last two novels, Martin  Chuzzelwit and Barnaby Rudge, weren’t exactly bestsellers  and his recent account of his travels in America remains gathering dust on bookshop shelves. About which smarmy rival William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) isn’t reticent in reminding him. On top of which, he’s hit a writing block, is living somewhat beyond his means (redecorating the grand London house he’s just bought) and on top of which his father (Jonathan Pryce), a kind but irresponsible sort who, never good with money, has taken to flogging his son’s signatures, has turned up from Bristol with Charles’ mother (Ger Ryan) to spend the Christmas holidays. And, to add to the money worries, his long-suffering wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark) has announced she’s expecting their fifth child.

Needing funds, with the help of his ‘manager’, John Forster (Justin Edwards), he convinces his publishers that he’s working on a new book, a Christmas story which he intends to have in the shops before Christmas Day, just a  few weeks away. Now all he has to do is come up with a story and write it.

Passing a cemetery, he bumps into a grumpy old codger, the only mourner at a funeral, and inspiration begins to form. Next thing you know, he’s being visited by the character he’s inspired, eventually naming him Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who comes to serve as a sort of ghost-writer, advising him on plot details and the like.

Likewise, other people  he encounters are translated into characters in the book (a bit like The Wizard of Oz), a couple dancing the streets become the Fezziwigs, banker-lawyer Haddock (Donald Sumpter) is recast as Jacob Marley the new maid Tara (Anna Murphy), whose bedtime tale  to the children sparked the idea of a ghost story, surfaces as the Ghost of Christmas Past while Forster (in a  sitting for Simon Callow’s preening illustrator) inspires Christmas Present and Dickens’ sister, brother-in-law and their invalid son provide the template for the Cratchits. Readers will also note how snatches of dialogue from those Dickens meets also find their way into the story.

Quite how much of this is based on fact and how much speculation is uncertain, but it makes for suitably whimsical telling while, as Dickens is struggling to come up with an ending as the deadline approaches, things take a dark turn with memories of a revisit to the shoe blacking factory to which he was consigned as a boy when his father as carted off to debtor’s prison as well as moments that show his self-centred, narcissistic and short-tempered uglier side as he lashes out at those around him as his ‘blockage’ becomes an increasing problem.

The film does a good job of bringing the writing process to life, but, part due to a typically vanilla performance from Stevens, it never comes to life in the same way as the similarly conceived Shakespeare In Love, which imagined the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet, but it should still go down nicely with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie. (Odeon Birmingham)

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Stronger (15)

The second film based around the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but where Patriot’s Day detailed the hunt for those responsible, David Gordon Green’s film focuses its attention on the story of one of the survivors, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs below the knee, identified one of the bombers and  subsequently became a reluctant hero and the symbol for the Boston Strong movement.

It is not, as might be expected, a film about his road to recovery and learning to walk again on artificial legs. Although such elements naturally form part of the storyline, this is about a different kind of growth, from the immature, unreliable figure we see at the start to a very different person at the closing credits. This is mostly told through his relationship with ex- girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who, after any number of occasions when he’d not turned up as arranged,  he had gone to cheer on at the finishing line. Naturally, this also leads her to feel a sense of guilt which may, in part, explain why the two of them get back together, but there’s more to the relationship than his need and her feelings of blame. Running alongside this is the interaction with his overbearing and dysfunctional working class Boston family, primarily his divorced, alcoholic possessive mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) and, adapted from Bauman’s memoir, the film doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels between how she (and to a lesser extent the others) looked to bask in his limelight in much the same way that the city wheeled him out  at Red Sox games as an inspirational symbol. Neither they nor Patty step back and consider how Jess might be dealing with the divide between the hero he’s paraded as and the troubled victim he sees  when he looks at his shattered body. Green underscores this with traumatic flashbacks to the bombing and, in a moving scene between him and Carlos Arredondo, the man who saved him at the scene, a very pointed reference to post traumatic stress disorder.

That meeting also serves as Jeff’s epiphany and the moment when he looks beyond himself and his bouts of self-pity to see what his experience might mean for others. It’s also the moment when despite several intense close up moments emphasising Jeff’s anger, confusion and helplessness, after playing in a somewhat polite minor key, finally catches some sort of emotional fire.  Gyllenhaal delivers a terrific performance and character arc that balanaces dram and humour and he’s well matched with Maslany who finds her own strength to defy Patty and work past her guilt as well realise she can’t let  Jeff’s situation blind her to his propensity to be a selfish screw up. Green has delivered an inspirational film rich in humanity, but in doing so he’s remembered to leave  the rough edges and mix the bitter with the sweet.  (Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wonder (12A)

In many ways, a pre-teen variation on Mask, the 1985 movie starring Eric Stoltz and Cher about a boy with a facial disfigurement, this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel charts a year in the life of science geek and all round brainy 10-year-old Auggie Pullman as, after being home-schooled, he enters middle school for the first time. Directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it features another outstanding turn from young Jacob Tremblay, the child star of Room, as August ‘Auggie’ Pullman who, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation inherited from both his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), has had  extensive reconstructive surgery on his face.

With scars along his cheeks that pull down the corners of his eyes, he’s not as disfigured to the extent Stoltz’s character was, but, if even the slightest blemish can be an embarrassment for any child entering puberty, understandably Auggie’s condition makes him particularly hyper-sensitive, so that whenever he ventures outside with his folks he wears a toy astronaut’s helmet.  He even sometimes wears it at dinner.

However, his mother, who put her career on hold to raise him, feels it’s now time that he goes out into the world sand mixes with others, to which end the understanding school principal (Mandy Patinkin) has arranged for three kids to show him around before school starts, self-absorbed Charlotte (soon forgotten),  the spoiled Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes the bully of the piece, and Jack (Nate Jupe), a scholarship kid who becomes Auggie’s best friend and science partner, albeit not without a hiccup in the relationship along the way.

By the end of the day, he’s been nicknamed after one of his Star Wars favourites, Barf Hideous (in a conceit that doesn’t always work there’s fantasised appearances by both Darth Sideous and Chewbacca) while the bullying and ostracisation he endures from many of his classmates also lead him to be befriended by Summer (Millie Davis).

As such, this would be more than enough to make for a heart-tugging tearjerker as Auggie predictably struggles with rejection along the journey to acceptance, spelling out the moral lesson about difference and tolerance as it goes, but the narrative also features chapters, focusing (partly through flashbacks) on three other characters as we see things through their eyes. One is Jack who see being persuaded  to do the right things and be the new kid’s friend, and the pressures under which he feels, while another turns the spotlight in Auggie’s  older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who dearly loves her brother but, nevertheless feels that all the attention lavished on him at home, especially by her mother, has  been to her expense, leaving her feeling like a minor planet orbiting her brother’s sun, climaxing in a powerful scene between her and Isabel. Following her own journey to self-discovery and confidence, it sees her trying out for the school production of Our Town and striking up a romance with classmate Justin (Nadji Jeter).

 Also in the group is Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), one her best friend but, since they returned to school after the summer, seemingly wanting nothing to do with her. Miranda too gets her own chapter, offering up events that lead us to reassess any judgements we have passed. The same cannot be said of Julian, who remains the  cruel bully, although in a scene involving his parents, it’s easy to see where he gets it from.

It is all rather pat and, inevitably, somewhat manipulative, but, that said, thanks to a combination of the writing and the performances, Tremblay especially, and with a touching cameo from Sonia Braga as Via’s late grandmother, the emotions are honestly earned and genuinely heartfelt.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham –Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

NEW RELEASES

The Disaster Artist (15)

Released in 2003, starring and written, produced and directed by tinsel town wannabe Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and  nationality (sporting a  strangled, word-mangling Eastern European accent, several belts, shades, straggly black hair and a weathered appearance, he claimed to be  19  and from New Orleans) and with no perceptible talent in front of or behind the camera, making Ed Wood seem like Hitchcock, The Room was swiftly proclaimed to be one of the worst films ever made. However, rather than vanishing into oblivion, it gradually gained cult status for its stilted acting, erratic subplots  and staggeringly terrible script, eventually being tagged the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It even made back its $6million budget and turned a profit.

Now, James Franco, who, let’s face it, has known his fair share of awful movies, has produced, written,  directed and starred in this hysterical biopic based on the book of the same name documenting the film’s production. In what could prove the ultimate irony, it could even find itself among the Oscar nominees.

Franco’s brother Dave plays the baby-faced Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book), a struggling actor in San Francisco who, after  murdering Waiting for Godot, is impressed by classmate Tommy’s fearless bravura  reading  of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire  in an acting workshop (headed by Melanie Griffiths) and the pair form an unlikely friendship, eventually resolving to stick together and head to L.A. to make it in the movies. Inevitably, singularly ungifted,  neither get any breaks and so, on impulse, they decide to make their own movie, with Tommy in the lead as the man betrayed by his girlfriend with Greg in a major supporting role. However, when the cameras begin to roll, Greg quickly realises that Tommy might not quite be the man he’d imagined him to be, his lack of talent rendering scenes excruciating while his quirks (such as recreating a set exactly the same as the alley next to where they’re filming) make things a nightmare for everyone involved.

With a crew that includes Seth Rogen as  script supervisor (and ostensible director) Sandy Schklair,  Josh Hutcherson as 27-year-old cast as a mentally disabled teenager, Jacki Weaver as the actress trying to fathom out her pointless breast cancer subplot  and Zak Efron unrecognisable as a gangster, the film also incoudes priceless cameos from Judd Apataw as a testy producer and Sharon Stone as Greg’s agent while Alison Brie sparkles as the bartender who becomes his girlfriend and Bryan Cranston as himself. Plus, of course, Wiseau in person.

Franco is mesmerising as the unfathomable, indefatigable and seemingly oblivious Tommy, the film brilliantly recreating scenes from Wiseau’s film note for note as seen in the side-by-side comparisons over the end credits, his sympathetic performance underscoring the core message about believing in yourself even when that belief may be misguided,  pointedly reinforced in the film’s finale as monumental disaster and unqualified triumph go hand in hand.

Ultimately, although it hints at insecurities and hang ups and Franco’s screenplays offers moments  between Wiseau and Sestero that feed into The Room , you learn no more about Tommy or his motivations on screen than anyone knows about him off it, but that’s really not the point. No one ever sets out to make a bad film and this is a terrific love letter to the fire that drives someone to get behind a camera and make something for audiences to share and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Better Watch Out (15)

Made a year ago, this provides the obligatory seasonal black comedy horror and fully deserves to become a festive season  favourite with its cocktail of Home Alone and  Funny Games. When squabbling husband and wife, the Lerners (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) set off for a dinner party, they leave their beloved 12-year-old Lukas (Levi Miller, last seen in Pan) in the safe hands of his regular babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). What neither they nor she know, is that Lukas has the hots for her and he and his geeky best friend  Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have devised a plan for  Lukas to make a move on her. The idea is that they’ll fake an intruders in the house scenario so that Lukas can come to the ‘rescue’, except things don’t quite go that way and, far from being a  sweet if overly hormonal pubescent, Lukas is a psychopath in waiting.

Suffice to say Ashley finds herself bound and gagged to a chair, her current and former boyfriends don’t fare too well and what begins as a prank turns murderously sadistic, bloody and horrific. Laced with knowing irony and a solid set of jump moments, effectively directed and well acted by its largely unknown cast, this makes a welcome counterpoint to Hollywood’s predictable baubles and bonhomie of  Christmas cheer.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

Brigsby Bear (15)

Presumably deemed too quirky for a wide release, this collaboration between Saturday Night Live friends, director Dave McCary and co-writer/star Kyle Mooney gets just a one screen local showing, but is well worth seeking out. Initially, it seems that James Pope (Mooney), a  twenty-something maths wizard man-child, lives with his parents Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams) in some desert underground survivalist bunker, safe from the toxic environment in a post-apocalyptic world. James is a massive fan of Brigsby, a weekly kids adventure cum educational moral lessons TV show about a humanoid bear and his twin friends, the  Smiles Sisters, as they battle the wicked Sunsnatcher, and has amassed a stockpile of VHS cassettes of every episode in its  35 volume history, communicating with other surviving fans via a primitive computer.

But then everything changes, and it’s revealed that James was actually kidnapped as a baby and that toy inventor Ted has been making the Brigsby shows – and voicing Brigsby – himself. Now, rescued by the FBI and reunited with his real parents,  Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and his sardonic  teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), James has to learn to fit into a world he’s never known and, worse, face the fact that his favourite TV show was a fake.

What he actually does, with the help of Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), a wannabe high school filmmaker he meets when Aubrey reluctantly takes him along to a party, and sympathetic FBI agent Vogel (Gren Kinnear), is set out to make a movie and give the Brigsby Bear story a conclusion, with himself directing and wearing the suit.

Inevitably, his parents are more than a touch concerned, and his therapist (Claire Danes) even recommends he be temporarily institutionalised, but with the YouTube clips that Spencer’s uploaded having become a cult, James is ever more determined to bring Brigsby’s adventures to a fitting finale, even if that means recruiting his imprisoned fake father and the now grown waitress (Kate Lyn Shiel) who played Arielle and Nina Smiles when she was young, and on whom James had a crush.

An offbeat but sincerely crafted coming of age dramady that has Sundance stamped all over it, it serves as an ode to family, friendship and, opening timely alongside James Franco’s film, the creative process, Mooney plays James absolutely deadpan, endearingly capturing both his naivete and his enthusiasm in way that sidesteps any hint of condescension or mannerism while the supporting cast chime perfectly with the tone, Kinnear a treat as the cop rediscovering his inner actor. Eccentric perhaps, but also very funny and unexpectedly touching.  (Vue Star City)

Stronger (15)

The second film based around the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but where Patriot’s Day detailed the hunt for those responsible, David Gordon Green’s film focuses its attention on the story of one of the survivors, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs below the knee, identified one of the bombers and  subsequently became a reluctant hero and the symbol for the Boston Strong movement.

It is not, as might be expected, a film about his road to recovery and learning to walk again on artificial legs. Although such elements naturally form part of the storyline, this is about a different kind of growth, from the immature, unreliable figure we see at the start to a very different person at the closing credits. This is mostly told through his relationship with ex- girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who, after any number of occasions when he’d not turned up as arranged,  he had gone to cheer on at the finishing line. Naturally, this also leads her to feel a sense of guilt which may, in part, explain why the two of them get back together, but there’s more to the relationship than his need and her feelings of blame. Running alongside this is the interaction with his overbearing and dysfunctional working class Boston family, primarily his divorced, alcoholic possessive mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) and, adapted from Bauman’s memoir, the film doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels between how she (and to a lesser extent the others) looked to bask in his limelight in much the same way that the city wheeled him out  at Red Sox games as an inspirational symbol. Neither they nor Patty step back and consider how Jess might be dealing with the divide between the hero he’s paraded as and the troubled victim he sees  when he looks at his shattered body. Green underscores this with traumatic flashbacks to the bombing and, in a moving scene between him and Carlos Arredondo, the man who saved him at the scene, a very pointed reference to post traumatic stress disorder.

That meeting also serves as Jeff’s epiphany and the moment when he looks beyond himself and his bouts of self-pity to see what his experience might mean for others. It’s also the moment when despite several intense close up moments emphasising Jeff’s anger, confusion and helplessness, after playing in a somewhat polite minor key, finally catches some sort of emotional fire.  Gyllenhaal delivers a terrific performance and character arc that balanaces dram and humour and he’s well matched with Maslany who finds her own strength to defy Patty and work past her guilt as well realise she can’t let  Jeff’s situation blind her to his propensity to be a selfish screw up. Green has delivered an inspirational film rich in humanity, but in doing so he’s remembered to leave  the rough edges and mix the bitter with the sweet.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Vue Star City)

NOW PLAYING

A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

This seasonal offering reunites the main cast of the original movie, a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms, for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story this year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park)

Call Me By Your Name (15) 

Busily gathering awards, like In God’s Country  this is another critically acclaimed story of homosexual awakening and first love, adapted from André Aciman’s novel and  directed by Luca Guadagnino. Previews were’nt available, but, set in   the north of Italy in the summer of 1983,  it stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian who whilea away his time in the family’s lavish villa transcribing and playing classical music. He flirts with his friend Marzia (Esther Garre) and has  a close bond with his father and mother, (Michael Stuhlbarg. Amira Casar), respectively a classics and a  translator. Then, one day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American academic working on his PhD, arrives to intern with Elio’s father,  stirring the awakening of desire over the course of a summer romance. (Electric)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behavior between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Filmstars Don’t Die in Liverpool (15)

She was Gloria Grahame, a four-time divorcee faded movie star from the black and white era and Oscar winner for the Bad and the Beautiful whose fortunes had declined after she refused to play the Hollywood game, he was Peter Turner, an aspiring Liverpudlian actor. Meeting in London in 1978 where she was living in the same digs while appearing in a stage production, she asked him to help practise her dance moves and they subsequently became friends and then, despite a 29-year age gap, lovers, Turner moving first to California and her beach front home and then into her Manhattan apartment.

The affair ended badly in 1980 when Grahame threw him out and he returned  to Liverpool to start work on a  new play. Then, one day in 1981, he received a call saying she had been taken hill in Lancaster just as she was about to on stage. Peter collected her and brought her back to his parents’ home, she refusing to see a doctor and insisting that she would recover here. He subsequently learned that she had advanced stomach cancer.

All of this is recalled in Turner’s memoir of the same title, a reference to something said by his Uncle Jack (though never actually spoken in the film) and now brought to the screen by director Paul McGuigan and writer Matt Greenhalgh with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell giving sensational performances in the lead roles with solid support from Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as his parents, Bellla and Jo, Stephen Graham as brother Joe and, in a notably striking scene, Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s British former stage-actress mother and Frances Barber as her acid-tongued jealous sister Joy.

Set in 1981 but flashing back (in a theatrical style) two years to their earlier relationship, it’s a tender, warm  and often very sensual and funny May-December love story, a particularly amusing moment being when Peter takes her to see Alien and her reactions to the legendary chest scene are rather different to his and the rest of the audience.

Inevitably likely to be compared with My Week With Marilyn, this may not have quite the same relationship complexity and it never fully explains Grahame’s clearly deep connections with Peter’s parents and his confession of a bisexual past adds nothing to the narrative other than to underscore how, while he told her personal truths, she kept her cancer from him. With Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend providing the musical motif, it arguably hits its poignantly emotional peak in a scene where Peter takes her to the deserted Liverpool Playhouse  to give her a special gift, but its humanity, compassion and the deep vein of love and friendship that permeates the entire film make this an unmissable experience.  (MAC)

The Florida Project (15)

Working with a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment than his previous offering, Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, director  and co-writer Sean Baker offers a bleak and bittersweet portrait of dysfunctional life below the poverty line on Orlando’s fringes, events set around  The Magic Castle, a cheap motel in a run-down suburb within almost spitting distance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Florida resort, the helicopters ferrying guests landing and taking off within view of the motel, some, as in the amusing opening sequence with a couple of honeymooners, accidentally booking in here by mistake.

A  last resort doss house for any number of life’s losers,  it’s managed by Bobby (a superbly understated Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast), a gruff but good-hearted reluctant father figure  to its motley residents, among them heavily tattooed, combative  young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who, a former stripper and now currently unemployed, is struggling to raise the weekly rent, reselling knock off perfumes to the tourists and relying on waffle  hand outs from a  friend down the local diner to  feed her feisty six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We first encounter her with her friend from upstairs, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting  from the balcony on to one of the cars below. The confrontation with its naturally irate owner leads to Moonee striking up a friendship with new resident Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and the film then follows the mischievous but essentially innocent escapades of these street urchins, interspersed with Halley’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise the cash she needs, eventually resorting to advertising sexual favours. Inevitably, at some point social services arrive on the scene.

There’s no plot as such, rather a series of anecdotal incidents variously involving Halley scamming a tourist with stolen Disneyland wristbands, the burning down of a building on an abandoned housing development.

In many ways echoing Mark Twain and the Our Gang movies of the 30s, with its improvisational, documentary-like feel and abrupt unresolved ending, it’s not going to be for anyone, but for those prepared to let it wash through them, it presents a sobering and depressing vision of the scrap heap of the American Dream as well as an emotionally challenging observation on parenting in a world where hope has long packed its bags and left. Halley is at once incredibly  selfishly irresponsible and yet passionately committed in her relationship with Moonee who, for all her rudeness and impertinence carries no malice, merely mirrored behaviour and the scenes of childhood friendship between her and Jancey (the two young stars giving terrific, scene-stealing but natural performances) are bursting with both joy and heartbreak. As is the film. (MAC)

 

 

Jigsaw (18)

Seven years on from the so-called Final Chapter and eleven years after John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – aka Jigsaw, the  sadistic serial killer with a warped sense of morality, met his end in Saw III, he’s apparently back as a new writing and directing team look to resuscitate the franchise and give it some new, ahem, blood.

The action cuts between two sets of events, as we first meet five unrelated captives with buckets over their heads and chains that draw them towards a series of buzzsaws. They’re quickly whittled down to four, the dead body turning up hanging from a tree in the local park. Investigating the murder, the body having half its head sliced off, the coroner team, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonnerville (Hannah Emily Anderson), quickly conclude from the forensic evidence, and a memory stick with an audio recording hidden on the body, that, impossible though it seems, this is the work of Jigsaw.

Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who worked the original cases, doesn’t buy this and reckons it’s the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, back in Jigsaw’s lair, the survivors, Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles, Ryan (Paul Braunstein) and Carly (Brittany Allen) are told that, if they want to live, they have to play his games and confess their sins. One by one their numbers are  bloodily reduced to two, meanwhile Bonnerville’s revealed to have  a Jigsaw obsession while Logan convinces surplus to plot Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennet) that it’s the clearly shady  Halloran who’s actually the killer.

As you’ll have assumed, there’s a shoal of red herrings swimming around not to mention a well-worn sleight of hand to explain how Kramer can still be carrying out his gruesome and graphically detailed Punisher-like killings when he should be rotting in the grave. However, once the curtain’s pulled back to reveal what you’ve been watching, it quickly becomes apparent that the pieces don’t fit and the contrived set-up and motivations lack both logic and plausibility. However, the fact that you don’t care about any of the characters,  that it’s not remotely scary or as clever as it thinks it is, is unlikely to prevent this from cranking up another sequel.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Loving Vincent  (15) 

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

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

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

The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)

There can be few people who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ self-published 1843 festive ghost story of redemption  which, it’s fair to say, was hugely instrumental in the way Christmas came to be celebrated. However, equally, it’s fair to say that few will be aware of its genesis and the autobiographical elements it contains. Based on Les Standiford’s non-fiction book about its writing, director Bharat Nalluri offers up a warm slice of Sunday afternoon family movie entertainment as the film traces how the famous story came together.

Dickens (Dan Stevens, most recently seen as the shaggy half of Beauty and the Beast) is in a slump. His last two novels, Martin  Chuzzelwit and Barnaby Rudge, weren’t exactly bestsellers  and his recent account of his travels in America remains gathering dust on bookshop shelves. About which smarmy rival William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) isn’t reticent in reminding him. On top of which, he’s hit a writing block, is living somewhat beyond his means (redecorating the grand London house he’s just bought) and on top of which his father (Jonathan Pryce), a kind but irresponsible sort who, never good with money, has taken to flogging his son’s signatures, has turned up from Bristol with Charles’ mother (Ger Ryan) to spend the Christmas holidays. And, to add to the money worries, his long-suffering wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark) has announced she’s expecting their fifth child.

Needing funds, with the help of his ‘manager’, John Forster (Justin Edwards), he convinces his publishers that he’s working on a new book, a Christmas story which he intends to have in the shops before Christmas Day, just a  few weeks away. Now all he has to do is come up with a story and write it.

Passing a cemetery, he bumps into a grumpy old codger, the only mourner at a funeral, and inspiration begins to form. Next thing you know, he’s being visited by the character he’s inspired, eventually naming him Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who comes to serve as a sort of ghost-writer, advising him on plot details and the like.

Likewise, other people  he encounters are translated into characters in the book (a bit like The Wizard of Oz), a couple dancing the streets become the Fezziwigs, banker-lawyer Haddock (Donald Sumpter) is recast as Jacob Marley the new maid Tara (Anna Murphy), whose bedtime tale  to the children sparked the idea of a ghost story, surfaces as the Ghost of Christmas Past while Forster (in a  sitting for Simon Callow’s preening illustrator) inspires Christmas Present and Dickens’ sister, brother-in-law and their invalid son provide the template for the Cratchits. Readers will also note how snatches of dialogue from those Dickens meets also find their way into the story.

Quite how much of this is based on fact and how much speculation is uncertain, but it makes for suitably whimsical telling while, as Dickens is struggling to come up with an ending as the deadline approaches, things take a dark turn with memories of a revisit to the shoe blacking factory to which he was consigned as a boy when his father as carted off to debtor’s prison as well as moments that show his self-centred, narcissistic and short-tempered uglier side as he lashes out at those around him as his ‘blockage’ becomes an increasing problem.

The film does a good job of bringing the writing process to life, but, part due to a typically vanilla performance from Stevens, it never comes to life in the same way as the similarly conceived Shakespeare In Love, which imagined the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet, but it should still go down nicely with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham)

Moonlight (15)

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. (Fri, Sun, Tue:Electric)

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Star (U)

An animated (as in technique rather than style) retelling of the Nativity story from the perspective of the animals, the camels complaining about the three kings’ poor sense of direction and a donkey (Steven Yeun), goat and dove looking to head off King Herod’s (Christopher Plummer) bloodthirsty dogs and warn Joseph and Mary, this is well-intentioned but never really manages to balance the reverence for  the story with the silliness of the comedy.

There are some amusing touches for the grown ups, such as a caption that reads “Nazareth 9 months B.C.” not to mention  the in-joke that Mary is aptly voiced by Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin and the kids will enjoy the cute animal antics, but, ultimately, it’s all rather generic and nondescript, regularly punctuated by anachronistic contemporary dialogue (in American accents, of course) with Mariah Carey providing the theme song. For those of the faith, it’s an innocuous way of introducing the kids to the Bible story  and is, of course far more about the real meaning of Christmas than Bad Moms. For everyone else, this doesn’t twinkle.  (Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

 

Suburbicon   (15)

For his sixth film as director, George Clooney  returns to the 50s America setting of Good Night and Good Luck but with far fewer dividends in this clunky satire resurrected and rewritten from an unproduced Coen Brothers script that, ironically, feels like a poor Coens film noir pastiche, Fargo a particularly obvious touchstone.

Set in an idyllic American community in 1959, it stars a miscast Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a local financial executive who conspires with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore) to murder her twin sister, his wheelchair-bound wife Rose , and claim the insurance money. To which end, he hires a couple of thugs (Glenn Flesher, Alex Hassell) to stage a break-in, tie up the family and  chloroform them, his young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) waking up to be  told that’s mom’s dead. Before long, Margaret  moves in and, naturally, things don’t subsequently go smoothly, a smarmy and suspicious claims investigator (Oscar Isaac) turns up with blackmail on his mind and the two thugs set out to remove any incriminating evidence as, like Macbeth, Gardner soon discovers that one murder often leads to more. Meanwhile Nicky’s starting to suspect there’s something going on between his aunt and dad, especially when, at an identity parade, they don’t point out the men and he walks in on the two of them engaged in some S&M hanky panky and turns to his blustery Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) for help.

Set alongside all this, there’s a subplot about new neighbours, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke), Suburbicon’s first Negro  family, who, although Nicky strike sup a friendship with the son, are quickly subjected to all manner of racism and harassment from the scandalized community, although, despite the thematic link,  this seems to be part of a different film entirely and is actually based on real life experience of a coloured family in Levittown, Pernnsylvania, during the same period.

Damon inevitably calls to mind William H. Macy’s far better performance in Fargo while Moore is all sub-par Hitchcock femme fatale, only Jupe and, in his all too brief appearance, Isaac  making any real impression. Tonally uneven and bitty, the tension contrived and forced, Gardner’s schemes unravelling along with the film’s  grip on the audience, it may look good but its portrait of the darkness behind the facade of the cookie cutter American Dream is painted in drably uninteresting and muddled colours. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park)

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Wonder (12A)

In many ways, a pre-teen variation on Mask, the 1985 movie starring Eric Stoltz and Cher about a boy with a facial disfigurement, this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel charts a year in the life of science geek and all round brainy 10-year-old Auggie Pullman as, after being home-schooled, he enters middle school for the first time. Directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it features another outstanding turn from young Jacob Tremblay, the child star of Room, as August ‘Auggie’ Pullman who, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation inherited from both his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), has had  extensive reconstructive surgery on his face.

With scars along his cheeks that pull down the corners of his eyes, he’s not as disfigured to the extent Stoltz’s character was, but, if even the slightest blemish can be an embarrassment for any child entering puberty, understandably Auggie’s condition makes him particularly hyper-sensitive, so that whenever he ventures outside with his folks he wears a toy astronaut’s helmet.  He even sometimes wears it at dinner.

However, his mother, who put her career on hold to raise him, feels it’s now time that he goes out into the world sand mixes with others, to which end the understanding school principal (Mandy Patinkin) has arranged for three kids to show him around before school starts, self-absorbed Charlotte (soon forgotten),  the spoiled Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes the bully of the piece, and Jack (Nate Jupe), a scholarship kid who becomes Auggie’s best friend and science partner, albeit not without a hiccup in the relationship along the way.

By the end of the day, he’s been nicknamed after one of his Star Wars favourites, Barf Hideous (in a conceit that doesn’t always work there’s fantasised appearances by both Darth Sideous and Chewbacca) while the bullying and ostracisation he endures from many of his classmates also lead him to be befriended by Summer (Millie Davis).

As such, this would be more than enough to make for a heart-tugging tearjerker as Auggie predictably struggles with rejection along the journey to acceptance, spelling out the moral lesson about difference and tolerance as it goes, but the narrative also features chapters, focusing (partly through flashbacks) on three other characters as we see things through their eyes. One is Jack who see being persuaded  to do the right things and be the new kid’s friend, and the pressures under which he feels, while another turns the spotlight in Auggie’s  older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who dearly loves her brother but, nevertheless feels that all the attention lavished on him at home, especially by her mother, has  been to her expense, leaving her feeling like a minor planet orbiting her brother’s sun, climaxing in a powerful scene between her and Isabel. Following her own journey to self-discovery and confidence, it sees her trying out for the school production of Our Town and striking up a romance with classmate Justin (Nadji Jeter).

Also in the group is Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), one her best friend but, since they returned to school after the summer, seemingly wanting nothing to do with her. Miranda too gets her own chapter, offering up events that lead us to reassess any judgements we have passed. The same cannot be said of Julian, who remains the  cruel bully, although in a scene involving his parents, it’s easy to see where he gets it from.

It is all rather pat and, inevitably, somewhat manipulative, but, that said, thanks to a combination of the writing and the performances, Tremblay especially, and with a touching cameo from Sonia Braga as Via’s late grandmother, the emotions are honestly earned and genuinely heartfelt.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 1-Thu Dec 7

NEW RELEASES

Wonder (12A)

In many ways, a pre-teen variation on Mask, the 1985 movie starring Eric Stoltz and Cher about a boy with a facial disfigurement, this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel charts a year in the life of science geek and all round brainy 10-year-old Auggie Pullman as, after being home-schooled, he enters middle school for the first time. Directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it features another outstanding turn from young Jacob Tremblay, the child star of Room, as August ‘Auggie’ Pullman who, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation inherited from both his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), has had  extensive reconstructive surgery on his face.

With scars along his cheeks that pull down the corners of his eyes, he’s not as disfigured to the extent Stoltz’s character was, but, if even the slightest blemish can be an embarrassment for any child entering puberty, understandably Auggie’s condition makes him particularly hyper-sensitive, so that whenever he ventures outside with his folks he wears a toy astronaut’s helmet.  He even sometimes wears it at dinner.

However, his mother, who put her career on hold to raise him, feels it’s now time that he goes out into the world sand mixes with others, to which end the understanding school principal (Mandy Patinkin) has arranged for three kids to show him around before school starts, self-absorbed Charlotte (soon forgotten),  the spoiled Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes the bully of the piece, and Jack (Nate Jupe), a scholarship kid who becomes Auggie’s best friend and science partner, albeit not without a hiccup in the relationship along the way.

By the end of the day, he’s been nicknamed after one of his Star Wars favourites, Barf Hideous (in a conceit that doesn’t always work there’s fantasised appearances by both Darth Sideous and Chewbacca) while the bullying and ostracisation he endures from many of his classmates also lead him to be befriended by Summer (Millie Davis).

As such, this would be more than enough to make for a heart-tugging tearjerker as Auggie predictably struggles with rejection along the journey to acceptance, spelling out the moral lesson about difference and tolerance as it goes, but the narrative also features chapters, focusing (partly through flashbacks) on three other characters as we see things through their eyes. One is Jack who see being persuaded  to do the right things and be the new kid’s friend, and the pressures under which he feels, while another turns the spotlight in Auggie’s  older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who dearly loves her brother but, nevertheless feels that all the attention lavished on him at home, especially by her mother, has  been to her expense, leaving her feeling like a minor planet orbiting her brother’s sun, climaxing in a powerful scene between her and Isabel. Following her own journey to self-discovery and confidence, it sees her trying out for the school production of Our Town and striking up a romance with classmate Justin (Nadji Jeter).

Also in the group is Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), one her best friend but, since they returned to school after the summer, seemingly wanting nothing to do with her. Miranda too gets her own chapter, offering up events that lead us to reassess any judgements we have passed. The same cannot be said of Julian, who remains the  cruel bully, although in a scene involving his parents, it’s easy to see where he gets it from.

It is all rather pat and, inevitably, somewhat manipulative, but, that said, thanks to a combination of the writing and the performances, Tremblay especially, and with a touching cameo from Sonia Braga as Via’s late grandmother, the emotions are honestly earned and genuinely heartfelt.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)

There can be few people who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol, Charles Dicken’s self-published 1843 festive ghost story of redemption  which, it’s fair to say, was hugely instrumental in the way Christmas came to be celebrated. However, equally, it’s fair to say that few will be aware of its genesis and the autobiographical elements it contains. Based on Les Standiford’s non-fiction book about its writing, director Bharat Nalluri offers up a warm slice of Sunday afternoon family movie entertainment as the film traces how the famous story came together.

Dickens (Dan Stevens, most recently seen as the shaggy half of Beauty and the Beast) is in a slump. His last two novels, Martin  Chuzzelwit and Barnaby Rudge, weren’t exactly bestsellers  and his recent account of his travels in America remains gathering dust on bookshop shelves. About which smarmy rival William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) isn’t reticent in reminding him. On top of which, he’s hit a writing block, is living somewhat beyond his means (redecorating the grand London house he’s just bought) and on top of which his father (Jonathan Pryce), a kind but irresponsible sort who, never good with money, has taken to flogging his son’s signatures, has turned up from Bristol with Charles’ mother (Ger Ryan) to spend the Christmas holidays. And, to add to the money worries, his long-suffering wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark) has announced she’s expecting their fifth child.

Needing funds, with the help of his ‘manager’, John Forster (Justin Edwards), he convinces his publishers that he’s working on a new book, a Christmas story which he intends to have in the shops before Christmas Day, just a  few weeks away. Now all he has to do is come up with a story and write it.

Passing a cemetery, he bumps into a grumpy old codger, the only mourner at a funeral, and inspiration begins to form. Next thing you know, he’s being visited by the character he’s inspired, eventually naming him Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who comes to serve as a sort of ghost-writer, advising him on plot details and the like.

Likewise, other people  he encounters are translated into characters in the book (a bit like The Wizard of Oz), a couple dancing the streets become the Fezziwigs, banker-lawyer Haddock (Donald Sumpter) is recast as Jacob Marley the new maid Tara (Anna Murphy), whose bedtime tale  to the children sparked the idea of a ghost story, surfaces as the Ghost of Christmas Past while Forster (in a  sitting for Simon Callow’s preening illustrator) inspires Christmas Present and Dickens’ sister, brother-in-law and their invalid son provide the template for the Cratchits. Readers will also note how snatches of dialogue from those Dickens meets also find their way into the story.

Quite how much of this is based on fact and how much speculation is uncertain, but it makes for suitably whimsical telling while, as Dickens is struggling to come up with an ending as the deadline approaches, things take a dark turn with memories of a revisit to the shoe blacking factory to which he was consigned as a boy when his father as carted off to debtor’s prison as well as moments that show his self-centred, narcissistic and short-tempered uglier side as he lashes out at those around him as his ‘blockage’ becomes an increasing problem.

The film does a good job of bringing the writing process to life, but, part due to a typically vanilla performance from Stevens, it never comes to life in the same way as the similarly conceived Shakespeare In Love, which imagined the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet, but it should still go down nicely with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

The first of the year’s seasonal offerings reunites the main cast of the original movie, a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms, for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story this year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call Me By Your Name (15) 

Arriving in the wake of God’s Own Country, this is another critically acclaimed story of homosexual awakening and first love, adapted from André Aciman’s novel and  directed by Luca Guadagnino. Previews were’nt available, but, set in   the north of Italy in the summer of 1983,  it stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian who whilea away his time in the family’s lavish villa transcribing and playing classical music. He flirts with his friend Marzia (Esther Garre) and has  a close bond with his father and mother, (Michael Stuhlbarg. Amira Casar), respectively a classics and a  translator. Then, one day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American academic working on his PhD, arrives to intern with Elio’s father,  stirring the awakening of desire over the course of a summer romance. (Electric)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fulled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Dusty’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behavior between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day, there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Filmstars Don’t Die in Liverpool (15)

She was Gloria Grahame, a four-time divorcee faded movie star from the black and white era and Oscar winner for the Bad and the Beautiful whose fortunes had declined after she refused to play the Hollywood game, he was Peter Turner, an aspiring Liverpudlian actor. Meeting in London in 1978 where she was living in the same digs while appearing in a stage production, she asked him to help practise her dance moves and they subsequently became friends and then, despite a 29-year age gap, lovers, Turner moving first to California and her beach front home and then into her Manhattan apartment.

The affair ended badly in 1980 when Grahame threw him out and he returned  to Liverpool to start work on a  new play. Then, one day in 1981, he received a call saying she had been taken hill in Lancaster just as she was about to on stage. Peter collected her and brought her back to his parents’ home, she refusing to see a doctor and insisting that she would recover here. He subsequently learned that she had advanced stomach cancer.

All of this is recalled in Turner’s memoir of the same title, a reference to something said by his Uncle Jack (though never actually spoken in the film) and now brought to the screen by director Paul McGuigan and writer Matt Greenhalgh with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell giving sensational performances in the lead roles with solid support from Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as his parents, Bellla and Jo, Stephen Graham as brother Joe and, in a notably striking scene, Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s British former stage-actress mother and Frances Barber as her acid-tongued jealous sister Joy.

Set in 1981 but flashing back (in a theatrical style) two years to their earlier relationship, it’s a tender, warm  and often very sensual and funny May-December love story, a particularly amusing moment being when Peter takes her to see Alien and her reactions to the legendary chest scene are rather different to his and the rest of the audience.

Inevitably likely to be compared with My Week With Marilyn, this may not have quite the same relationship complexity and it never fully explains Grahame’s clearly deep connections with Peter’s parents and his confession of a bisexual past adds nothing to the narrative other than to underscore how, while he told her personal truths, she kept her cancer from him. With Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend providing the musical motif, it arguably hits its poignantly emotional peak in a scene where Peter takes her to the deserted Liverpool Playhouse  to give her a special gift, but its humanity, compassion and the deep vein of love and friendship that permeates the entire film make this an unmissable experience.  (Electric)

The Florida Project (15)

Working with a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment than his previous offering, Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, director  and co-writer Sean Baker offers a bleak and bittersweet portrait of dysfunctional life below the poverty line on Orlando’s fringes, events set around  The Magic Castle, a cheap motel in a run-down suburb within almost spitting distance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Florida resort, the helicopters ferrying guests landing and taking off within view of the motel, some, as in the amusing opening sequence with a couple of honeymooners, accidentally booking in here by mistake.

A  last resort doss house for any number of life’s losers,  it’s managed by Bobby (a superbly understated Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast), a gruff but good-hearted reluctant father figure  to its motley residents, among them heavily tattooed, combative  young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who, a former stripper and now currently unemployed, is struggling to raise the weekly rent, reselling knock off perfumes to the tourists and relying on waffle  hand outs from a  friend down the local diner to  feed her feisty six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We first encounter her with her friend from upstairs, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting  from the balcony on to one of the cars below. The confrontation with its naturally irate owner leads to Moonee striking up a friendship with new resident Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and the film then follows the mischievous but essentially innocent escapades of these street urchins, interspersed with Halley’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise the cash she needs, eventually resorting to advertising sexual favours. Inevitably, at some point social services arrive on the scene.

There’s no plot as such, rather a series of anecdotal incidents variously involving Halley scamming a tourist with stolen Disneyland wristbands, the burning down of a building on an abandoned housing development.

In many ways echoing Mark Twain and the Our Gang movies of the 30s, with its improvisational, documentary-like feel and abrupt unresolved ending, it’s not going to be for anyone, but for those prepared to let it wash through them, it presents a sobering and depressing vision of the scrap heap of the American Dream as well as an emotionally challenging observation on parenting in a world where hope has long packed its bags and left. Halley is at once incredibly  selfishly irresponsible and yet passionately committed in her relationship with Moonee who, for all her rudeness and impertinence carries no malice, merely mirrored behaviour and the scenes of childhood friendship between her and Jancey (the two young stars giving terrific, scene-stealing but natural performances) are bursting with both joy and heartbreak. As is the film. (MAC)

 

 

Jigsaw (18)

Seven years on from the so-called Final Chapter and eleven years after John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – aka Jigsaw, the  sadistic serial killer with a warped sense of morality, met his end in Saw III, he’s apparently back as a new writing and directing team look to resuscitate the franchise and give it some new, ahem, blood.

The action cuts between two sets of events, as we first meet five unrelated captives with buckets over their heads and chains that draw them towards a series of buzzsaws. They’re quickly whittled down to four, the dead body turning up hanging from a tree in the local park. Investigating the murder, the body having half its head sliced off, the coroner team, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonnerville (Hannah Emily Anderson), quickly conclude from the forensic evidence, and a memory stick with an audio recording hidden on the body, that, impossible though it seems, this is the work of Jigsaw.

Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who worked the original cases, doesn’t buy this and reckons it’s the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, back in Jigsaw’s lair, the survivors, Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles, Ryan (Paul Braunstein) and Carly (Brittany Allen) are told that, if they want to live, they have to play his games and confess their sins. One by one their numbers are  bloodily reduced to two, meanwhile Bonnerville’s revealed to have  a Jigsaw obsession while Logan convinces surplus to plot Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennet) that it’s the clearly shady  Halloran who’s actually the killer.

As you’ll have assumed, there’s a shoal of red herrings swimming around not to mention a well-worn sleight of hand to explain how Kramer can still be carrying out his gruesome and graphically detailed Punisher-like killings when he should be rotting in the grave. However, once the curtain’s pulled back to reveal what you’ve been watching, it quickly becomes apparent that the pieces don’t fit and the contrived set-up and motivations lack both logic and plausibility. However, the fact that you don’t care about any of the characters,  that it’s not remotely scary or as clever as it thinks it is, is unlikely to prevent this from cranking up another sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Star (U)

An animated (as in technique rather than style) retelling of the Nativity story from the perspective of the animals, the camels complaining about the three kings’ poor sense of direction and a donkey (Steven Yeun), goat and dove looking to head off King Herod’s (Christopher Plummer) bloodthirsty dogs and warn Joseph and Mary, this is well-intentioned but never really manages to balance the reverence for  the story with the silliness of the comedy.

There are some amusing touches for the grown ups, such as a caption that reads “Nazareth 9 months B.C.” not to mention  the in-joke that Mary is aptly voiced by Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin and the kids will enjoy the cute animal antics, but, ultimately, it’s all rather generic and nondescript, regularly punctuated by anachronistic contemporary dialogue (in American accents, of course) with Mariah Carey providing the theme song. For those of the faith, it’s an innocuous way of introducing the kids to the Bible story  and is, of course far more about the real meaning of Christmas than Bad Moms. For everyone else, this doesn’t twinkle.  (Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Suburbicon   (15)

For his sixth film as director, George Clooney  returns to the 50s America setting of Good Night and Good Luck but with far fewer dividends in this clunky satire resurrected and rewritten from an unproduced Coen Brothers script that, ironically, feels like a poor Coens film noir pastiche, Fargo a particularly obvious touchstone.

Set in an idyllic American community in 1959, it stars a miscast Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a local financial executive who conspires with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore) to murder her twin sister, his wheelchair-bound wife Rose , and claim the insurance money. To which end, he hires a couple of thugs (Glenn Flesher, Alex Hassell) to stage a break-in, tie up the family and  chloroform them, his young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) waking up to be  told that’s mom’s dead. Before long, Margaret  moves in and, naturally, things don’t subsequently go smoothly, a smarmy and suspicious claims investigator (Oscar Isaac) turns up with blackmail on his mind and the two thugs set out to remove any incriminating evidence as, like Macbeth, Gardner soon discovers that one murder often leads to more. Meanwhile Nicky’s starting to suspect there’s something going on between his aunt and dad, especially when, at an identity parade, they don’t point out the men and he walks in on the two of them engaged in some S&M hanky panky and turns to his blustery Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) for help.

Set alongside all this, there’s a subplot about new neighbours, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke), Suburbicon’s first Negro  family, who, although Nicky strike sup a friendship with the son, are quickly subjected to all manner of racism and harassment from the scandalized community, although, despite the thematic link,  this seems to be part of a different film entirely and is actually based on real life experience of a coloured family in Levittown, Pernnsylvania, during the same period.

Damon inevitably calls to mind William H. Macy’s far better performance in Fargo while Moore is all sub-par Hitchcock femme fatale, only Jupe and, in his all too brief appearance, Isaac making any real impression. Tonally uneven and bitty, the tension contrived and forced, Gardner’s schemes unravelling along with the film’s  grip on the audience, it may look good but its portrait of the darkness behind the facade of the cookie cutter American Dream is painted in drably uninteresting and muddled colours. (Cineworld NEC;  Electric; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; 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

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 24-Thu Nov 30

NEW RELEASES

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story this year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fuelled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Don’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day (the staff implausibly  handing out free food) there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Star (U)

An animated (as in technique rather than style) retelling of the Nativity story from the perspective of the animals, the camels complaining about the three kings’ poor sense of direction and a donkey (Steven Yeun), goat and dove looking to head off King Herod’s (Christopher Plummer) bloodthirsty dogs and warn Joseph and Mary, this is well-intentioned but never really manages to balance the reverence for  the story with the silliness of the comedy.

There are some amusing touches for the grown ups, such as a caption that reads “Nazareth 9 months B.C.” not to mention  the in-joke that Mary is aptly voiced by Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin and the kids will enjoy the cute animal antics, but, ultimately, it’s all rather generic and nondescript, regularly punctuated by anachronistic contemporary dialogue (in American accents, of course) with Mariah Carey providing the theme song. For those of the faith, it’s an innocuous way of introducing the kids to the Bible story  and is, of course far more about the real meaning of Christmas than Bad Moms. For everyone else, this doesn’t twinkle.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Suburbicon   (15)

For his sixth film as director, George Clooney  returns to the 50s America setting of Good Night and Good Luck but with far fewer dividends in this clunky satire resurrected and rewritten from an unproduced Coen Brothers script that, ironically, feels like a poor Coens film noir pastiche, Fargo a particularly obvious touchstone.

Set in an idyllic American community in 1959, it stars a miscast Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a local financial executive who conspires with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore) to murder her twin sister, his wheelchair-bound wife Rose , and claim the insurance money. To which end, he hires a couple of thugs (Glenn Flesher, Alex Hassell) to dstage a break-in, tie up the family and  chloroform them, his young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) waking up to be  told that’s mom’s dead. Before long, Margaret  moves in and naturally, things don’t subsequently go smoothly, a smarmy and suspicious claims investigator (Oscar Isaac) turns up with blackmail on his mind and the two thugs set out to remove any incriminating evidence as, like Macbeth, Gardner soon discovers that one murder often leads to more. Meanwhile Nicky’s starting to suspect there’s something going on between his aunt and dad, especially when, at an identity parade, they don’t point out the men and he walks in on the two of them engaged in some S&M hanky panky and turns to his blustery Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) for help.

Set alongside all this, there’s a subplot about new neighbours, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke), Suburbicon’s first Negro  family, who, although Nicky strike sup a friendship with the son, are quickly subjected to all manner of racism and harassment from the scandalized community, although, despite the thematic link,  this seems to be part of a different film entirely and is actually based on real life experience of a coloured family in Levittown, Pernnsylvania, during the same period.

Damon inevitably calls to mind William H. Macy’s far better performance in Fargo while Moore is all sub-par Hitchcock femme fatale, only Jupe and, in his all too brief appearance, Davis making any real impression. Tonally uneven and bitty, the tension contrived and forced, Gardner’s schemes unravelling along with the film’s  grip on the audience, it may look good but its portrait of the darkness behind the facade of the cookie cutter American Dream is painted in drably uninteresting and muddled colours. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

The seasonal  reuniion of the main cast of the original movie swaps a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call Me By Your Name (15) 

Arriving in the wake of God’s Own Country, this is another critically acclaimed story of homosexual awakening and first love, adapted from André Aciman’s novel and  directed by Luca Guadagnino. Previews were’nt available, but, set in   the north of Italy in the summer of 1983,  it stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian who whilea away his time in the family’s lavish villa transcribing and playing classical music. He flirts with his friend Marzia (Esther Garre) and has  a close bond with his father and mother, (Michael Stuhlbarg. Amira Casar), respectively a classics and a  translator. Then, one day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American academic working on his PhD, arrives to intern with Elio’s father,  stirring the awakening of desire over the course of a summer romance. (Electric)

The Death of Stalin (15)

As the writer of The Thick of It and its film spin-off, In The Loop, as well as the American version, Veep, Armando Iannucci is unquestionably the sharpest and funniest political satirist of the 21st century, added to which he also wrote and directed numerous episodes of I’m Alan Partridge and the subsequent feature Alpha Papa. So, you should know that his latest, a comedy set around the power struggle to fill the shoes of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin following his death, an adaptation of the French graphic novels, is going to be caustically hilarious.

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

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

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

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

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

Filmstars Don’t Die in Liverpool (15)

She was Gloria Grahame, a four-time divorcee faded movie star from the black and white era and Oscar winner for the Bad and the Beautiful whose fortunes had declined after she refused to play the Hollywood game, he was Peter Turner, an aspiring Liverpudlian actor. Meeting in London in 1978 where she was living in the same digs while appearing in a stage production, she asked him to help practise her dance moves and they subsequently became friends and then, despite a 29-year age gap, lovers, Turner moving first to California and her beach front home and then into her Manhattan apartment.

The affair ended badly in 1980 when Grahame threw him out and he returned  to Liverpool to start work on a  new play. Then, one day in 1981, he received a call saying she had been taken hill in Lancaster just as she was about to on stage. Peter collected her and brought her back to his parents’ home, she refusing to see a doctor and insisting that she would recover here. He subsequently learned that she had advanced stomach cancer.

All of this is recalled in Turner’s memoir of the same title, a reference to something said by his Uncle Jack (though never actually spoken in the film) and now brought to the screen by director Paul McGuigan and writer Matt Greenhalgh with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell giving sensational performances in the lead roles with solid support from Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as his parents, Bellla and Jo, Stephen Graham as brother Joe and, in a notably striking scene, Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s British former stage-actress mother and Frances Barber as her acid-tongued jealous sister Joy.

Set in 1981 but flashing back (in a theatrical style) two years to their earlier relationship, it’s a tender, warm  and often very sensual and funny May-December love story, a particularly amusing moment being when Peter takes her to see Alien and her reactions to the legendary chest scene are rather different to his and the rest of the audience.

Inevitably likely to be compared with My Week With Marilyn, this may not have quite the same relationship complexity and it never fully explains Grahame’s clearly deep connections with Peter’s parents and his confession of a bisexual past adds nothing to the narrative other than to underscore how, while he told her personal truths, she kept her cancer from him. With Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend providing the musical motif, it arguably hits its poignantly emotional peak in a scene where Peter takes her to the deserted Liverpool Playhouse  to give her a special gift, but its humanity, compassion and the deep vein of love and friendship that permeates the entire film make this an unmissable experience.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park)

 

The Florida Project (15)

Working with a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment than his previous offering, Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, director  and co-writer Sean Baker offers a bleak and bittersweet portrait of dysfunctional life below the poverty line on Orlando’s fringes, events set around  The Magic Castle, a cheap motel in a run-down suburb within almost spitting distance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Florida resort, the helicopters ferrying guests landing and taking off within view of the motel, some, as in the amusing opening sequence with a couple of honeymooners, accidentally booking in here by mistake.

A  last resort doss house for any number of life’s losers,  it’s managed by Bobby (a superbly understated Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast), a gruff but good-hearted reluctant father figure  to its motley residents, among them heavily tattooed, combative  young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who, a former stripper and now currently unemployed, is struggling to raise the weekly rent, reselling knock off perfumes to the tourists and relying on waffle  hand outs from a  friend down the local diner to  feed her feisty six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We first encounter her with her friend from upstairs, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting  from the balcony on to one of the cars below. The confrontation with its naturally irate owner leads to Moonee striking up a friendship with new resident Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and the film then follows the mischievous but essentially innocent escapades of these street urchins, interspersed with Halley’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise the cash she needs, eventually resorting to advertising sexual favours. Inevitably, at some point social services arrive on the scene.

There’s no plot as such, rather a series of anecdotal incidents variously involving Halley scamming a tourist with stolen Disneyland wristbands, the burning down of a building on an abandoned housing development.

In many ways echoing Mark Twain and the Our Gang movies of the 30s, with its improvisational, documentary-like feel and abrupt unresolved ending, it’s not going to be for anyone, but for those prepared to let it wash through them, it presents a sobering and depressing vision of the scrap heap of the American Dream as well as an emotionally challenging observation on parenting in a world where hope has long packed its bags and left. Halley is at once incredibly  selfishly irresponsible and yet passionately committed in her relationship with Moonee who, for all her rudeness and impertinence carries no malice, merely mirrored behaviour and the scenes of childhood friendship between her and Jancey (the two young stars giving terrific, scene-stealing but natural performances) are bursting with both joy and heartbreak. As is the film.  (Electric)

 

I Am Not A Witch (12A)

Directed by Rungano Nyoni using non-professionals, this is an engaging if somewhat enigmatic and often surreal film about witchcraft in rural Zambian society that also serves to take a satirical swipe at government corruption, superstition and misogyny.

Returning from collecting water, a woman is surprised to see a small young girl in her path. She drops the bucket and runs off. The girl, later to be named Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) is then accused of being a  witch and, after her case is heard by a  clearly bemused local female police officer, in which the girl says nothing,  she’s interviewed by self-important government official Mr Banda (Henry Phiri). He takes her off to off to the local witch settlement where the women, their faces caked in white paint and under the management of the opportunistic, exploitative Tembo (John Tembo) are used to gurn for photos as a tourist attraction and pretty much as slave labour.

Like the others, a long white ribbon, mounted on a  giant reel,  is attached to her back to prevent her running off and she’s confined to a hut to decide whether to cut the ribbon and turn into a  goat or leave it and accept herself as a witch and become part of the community.

As such, while welcomed by the other women, who essentially become her surrogate mothers, since witches are presumed to have magical powers, she’s hauled out by Banda to judge a group of suspects accused to theft and identify the guilty party (more by luck than judgment) and , later, to try and end the drought by summoning up rain. Tembo even uses her to promote a range of supposedly magical eggs.

Although often played for laughs (especially the story of one ‘eye-witness’ declaring how Shula chopped off his arm, both of which he clearly still possesses) , there’s nevertheless a potent vein of social criticism and  feminist allegory and  Nyoni makes highly effective use of  visual imagery, most especially those ribbons and the spindles mounted on long poles on the trucks that ship the women to the fields for work.

It’s not always sure-footed and Noyoni isn’t always clear about what she’s seeing to say, and it’s difficult to know whether we should regard the ending as sad or celebratory or what to make of the final shot, but even so, this is engrossing cinema. (MAC)

 

Jigsaw (18)

Seven years on from the so-called Final Chapter and eleven years after John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – aka Jigsaw, the  sadistic serial killer with a warped sense of morality, met his end in Saw III, he’s apparently back as a new writing and directing team look to resuscitate the franchise and give it some new, ahem, blood.

The action cuts between two sets of events, as we first meet five unrelated captives with buckets over their heads and chains that draw them towards a series of buzzsaws. They’re quickly whittled down to four, the dead body turning up hanging from a tree in the local park. Investigating the murder, the body having half its head sliced off, the coroner team, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonnerville (Hannah Emily Anderson), quickly conclude from the forensic evidence, and a memory stick with an audio recording hidden on the body, that, impossible though it seems, this is the work of Jigsaw.

Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who worked the original cases, doesn’t buy this and reckons it’s the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, back in Jigsaw’s lair, the survivors, Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles, Ryan (Paul Braunstein) and Carly (Brittany Allen) are told that, if they want to live, they have to play his games and confess their sins. One by one their numbers are  bloodily reduced to two, meanwhile Bonnerville’s revealed to have  a Jigsaw obsession while Logan convinces surplus to plot Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennet) that it’s the clearly shady  Halloran who’s actually the killer.

As you’ll have assumed, there’s a shoal of red herrings swimming around not to mention a well-worn sleight of hand to explain how Kramer can still be carrying out his gruesome and graphically detailed Punisher-like killings when he should be rotting in the grave. However, once the curtain’s pulled back to reveal what you’ve been watching, it quickly becomes apparent that the pieces don’t fit and the contrived set-up and motivations lack both logic and plausibility. However, the fact that you don’t care about any of the characters,  that it’s not remotely scary or as clever as it thinks it is, is unlikely to prevent this from cranking up another sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (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 Killing of a Sacred Deer (15)

As absurdist and bizarre as Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, this reunites the Greek writer-director with its star, a heavily-bearded Colin Farrell, as reformed heavy drinker cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy, joined here by Nicole Kidman  as his ophthalmologist wife Anna. They have two children, adolescent Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and her younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic) and live a comfortable happy life, and, even though he seems a little distant to them, he still deeply loves his kids. The couple also have an interesting line in sex games, one being termed ‘the general anaesthetic’.

Unknown to his wife, Steven also hangs out with Martin ( a suitably creepy Barry Keoghan), meeting him at the local diner or by the river, even buying him an expensive watch. Eventually, he even invites him home for dinner with the family, Martin striking up a relationship with Kim.  There’s apparently nothing sexual about the relationship with Steven, but there is something unsettling. It transpires that Martin’s father died under Steven’s knife, and the latter clearly feels a sense of guilt.

However, after Steven’s invited, in turn, to Martin’s and his mother (a cameoing Alicia Silverstone) makes a pass at him, it soon becomes clear that Martin has his own agenda, and, shortly after an altercation between the two, first Bob and then Kim, lose the ability to stand. Steven’s warned this is the first stage and when they reach the third, eyes bleeding, they will die shortly after. To save them, Steven, who is in denial and initially refuses to accept this is anything other than a medical condition,  must atone for what happened. Given that its inspired by Euripides’ tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis,  the Greek legend of King Agamemnon, who, after accidentally killed a sacred deer,  was ordered to sacrifice his daughter as punishment, you’ll have an idea where this is going.

Acted in a deliberately flat and formal manner, the lines delivered with dry and generally cold  precision, it’s a mix of nightmarish horror and arch dark comedy that calls to mind the clinical coldness of Stanley Kubrik, in particular Eyes Wide Shut, in which Kidman co-starred with then husband Tom Cruise, the unease compounded by the  use of shooting angles and a strident score which frequently erupts in jarring discordant bursts akin to the shower scene in Psycho. Closing with a wordless, menacing coda, this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but its pervasive dread is far more terrifying than any other horror movie this year. (MAC; Sat/Thu:Electric)

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scenee that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; 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

Steven Patrick Mugabe – Impeach Morrissey!

Morrissey

It didn’t begin, it blossomed. It was a sign of positivity, of unity. He was a spokesman. But something went wrong…very wrong. Now an outcast, even the most devoted of fans are turning their backs on him. As Mugabe and Morrissey’s reigns come to an end, we investigate the parallels between the Mancunian miserablist and the Zimbabwean despot…panic on the streets of ‘Babwe?

“Presidents come, Presidents go,” sighs Morrissey on his new album, “and oh, the damage they do.” It’s a swipe at Trump, but it could also be pilfered as a neat summary of Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe. For the 93-year-old despot has caused almost irreparable damage to a once fertile land, turning a thriving nation into the second poorest country in the world.

Four decades after his reign began, his time is now at an end, with his impending impeachment removing him from his role as leader. On the music side of things, maybe an impeachment of Morrissey would not be such a bad idea.

When once you would bristle at the odd questionable remark, you would show leeway when listening. It’s, after all, well established that Morrissey is a twat, but his music was enough to make us forget such frivolity. In fact, when he made a two-fisted comeback in 2004 with the striking You Are The Quarry, we greeted him like an old friend. Now we look at his Twitter and remember why we stopped hanging out with him in the first place.

While Mugabe was given accolades such as an honorary knighthood in 1994. Mozzer, meanwhile, was voted the second greatest living Briton in 2006 (coming as close runner-up to David Attenborough, no less). Several years later, Mugabe has been stripped of his honour while Morrissey would probably lie somewhere in between Jeremy Clarkson’s hairhole and Katie Hopkins’ salacious jaw. Both Mugabe and Morrissey’s reputations lie in tatters, both of their achievements are almost long forgotten and both face 2017 as worthless peons, bygones of an era no one wishes to remember.

Mugabe’s downfall, of course, is long-awaited and for obvious reasons. Morrissey has fallen on his own puffed-up petard. He’s often been forthcoming with a contrary comment, from blasting the “blustery jingoism” of the 2012 London Olympics to calling Brexit “magnificent”, but in 2017 he seems to enjoy being deliberately divisive. The Pope of Mope’s PR company must be pulling their quiffs out as he defends Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, claims a UKIP election was rigged and bestows Berlin the title of “rape capital.”

Yes, the Spacey interview was translated. Yes, maybe he did, deep down, have some kind of relevant point. But why bring it up? Why indulge an interviewer? And this is me giving Morrissey compassion, when in actuality we know that he probably meant every word. He has become a man living in his own bequiffed bubble, and just like Mugabe, has become almost invulnerable to criticism, to anger and rage. Everyone else is wrong, Mugabe and Morrissey are always right.

Things started so well for both Mugabe and Morrissey. Both came to prominence in the 1980s, and both came as welcome relief to movements that had long grown stale. As racist Rhodesia became independent, Mugabe was a progressive leader, aligning two warring races and promising a brighter future. Morrissey, meanwhile, was a leader for the wistful, a knitted anachronism singing with Wildean wit and kitchen-sink despair. As time lapsed on, though, so did their good points. Mugabe’s stranglehold over Zimbabwe choked it of its economic stability; Morrissey’s post-Smiths output became highly politicised, polemic and polarising.

In 2017, even the most devoted of fans of Morrissey – myself included – are tired of fighting. We’re tired of defending him. We’re tired of saying “just listen to music, not the man.” We want the beloved, deadpan spinster back to make remarks like “I’m a humasexual…interested in humans, though of course, not many.” That comment was made in 2013 and was probably the last humorous thing Mozzer uttered.

As for Mugabe, Zimbabwe may, one day, breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Robert, it really was nothing.

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