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Tord Gustavsen: Music with Bach and bite

Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen has been fashioning thoughtful and acclaimed releases for some 15 years.

Following three group projects, his latest release for ECM, The Other Side, sees him back with the trio format. Joined by Sigurd Hole (double-bass) and Jarle Vespestad (drums), the collection combines the folk and church music of Tords youth, with subtle electronics for an album that edges awar from easy jazz labels.

Prior to an appearance at Warwick Arts Centre on 31 October 2018, he called BrumNotes to discuss Bach, his ongoing collaboration with Jarle, and having a number one album …

Why did you decide to return to the trio format now, after a decade?

I have always cherished accompaniment and interplay as much as soloing, so that’s the main reason for not doing the trio for a long time. [But] it felt like the right time to go in to the studio as a trio now, without feeling the pressure of following up something. It developed very naturally, unforced, this trio interplay …

How did you come to include Bach?

The semester before we went into the studio with this trio, I did a project with a choir and a fiddle player, in Norway, where the whole thing was improvising over and around Bach chorales, and these three pieces were included in that project. I didn’t set out to do them on the trio album at all, and I don’t think it would have worked so well if it was a thought-out concept or strategy. We were having a rehearsal and I just started playing one of them, spur of the moment inspiration, and I got these feeling, ‘Oh, this could actually be fantastic, as an addition, in dialogue with my compositions.’ It’s such a huge thing, it’s almost taboo to play Bach because his music was so complete, so perfect in itself, so any intention of improving Bach in any way would be nonsense. Also, most ways of improvising Bach tunes would most probably fail, musically and aesthetically. So we had to arrive at a point where we didn’t try too hard, where we played them with huge respect, but respect in the form of gratitude and freedom, not respect in the sense of anxiousness or trying too hard. When that happened, when we played the songs as just good songs, in the way a jazz musicians would normally play a standard – a song that had a history, had a composer sometime down the line, but that is basically common musical language that you use to say something new.

You’ve included three of Bach’s chorales …

Yes. One of them is a lament – O Traurigkeit – it’s about deep sorrow and the longing for release. It’s not like everything turns out well in the last verse, it’s actually not like that in life all the time, it’s about that. Jesu Meine Freude is about deep deep joy and the joy that lies underneath the ups and downs in life, I’d say. And then the third Bach choral, Schlafes Bruder, is a more paradoxical interpretation as that piece is also about longing for release and eternal rest, actually welcoming death in a way. But it’s played with a funky uplifting groove. It was really not planned, we just started playing a groove like that and I thought, ‘Um! Could this actually be something?’ I played the melody. If we’d set out to try to do this, it would not have happened. Then this paradoxical minor mode played over a funky groove developed into something of its own.

You’ve previously discussed how folk music also seeps into the trio, particularly via bassist Sigurd Hole …

[Sigurd] has a natural way of injecting modal Norwegian folk melodies into the music that makes the group’s connection to these roots stronger. The old Norwegian lullabies and dance forms find their way in now almost without us thinking about it.

Alongside Sigurd, the trio also features drummer Jarle Vespestad, who you’ve been working with since the first trio. How has your relationship changed since those early days?

Early on, in our playing of ballads, we discovered this sense of micro-timing, and loaded minimalism – the feeling that the less we play, the stronger it gets – and this sense has evolved ever since. Now, we are also stretching out and using more dynamics, but this fundamental experience of ‘essence’ and reduction is always our point of departure. Jarle can groove in such an understated way and play so quietly that all the timbres of the piano can be heard. That said, he has such technical ability. It’s fascinating that beyond his groups with me, he often plays complex music with fierce tempos and a lot of volume and noise. A funny thing is that he’s so attuned to the lyricism in the trio’s music that I can often hear him humming the melody as he plays. That’s rare for a drummer and something that, as a composer, I find touching.

Your second album with the Trio – The Ground (2005) – hit number one in the Norwegian pop charts!

It happened. It was an astonishing thing, I would never have expected that. It was also not that big of a deal – it happened for one week … but it’s still something to have on your biog. More importantly, we’d built something over the years, toured a lot and people were actually listening to music; we found something that is accessible to more people than much contemporary jazz, but still very much art music and still very much what we want to play – we’re not compromising or selling out to please someone, that would never have worked for me. It’s about taking seriously that we are at heart, romantic players, and when we really want to play, it’s open and explorative, but it’s also very melodically done. It’s about caressing and really cherishing good melodies.

Wednesday 31 October 2018, Tord Gustavsen Trio, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL. Details: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side is out now via ECM.

For more information on Tord Gustavsen, see: www.tordg.no

Album review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘IC-01 Hanoi’

For most, following up ‘Multi-Love’, 2015’s glittering wonderland of technicolour digi-pop, would have been an almighty challenge. Thankfully, with this year’s ‘Sex and Food’, New Zealand’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra made expectedly light work of what could have been an insurmountable task.

The group’s fourth LP – a mellower, less angst-ridden proposition than a predecessor formed in the cold shadow of frontman Ruban Nielson’s traumatic polyamorous experiences – may occasionally fall short of their towering magnum opus, but it’s still a strikingly good record in its own right, teeming with insatiably groovy nods to traditional funk without undoing its lo-fi allegiances. Its hook-laden tunes, delicately laced with soul, sparkle and tranquillity, produce an immensely rich addition to what has quickly become the most listenable of modern discographies.

It’s from these sessions that “IC-01 Hanoi” originates. As a quick-fire follow-up to its April-released older brother, it’s a very different beast to the tidy studies in pop-tinged neo-soul that Unknown Mortal Orchestra are best known for.

Seven purely instrumental tracks bear all the hallmarks of a band taking some downtime between recording and playing shows, and within its sophisticated, vocal-less tapestries, actually becomes the sound of Nielson and band expressing themselves more freely than ever before.

Although the talented lead singer’s honeyed falsetto is occasionally missed, the record still manages to charm with an effortless blend of free-form experimentalism and heady fuzz-toned guitar, a slick marriage of ideas perhaps most prevalent on the winding melodies and rhythmic crackle and fizz of ‘Hanoi 2’.

‘Hanoi 3’ bursts forth with smoky Eastern flavourings – betraying its conception in a Vietnamese studio with a talented local musician – the best example of the band’s impossibly easy ability to imbibe the sonic patterns of other cultures into their own distinctive style.

Throughout ‘IC-01 Hanoi’ you sense Nielson’s proper calling as a prog musician, a true innovator no longer chained to the necessity of making easily-digestible, if notably ambitious, pop music.

It’s there in the bulging bass and luscious horns of ‘Hanoi 5’ and the crunching, shadowy funk of ‘Hanoi 1’; a deliberately insular record that doesn’t feel obliged to satiate the aural requirements of an existing fanbase, and one that disregards external pressures and expectations in its gleeful insouciance.

Simply, a self-indulgent odyssey that gives itself over to the most aloof of experimental whims, a stunning showcase of the band’s wonderful musical trickery without fear of judgement or backlash.

It’s this lack of compulsion, and all-pervading avoidance of inhibition, that makes the release such a joy to behold.

Never before have the band, even on the magical Motown-isms of ‘Multi-Love’, so blatantly paid homage to their influences, and Miles Davies’ fading fingerprints are recognisable all over the record’s mellifluous forays into the avant-garde.

‘Hanoi 6, carefully draped in further Pink Floydian mind-fuzz, best underlines the debt ‘IC-01 Hanoi’ pays to its envelope-pushing idols.

As a work born inside relaxed environs, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s fifth allows its creators’ true jazz spirit, uncaged and uninhibited, to emerge in its fullest form.

It is a masterful meeting of murky textures and hypnotic beats. It is, in its severe unrestraint, the album that Nielson, and his overly-capable band, have always been destined to make.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘IC-01 Hanoi’ is released on Jagjaguwar Friday 26 October 2018.

4/5

Words: Dan Owens

What Sara’s Made Of

The new album from songwriter Sara Colman sees her calling on her love of the ‘classic’ songwriting of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Rickie Lee Jones.

It was listening to those writers, who cut through during the late-1960s and early-1970s, alongside records by Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, which lay the foundations for Sara’s third album, What We’re Made Of.

“Classic songwriting is probably songs which sit on top of structures which are commonly used,” Sara says, explaining the term. “That can be an A-B-A-B structure. Blues, that structure we recognise. That’s what I mean rather than something that’s been through-composed, or something which has less of a structural subliminal awareness.

“For me that means the standards I studied, ’70s singer / songwriters, where that whole confessional thing came about.”

What We’re Made Of sees Colman – who released her debut album 20 years ago, and has subsequently worked with such artists as Laura Mvula, Mahalia and Liane Carroll – also embrace the narrative thrust adopted by many of those ‘classic’ writers.

“I guess the lyric is the thing – generally I think I tend to write less abstract lyrics … they have to have stories in them; I write less snapshots, I definitely write a narrative, that’s a classic thing, rather than a modern, snapshot impression.”

However, she does slightly veer from that template occasionally, notably with Open (a co-write with guitarist and partner Steve Banks), and Dreamer (a co-write with fellow pianist Rebecca Nash).

“Open and Dreamer are a little less like that maybe. The music was driven by other people. My inspiration wasn’t the starting point for those I wasn’t thinking about a story, and the music itself had less definition in it. They’re not completely abstract, but less structured than what I may have chosen for myself.”

Jazzlines presents Sara Colman: What We’re Made Of, Saturday 10 November 2018, CBSO Centre, Berkley Street, Birmingham B1 2LF. Details: www.thsh.co.uk

What We’re Made Of is out now via Stoney Lane Records.

Bandcamp link to album:

What We’re Made Of by Sara Colman

Album review: Cloud Nothings – ‘Last Building Burning’

Cloud Nothings - Last Building Burning

Those privy to Cloud Nothings’ fantastic hugely pop-oriented 2017 album ‘Life Without Sound’ would be forgiven for thinking that Dylan Baldi’s cool neo-punk project had forever left behind its lo-fi past in pursuit of a purer sound that seemed more anti-noise than anti-establishment.

Held up against their more visceral early material, the group’s fifth record sounded positively polished; a gang of perennial outsiders forgoing abrasion for accessibility.

Yet, the aggressive style that has become the band’s artistic calling card returns heavier than ever on “Last Building Burning” – a work that kicking and screamingly contributes to punk’s recent revivification in the most thrilling of ways.

On their sixth LP, the band not only depart from a potential commercial highway, they skid headfirst back into the familiarly dangerous lanes of furious and unforgiving alternative rock. And, as always, Baldi is in the driving seat.

From the band’s humble origins in his parents’ basement, the Cleveland native has neatly masterminded Cloud Nothings’ ascension from bedroom concern to major alt-rock players.

But, with such discomfort and loss of identity in mind, this sixth effort appears very much the band leader’s own “In Utero” and “Metal Machine Music” rolled into one, a Cobain-like, Reed-esque sonic tantrum that rejects a momentary, and possibly regrettable, lapse into commercialism.

“Last Building Burning” is Baldi’s refusal to let his band become a synonym for acceptability, a belligerent and scintillating reinstatement of punk-rock principles both to himself and the wider world.

And the shackles come off as quickly as the album’s explosive opener ‘On An Edge’. As it rages into life, there’s little doubt that Baldi has re-nailed his scuzz-loving colours back to the mast. It’s a barely-comprehensible blast of screeching vocals and tumultuous noise – more hardcore than power-pop – that sets the tone for a subsequent display of challenging and defiant thrash-rock brimming with energy and anger.

‘The Echo of the World’ benefits from similarly throat-shredding vocals and bilious, never-letting-up guitars. ‘In Shame’ pummels by on drumskins that must pine for their former existence in a music store far, far away from Jayson Gerycz’s ruthless assault.

‘So Right So Clean’ fixes Baldi’s snarl upon waves of melody in a shining example of Cloud Nothings’ glorious adherence to the unconventional with ‘Dissolution’, a brutal and moody exercise in fury and feedback, running to nearly eleven minutes in a gloriously intentional needlessness.

If there’s still casual listeners around for such a chasm of unrestrained chaos, it’s Baldi and co.’s final fuck you to those who found them amidst their poppier period. A winsome exercise that, along with the rest of the album’s fine disregard for aural nicety, looks to shed such hangers-on for good.

With ‘Life Without Sound’, Cloud Nothings took a bite out of the mainstream. “Last Building Burning” is the sound of them baulking at the taste and then some. Sample it if you dare.

3.5/5

Words: Dan Owens

Festival’s Breaking Talent Award 2018 winner revealed

laura Monmoth with her trophy. Pic' by Dave Freak (c)

EG Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2018 winner announced

Brum’s Laura Monmoth scoops the prestigious comedy prize

Birmingham Comedy Festival and The Glee Club have announced Laura Monmoth as the recipient of the festival’s prestigious Breaking Talent Award 2018.

Laura wowed audiences at a packed Glee Club on the festival’s opening night (5 October 2018), where she was presented with her award by Free Radio Breakfast co-host (and stand-up comic) Lovdev Barpaga.

Birmingham-born comedian Laura utilised slide projections and animations for a tight set that saw her suggest comical names and attempt to ‘improve reality’, while pondering the purchase of a Princess Leia Star Wars costume.

Discussing her prize, Laura smiled: “The first thing that’s going to happen is that I’m putting that [win] on the posters!”

Her performance was adapted from a longer show, LGBTQZX, which Laura has been developing and refining over a period of time.

“I’ve been performing for five years, but really concentrated on my show for the last 18 months,” she says of the normally hour long performance which combines retro gaming with gender issues.

Previously aired at such festivals as the Edinburgh Fringe and Leicester, LGBTQZX recently won Best Show at the Morecambe Comedy Festival.

“It’s weird for me to just do 10 minutes from that, you don’t expect bits to work on their own, but everyone was on board with it.”

Believing her comedy to non-mainstream – “Everything I do is really niche,” she states – Laura confessed to being nervous about editing and adapting material for the high-pressure award show, and how it would be received by a crowd who, by and large, had never seen her before.

“I was worried about how people would take it for some time, how people would react … but it was an awesome audience,” she enthused, adding: “There was even someone from Colorado [USA] who said they came over especially for the festival! There’s been a global aspect!”

Despite her use of technology, Laura’s early comedic inspirations came from elsewhere.

“Growing up I was heavily influenced by the storytelling of Jasper Carrott and the energy of Rowan Atkinson,” she says, adding, “weirdly, neither of them really influence the direction I took. I enjoy the creative aspects of comedy, which is why I involve animations, music and surrealism in my act.”

Laura faced stiff competition from four other emerging West Midlands acts: Stoke’s Phil Carr, joking about the challenges of getting into shape and the temptation of pies; fast-talking Robocop-loving film buff Sham Zaman, from Alum Rock, Birmingham; Stratford-upon-Avon animation editor Adam Beardsmore, who recalled escapades with his brother and leapt into the audience; and Hall Green, Birmingham, born and raised double-act Good Kids (aka Kieran Ahern and Tom Dowling), who sang their own questionable Christmas charity song.

In addition to awarding Laura the main prize, the judging panel were keen to commend Good Kids for their infectious energy and repartee.

A spokesperson for the festival said: “This was certainly our most stylistically varied line-up yet, which made judging extremely difficult, but Laura’s set was tight, confident, and drew the entire audience in, and we look forward to seeing her continue to develop over the coming year.”

A collaboration between the award-winning festival and The Glee Club, and sponsored by Edinburgh Gin, the EG Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award was set up in 2014 to recognise and support emerging comedic talent from the city and wider West Midlands.

Read More: Comedy award shortlist revealed

Album review: Kurt Vile – ‘Bottle It In’

Kurt Vile is a quiet revolution.

Thanks to his early association with The War On Drugs and a mellowed-out back catalogue that seems to draw on Americana’s Stetson-sporting greats, he’s fast become the comfortingly acceptable face of country’s recent renaissance.

Exaggeration aside, it’s a title he’d probably be willing to accept given that he’s too in love with his influences to really parody a genre that’s always ripe for a kicking.

In an age of insincerity, he’s incredibly far from being at odds with such a well-crafted musical identity, but instead a proud melder of prairie-scraping Springsteenian rock and dustbowl-cleansing Grand Old Opry-type ballads. An engaging cult concern with a refreshing passion for genre pastiche; he’s also a modern artist unburdened by the pressures of embracing trends or following the crowd.

Vile’s allegiance to this type of authenticity and self-awareness continues on “Bottle It In”. It’s as relaxed and unrestrained a record as we’ve come to expect from alt-country’s most notorious perfectionist, a cogent yet meandering exercise in genre with a drive and fluidity that shrewdly mimics the nomadic nature of its creator’s existence over its two-and-a-half-year gestation period.

On each listen, what we hear is Vile building everything from the bottom up and giving life to songs as they grow and take sometimes unexpected pleasurable turns. Full spectrums of emotion and tempo are often encompassed in the space between a chorus and a verse, and single songs can range greatly in approach from one track to the next.

Witness the oppositional pairing of “Hysteria” and “Yeah Bones”, a seamless meeting between a slow-burner and a meatier ditty in a clash of styles neatly repeated across the album.

For every rockier excursion, of which “Check Baby” is an exuberant example, there’s a protracted ballad (“Skinny Mini”) or hushed acoustic entry (“Mutinies”) to dutifully redress the sonic balance. Demonstrable evidence of Vile’s studious nature and mastery of craft.

What does remain constant, though, is Vile’s well-worn slacker ideology, with “Bottle It In” making an arresting new art form of such languidness throughout all of its strangely relaxed ambiences, and taking Vile’s heretofore distinctive quirks to unparalleled new heights.

“Come Again” coolly throws banjo strings into an already laid-back instrumental melting pot with “Cold Was The Wind”’s delicacy doing little to disturb the calming stupor.

Not even “Rollin’ With The Flow”, which channels the furious anger of On The Beach-era Neil Young, can breach such an air of tranquillity or stop “Bottle It In” from meting out dreamy images of scorched deserts and sun-drenched vistas like nobody’s business.

“You never know when your heart is going to break” Vile wryly sings on the album’s shuffling, upbeat title track. “The day you stop making records, Kurt” is our enthusiastic reply.

Savour him, music fans, those of Vile’s prodigious ilk only come along once in a lifetime.

4/5

Words: Dan Owens

 

Kurt Vile – ‘Bottle It In’ is released on Matador Records Friday 12 October 2018.

 

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

NEW RELEASES

 

A Star Is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way should safely see the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.

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

 

Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)

When a  hacker blows the cover of all of MI7’s agents, the only way to track down the culprit is to recall one the retirees. Among them is Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), currently working as a geography teacher with a sideline in training his pupils in espionage techniques. After accidentally eliminating the other candidates (cameos by Michael Gambon, Edward Fox and Charles Dance), MI7 boss Pegasus (Adam James) and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) have no choice but to assign the obliviously bumbling English to the job, who, along with his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), insists, in addition to a gun and other retro spy kit gadgets that are now out of fashion, on going totally analog so they can’t be tracked. This also includes him driving a weaponised snazzy red Aston Martin

Quickly, but not before burning down a French restaurant, English identifies the source of the attack as coming from a luxury yacht, Dot Calm, which, with one of the funniest throwaway gags involving magnets, they infiltrate and cross paths with Russian spy Ophelia Bulletova (former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko).

Meanwhile, following yet more cyber attacks, the PM, looking for a way to bolster her image at the upcoming G12 summit,  is trying to recruit smarmy and slick billionaire tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who immediately fixes the latest attack and, recommending she divert all the country’s servers to his,  agrees to come on board. He also happens to own the Dawn Calm.

Reprising his 007 spoof character after a seven year gap, in keeping with a world where the likes of Spy and Kingsman have restyled such parodies, there’s a little less slapstick and a little more self-aware sophistication  this time round. Even so, the screenplay still finds plenty of room for Atkinson’s unique brand of physical comedy, including scenes involving letting him loose on the London streets in a virtual reality headset and displaying his caffeine-high dance moves.

The climax, set in a Scottish castle, in which English attempts to stop Volta while wearing suit of armour is a touch drawn out and the screenplay frequently obvious and telegraphed, but, ably supported by Miller’s ever reliable straight man, Kurylenko providing the glamour and Thompson on fine comic form as the flustered, and exasperated PM looking to put her own prestige and survival before the country (draw your own satirical conclusions), Atkinson’s mixture of accidental heroics, smug self-delusion, elastic expressions and perfect timing ensures that this is far more family friendly fun than some reviews would have you believe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Reinventing Marvin (15)

Bullied at school as a ‘faggot’, Marvin Bijoux (Jewels in the subtitles), a young kid  (Jules Porier) from a dysfunctional working class French family in a small mountain village, is taken under the wing of new head teacher (Catherine Mouchet) who steers him towards getting a  place in drama school. Some years later, as the film opens, the now grown Marvin (English actor Finnegan Oldfield) is preparing to present his childhood-based one-man show on the Paris stage, the film shifting back and forth between his rehearsing his memories, flashbacks to the actual events and relationships along the way with the wealthy Roland (Charles Berling) who becomes both lover and sponsor, gay professor and mentor Abel (Vincent Macaign) and, playing herself, Isabelle Huppert. As per the title, he reinvents himself as he goes, even changing his surname, but the question arises as to the validity of the memories concerning his earthy family, especially his shiftless father (Gregory Gadebois), who in interviews, claim not to recognise the portrayals in his writing.

Directed by Coco Before Chanel’s Anne Fontaine, an examination of the gulf between provincial and liberal attitudes and of how identity is formed, the cross-cutting of timelines isn’t always easy to follow, but the grounded performances, subtle character shadings and the easy chemistry between Oldfield and Huppert keep you engaged and connected. (Sun-Thu: MAC)

 

The Seagull (12A)

Despite some fine performances and an attempt to bring a touch of modernity to its period proceedings, as directed by Michael Mayer, this streamlined adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic 1896 tragi-comedy never quite rises to the occasion.

The pre-Bolshevik setting, for those not up on Russian literature, is the rural estate of retired civil servant Sorin (Brian Dennehy), the older brother of Irena (Annette Bening), a vain, insecure fading star of classic theatre who has decamped there for the summer with her younger lover and celebrated author Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll). Also present is her histrionics-inclined aspiring playwright son  Konstantin (Billy Howle), whose self-appointed task is to sweep away the old and revolutionise the stage. To which end, starring winsome wannabe actress local girl lover Nina (Saoirse Ronan), he presents his latest work to the assembled guests, among them Masha (Elizabeth Moss), the daughter of the estate manager, who is pining away over her secret love for Konstantin while being pursued by besotted schoolteacher Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), her mother (Mare Winningham) herself having an affair with Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney). Irina’s laughing at her son’s pretensions sends him off in a sulk and even a failed suicide, his state of mind not much helped when he discovers that, perhaps seeing a quicker entrance into a world to which she’s an outsider, the deceptively manipulative Nina has fallen for Trigorin and he for her. Which, of course, throws Irina into a strop.

It opens with Irina, fresh from her latest performance, setting off to the estate on learning her brother is dying  and, after the central flashbacks to that fateful summer, it returns to and repeats the scene, adding extra information and texture before events reach their tragic if rather anti-climactic conclusion.

Although the camera does move out of the house, for a spot of skinny dipping in the local lake, for example, a sense of theatricality still pervades, a  stiffness that even solid performances from Bening, Ronan, Ross and Dennehy can’t quite oil. (Until Wed: MAC)

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe and looks set to lower the odds on star Tom Hardy stepping into Daniel Craig’s 007 shoes.

He plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduced a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, but whether he ever gets to wreak it will depend on whether, after what will doubtless by a blockbuster opening, Venom proves word-of-mouth poison. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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A Simple Favour (15)

Served up as Gone Girl meets Gaslight with more twists than your average hairpin bends, Paul Feig puts a dark spin on his familiar female-centric buddy comedies that situates this closer to Spy and The Heat than Bridesmaids. Widowed following a car accident that killed her husband and step-brother (revelations about which add further spice to the mix), over-enthusiastic single Connecticut mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosts a mommy video blog offering cookery tips and homespun wisdom, the first of which sees her bringing new viewers up to speed on the disappearance of her best friend, high-powered, masculine-dressing fashion and fragrance company PR exec Emily (Blake Lively). Flashback then to their first meeting at school  where their respective kids, Miles (Joshua Satine) and Nicky (a super-annoying Ian Ho) want a playdate, leading the clearly supercilious Emily to reluctantly invite Stephanie back to the palatial luxury but monochrome home she shares with writer husband Sean (Henry Golding), who’s never followed up his first and only bestseller. Over the course of a few weeks, the pair, neither of whom seem to have ever had a BFF,  get down to some serious bonding over high strength martinis, even though the never less than candid Emily, snapping at her for taking her photo, cautions about being her friend. One day, Stephanie gets a call asking if she can do her a favour and pick up Nicky after school because she’s got a crisis to handle. This she duly does, but as the night wears on she starts to get increasingly concerned. The more so, given Emily’s not answering her phone and a visit to her office and a skirmish with her arrogant boss prove unproductive, other than to discover a photo with a cryptic  message scrawled on it under Emily’s desk. The cops are duly called in, Stephanie spends time with Sean helping out and things spark between them and, when Emily’s body turns up in a lake, they become lovers.

However, the fact that he took out a massive life insurance policy before she vanished, and the fact they were having financial troubles,  starts to stir muddy waters. Could he have been behind her death?  But, working from Darcey Bell’s novel, the plot has further surprises up its sleeve, with Stephanie, whose blog updates are going viral,  now beginning to think she may have been set up.

Revealing more would ruin the first of several twists, though sussed audiences will have already guessed what’s going on, as Feig continues to build the suspense and thrills, throwing in misdirections here and there and scattering a steady helping of with solid  comic support provided by Andrew Rannells as judgemental, gossipy fellow parent Darren.

Each defined by their wardrobes, black-suited Lively is super cool as the oversharing Emily who loves to shock while pink-cardigan Kendrick extends her familiar likeable if somewhat naïve always ready to help enthusiasm into Nancy Drew territory, only Collins letting the tangled three-way relationship down with a character lacking any real sense of depth. The observations about the pressures of motherhood and being a woman in a man’s world tend to be little more than set-dressing, but, even if the old appearances and reality routine is well-worn, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer still squeeze an extra dose of frisson from things as truths from all quarters (“Secrets are like margarine — easy to spread, bad for the heart”) begin to surface while a soundtrack of French pop, notably Serge Gainsbourg, fizzles in the background. At the end of the day, there’s actually less here than meets the eye, but that’s more than enough to be an enjoyable guilty pleasure. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

After all the darkness and angst that pervaded Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, positively zipping along, this breezy sequel comes as welcome light relief, peppered throughout by zingy, laugh out loud one-liners and gleeful humour, of which director Peyton Reed is a master, even if it does have a fair few dark moments of its own. Set immediately prior to the events of Infinity War, it explains the absence of ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) aka Ant-Man, from that shebang on account of him being under house arrest in San Francisco for two years after his involvement with Captain America in Civil War. Instead, in-between playing digital drums, he’s being a good divorced dad to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as his last few days of wearing the ankle tag come to a close. He’s not about to risk breaking curfew or doing anything that might land him with 20 years in jail. However, when he’s abducted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who, now operating as the winged Wasp, arranges for an ant to wear his tracker instead, it seems he might not have any choice.

The film opens with a flashback detailing how the original Ant-Man, downsizing scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the Wasp, his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), are called on for a mission which ends up with Janet trapped forever within the sub-atomic Quantum Real. Flash forward 30 years as Lang has a dream of returning to the realm (from which he escaped in the first film) that, in transpires, was actually Janet literally getting into his head, thereby setting up the possibility of Hank and Hope, themselves on the run from the FBI, launching a rescue mission. Hence their need for Scott.

They just need an extra component to build the machine that will open the tunnel to the Quantum Realm. The problem being that black market technology traffiker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has what they need, wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab (which he can conveniently shrink and carry around the like a portable suitcase) and so too does Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who, the victim of a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. lab accident, has the ability to phase through solid objects. Unfortunately, it’s killing her and the only way to survive is to make contact with Janet and syphon off her quantum lifeforce.

All of which, throwing  Scott’s security firm partner Luis (Michael Peña, who steals the film with his truth serum scene), FBI agent  Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who was the original Goliath (cue  size-comparing gag), into the mix, rollocks along with a constant stream of wonderfully silly size-changing action scenes (including one where the Wasp surfs a carving knife blade and knocks out a  thug with an oversized salt cellar), smart-aleck quips (“Do you really just put the word quantum ahead of everything?”)  and a sweetly hilarious moment when Rudd channels Pfeiffer.

This is Marvel in full on popcorn mode and you really do want to giant size bucket load of it, and, naturally, there’s the end-credit extras, a throwaway joke which isn’t really worth waiting for, and one which finally links things back to the Thanos plot. It puts the ant into fantastic. (Vue Star City)

Crazy Rich Asians (12A)

Not, as you might have assumed, one for the Bollywood audience, following swiftly on the heels of Searching  starring South Korea-born John Cho, as directed by Jon M. Chu this goes an ethnic step further with the entire cast either Sino-American or hailing from South-East Asia, as in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc., the first such film out of Hollywood since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993. Unapologetically lavish and wall to wall with wish-fulfilment images of  mind-bogglingly ostentatious wealth, it opens with the arrival of Young family matriarch Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, superbly playing what might have been a cold dragon-lady) and her kids at a New York hotel to be given short shrift by snobbish, racist staff. A crowd-pleasing pay off and several years later, the now grown, Oxford-educated and ultra-handsome Singaporean Nick Young (Henry Golding) wants his Chinese-American economics professor girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to come with him to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding back home so he can introduce her to the family. What she doesn’t know is that the Young family are multi-millionaires and run a global real-estate empire, though you suspect she might have got an inkling when they get on the plane and he has his own private suite.

All seems to be going swimmingly, Nick’s grandma, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) and family CEO, seemingly especially taken with her, until, that is,  Eleanor takes her aside her aside and  politely but very firmly informs her  that, not being pure Chinese and raised by a single-mother working class immigrant (Kheng Hua Tan), she’s not good enough for the Young heir apparent and that family comes before everything.

And what a family. Aside from mom’s class prejudice,  one of Nick’s cousins, Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang) is an obnoxious preening frat boy, another, the flamboyantly gay Oliver (Nico Santos), is the family’s self-proclaimed rainbow sheep while a third, Astrid (Gemma Chan), who hides her extravagant purchases so as not to embarrass her insecure lower-class husband, has her marriage falling apart around her. The latter two, however, become Rachel’s  allies, while also in her corner are her rich, wide-eyed ultra-exuberant old college roommate, Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her no less eccentric and hopelessly inappropriate father (Ken Jeong).

A sweeping romance mingled with a satire on the conflict between old-money attitudes and nouveau-riche ambition, it takes in an all-expenses paid  shopping orgy hen part on a private island and an international waters bachelor party aboard a luxury  liner, but even these pale beside the wedding itself that has the bride gliding down a watery aisle and performances by both the Vienna Boys’ Choir and  Cirque du Soleil, the whole thing ending atop Singapore’s most extravagant hotel. Yet, balanced against this there’s also small intimate moments, such as a scene between Nick and Rachel concerning what he’ll have to give up to be with her and a pointed game of mahjong between her and Eleanor.

A sort of pumped up Meet the Parents by way of a Chinese Cinderella with a soundtrack that includes Chinese versions of Material Girl and Money (That’s What I Want), it’s a real feast. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Star City)

  

Christopher Robin (PG)

Just a thumbnail plot description about a grown up Christopher Robin (the latter now being his surname) being reunited with his animal chums from the Hundred-Acre Wood when he’s so stressed out at work he can’t spend the weekend  with his family tells you you’re in for a message about prioritising your values and getting back in touch with our inner child. Nothing wrong with that, but getting there is a such a stultifyingly dull journey you might not be awake when it finally announces itself.

Following on the heels of last year’s far better Goodbye Christopher Robin biopic which explored the real Christopher’s troubled relationship his father and his stories,  here director Marc Forster conflates storybook and real life, so that rather  just being than characters in  AA Milne’s tales based on his son’s toys, they become sentient creatures  existing in and interacting with the real world. Opening with the final scene of The House at Pooh Corner, as the young Christopher  has to leave Pooh and the others (and childhood) behind when he’s packed off to boarding school, despite  assuring Pooh he’ll never forget him the adult Christopher no longer has time for such childish things, indeed, asked to read his daughter bedtime story, he picks up a history book.

Set in the late 40s, he’s now tellingly, heads the efficiency department of an upmarket luggage company that’s feeling the post-WWII pinch and has been told by his smarmily smug boss (Mark Gattiss) to draw up a cost-savings plan that will mean employees having to walk the plank (a Captain Hook allusion, but also the story’s human Woozle). As such, he can’t go off for the weekend to his old Sussex cottage with wife Evelyn (a largely wasted Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).

Meanwhile, back in the Wood, Pooh (voiced by bear of little brain veteran Jim Cummings) has emerged from his tree home to discover Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Tigger (Cummings), Eeyore (a scene-stealingly gloomy Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Roo (Sara Sheen) are all missing and so crawls through a magic tree portal to London to enlist Christopher Robin’s help.

All of which leads, in a repetitive  and cumbersome plot involving three writers and  two ‘story by’ credits, with CR taking him back to the Wood, losing Pooh, finding Eeyore, pretending to fight off a Heffalump and reuniting everyone before heading back to the crucial meeting. However, as Tigger’s replaced the important papers in the briefcase with twigs, this means Madeline, who quickly adjusts to the fact that the animals in her dad’s drawing are real talking toys, has to head to London with Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger,  her mother in pursuit.

The film does a good job in evoking a period nostalgia and, along with  Milne-like misunderstood words (efficiency becomes fish in the sea), the script both borrows Pooh’s philosophies and throws in its own life coach sayings of its own (“doing nothing often leads to the very best of something (as well as the Tigger song and theme tune from the Disney animations) while the toys are superbly rendered with button eyes and worn fur revealing the fabric, though, despite digitally conveying a wide range of emotions, they never  persuade  you to accept them as ‘real’ in the same way as Paddington. There’s some individually lovely moments, especially those involving red balloon (borrowed, of course from the French classic) but, overall, it’s a heavy handed affair that even ends with a socialist call for paid holidays.  “Looks like a disaster,” says Eeyore at one point. He’s not wrong. (Vue Star City)

 

The Equalizer 2 (15)

Denzel Washington’s first sequel in 37 years on the big screen teams him with director Antoine Fuqua for a fourth time, but the performance is better than the film. Returning as former special ops assassin turned vigilante Robert McCall, he spends his time as a taxi driver for Lyft (an American alternative to Uber) and, when not ferrying passengers around Boston or reading literary classics (his latest is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, from which we’re supposed to infer some heavy introspection on his life, especially the loss of his wife), takes it upon himself to mete out bone crunching – but always stony-faced and collected -justice when he encounters abuse, setting his stopwatch to 30 seconds before the fists start flying.

And not just Boston. The film’s prologue has him disguised as an Islamic cleric on a train to Istanbul to rescue the daughter of his local bookstore owner who has been kidnapped by her estranged husband. Meanwhile, back home, before we get anywhere near the main narrative, he delivers payback on behalf of a young female intern drugged and raped by her yuppie colleagues  (but not before politely offering the chance to turn themselves in), tries to help an elderly Holocaust survivor (Orson Beane) recover a painting of his sister, the pair separated and sent to different camps, and  takes up the offer of a young art student,  Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders) to repaint the walls of his building’s vandalised courtyard  and later steers him away from getting involved with a gang in seeking revenge for his brother’s murder.

Seemingly having no connection, a scene shifts the film to Brussels where the never explained assassination of an agent and his wife is made to look like murder-suicide. This, however, involves long-time CIA friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) and her fellow agent Dave York (Pedro Pascal), a former member of McCall’s team before things went south in an operation in which he believed McCall to have been killed.

When Susan is then herself murdered, supposedly by a couple of hotel burglar chancers, McCall comes to the conclusion that someone’s tidying up loose ends and, finally, the core plot starts to build up steam, as it appears he’s down for elimination (cue a gripping struggle with a hitman in the back of his cab as they race through the streets), with Whittaker being abducted as leverage.

Audiences looking for vicarious thrills through Washington acting out their revenge fantasies won’t be disappointed, although there’s a decided note of sadistic pleasure involved in the execution. The plot unfolds painstakingly slowly and awkwardly as the pieces are put together into a conspiracy theory, though audiences will likely have tagged the villain of the piece long before Fuqua gets round to revealing it, forever being interrupted by the various subplots.  It’s a formulaic affair, although the climax, set amid a huge storm at McCall’s old home in an evacuated Martha’s Vineyard, works well and Washington delivers a typically measured performance and familiar gravitas, even if he’s given very little character dimension to play. However, the other characters have a perfunctory feel, Bill Pullman very much like a spare part as Susan’s author husband who, for reasons never clearly detailed, also falls into the loose ends category. Illogical, simplistic and incohesive, like The Purge and Death Wish, it’s violent wish-fulfilment exploitation masquerading as entertainment. (Vue Star City)

 

The House With A Clock In Its Walls (12A)

Opening before the Goosebumps sequel in which he doesn’t star, Jack Black might be wondering if that might not have been a better option than this visually overstuffed fantastical romp (written in 1973, the source novel predates Potter, but the influences are clear in the film) in which he plays Jonathan Barnavelt who, when his sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, sends for  his orphaned, pilot goggles-wearing nerdy 10-year-old nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) to share his eccentric mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan.

Already troubled by things (moving pictures, etc) he catches from the corner of his eye, when Lewis discovers Uncle Jonathan prowling the house and attacking the walls with an axe, having heard rumours of a murder having happened there, he packs his bags and seeks to flee. Which is when Jonathan reveals that he is a warlock and his lilac-clad interconnecting neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), with whom he keeps up a banter of affectionate mutual insults, is a sorceress.

Now Lewis wants to learn magic too, which gives rise to some amusing but redundant moments before  director Eli Roth, dialling down from his usual horror fare, remembers the plot, which entails, as per the title, a clock hidden in the walls by the deceased Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan), his uncle’s former showbiz partner and even more powerful wizard who went away to war and came back on the dark side.

Suffice to say, young Lewis is tricked into ignoring the one house rule and ends up raising Izzard from the dead, thereby putting into motion the plan hatched by himself and his wicked supposedly murdered wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) to turn back time and eventually eradicate mankind. Yes, the clock is literally ticking and now it’s up to Lewis, Jonathan and Florence (whose spells have been on the frizz since a past tragedy) to save the world.

There are some individually strong moments, such as the trio battling killer pumpkins (though even that’s worked past its shelf life), but otherwise the script is thin and repetitive with too many stretches that drag on with nothing much happening.

Vaccaro, who probably peaked in the two Daddy’s Home clunkers, is cute but miscast and the subplot involving him and the school bullies only seems to exist to set up the school gym scene in the trailer, Black is thankfully in mostly restrained silliness mode while, winking at the camp, Blanchett sports the distant expression of someone who knows there’s a paycheck at the end of the day. The house makes a persuasive bid for a set design Oscar, even if some of the CGI (the pet living armchair and a topiary Gryphon that supplies the film’s toilet humour – shitting twigs) is on the dodgy side, while  toys that come to threatening life should scare younger kids into dropping their popcorn. But, as its all winds down,  for a film about magic, enchantment is sorely lacking.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Incredibles 2  (PG)

It’s been 14 years since Pixar’s super-powered Parr family, Mr. Incredible, dad Bob (Craig T.Nelson), Elastigirl, wife Helen (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) made their big screen debut, but any doubts that writer-director Brad Bird may have lost some of the mojo between times are immediately dispelled in an opening sequence as the family don their distinctive red uniforms and go into action to tackle returning villain the Underminer. He gets away but, even so, they save the city. The point, however, is that superheroing remains illegal.

But someone wants to change that. Super-rich Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk) runs DevTech along with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and, a long-time super-hero fan, is, as he explains to Bob, Helen and Lucius, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to have them legalised.  To do so, he just needs a hero to front his campaign and prove how much the world needs supers. Naturally, Bob assumes he means him, but, in fact, it’s Helen the siblings want. So, persuaded that the times call for some righteous civil disobedience (or as Violet puts it,  “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?”), while she dons a new costume and mask,  Bob has to stay home and look after the kids, including baby Jack-Jack who, he soon discovers, has myriad powers of his own, including teleportation, self-cloning, the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes and transforming into a tantrum-throwing, fire-casting demon when he doesn’t get his own way, or cookies.

So, while  Helen’s off on her souped-up  motorbike trying to track down and defeat the mysterious Screenslaver,  a villain determined to liberate society from its love affair with simulation and virtual experience and discredit superheroes forever, Bob’s having to deal with his bruised ego and the minefield of being a  stay at home dad which, aside from  attempting to discover the extent of Jack-Jack’s powers and harness them  (with the help of Bird as  eccentric fashion designer Edna Mode), involves having to handle an understandably sulky  Violet who’s discovered that he had a mindwipe carried out on her fledgling boyfriend to remove memory of her  alter-ego, inadvertently removing his memory of her altogether.

Although the villain  plot twist isn’t too hard to see coming, this never for a moment spoils the film’s  sheer exhilaration or intelligence, be that hair-raising action sequences such as Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train,  chasing it on top of the train itself, or its meditations on unethical laws,  parenting and gender equality. On top of which there’s also a whole bunch of new super-heroes eager to be legalised, including Reflux, who vomits lava, and Voyd, who idolises Helen, all of whom, along with Bob, Lucius and Helen, fall victim to Screenslaver’s mind control as Winston prepares for the Ambassador (Isabella Rossellini) to sign the legalisation legalising superheroes, setting up the scene for the kids to come to the rescue.

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

King Of Thieves (15)

The third film to relate the events of the 2015 Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary, director James Marsh takes his cue from classic British heist movies, even including clip from The Italian Job for a flashback to the younger version of Brian Reader (Michael Caine knowingly playing to type).

Reader was the recently widowed 77-year-old thief who masterminded the obligatory one last big score robbery eventually carried out by his  crew of dodgy pensioner old lags, the intimidatingly volatile Terry Perkin  (Jim Broadbent), the partially deaf  lookout John Kenny Collins (Tom Courtenay), ineffectual Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) and bruiser geezer Danny Jones (Ray Winstone), later to be joined by the not entirely with it incontinent Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon). Plus, the younger, tech-savvy comrade calling himself Basil (Charlie Cox) who, having entry into the building, took the idea to Reader and who has never been identified.

Adopting a very late 60s style, the film’s divided into two halves, the first the setting up of the heist and the second, Reader having pulled out over a dispute, the when thieves fall out section as the spoils are divvied up and those who feel they’ve been cheated out of their dues seek to get their proper share. Meanwhile, the cops are on the case following the CCTV trail.

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

The first film a screen adaptation of the stage musical hit, this doesn’t have a similar source but, again built around ABBA songs (ones they didn’t get in the first film, like Waterloo and Adante Adante,  and even some they did), directed this time by Ol Parker, it  serves as both sequel and prequel. Set a year after the death of Donna (which, if that was 2017, would have made her around 53, meaning  her daughter is in her late 30s), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is, having transformed the old hotel with help from her manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia),  about to reopen as the Bella Donna in her memory. Unfortunately, fiancé  Sky (Dominic Cooper) can’t make it as he’s in New York where, learning the hotel trade, he’s been offered a permanent job, which may put an end to their relationship. Nor can two of her dads, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth), who have prior commitments. However, Sam (Pierce Brosnan, getting another, semi-spoken stab at SOS) is there,  as are her mom’s old university friends and singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). However, when a  storm breaks, meaning the other guests and media can’t get there, it looks like the big day will be a washout.

Parallel to this is the prequel narrative of how, in 1979,  the young Donna (Lily James), having graduated from Oxford (to a rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher), sets off to find herself, winding up in Paris and then on the Greek island of  Kalokairi and, in quick succession,  encountering and sleeping with virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), charmer Bill (Josh Dylan) and love of her life but, as it transpires,  already engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the results of which are made manifest nine months later. She’s also visited by the younger incarnations of Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), the latter herself falling for Bill.

All of which sees the film shifting back in forth in time as the two storylines play out and the past resonates with the present, all to the accompaniment of the cast singing and dancing their way through an assortment of  ABBA numbers (Benny even puts in a cameo as a café pianist) as it gathers to the launch night party (now attended by a flock of locals and the three men missing from Sophie’s life) and, of course, the suitably over the top unexpected arrival of her absentee celebrity grandmother, Ruby (Cher in a platinum wig), giving rise to yet another reunion of long parted lovers. And, despite Donna’s death, Meryl Streep still puts in an appearance as the film engineers a poignant christening scene between  her and Sophie. She also part of the entire ensemble singalong coda of Supertrooper, though, as you would image, while the main cast deliver solid vocal performances (their charismatic younger counterparts can hold  a tune but wisely, this time Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard only sing in group numbers and they still can’t dance). it’s Cher who takes the vocal honours, the music lifting to a whole new level as she breaks out into a duet with Garcia on Fernando.

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Meg (12A)

Undoubtedly prompted by the likes of the recent spate of Japanese Megashark B movies, this is unashamed big fish popcorn nonsense.   Five years on from a submarine rescue mission that saw him having to leave behind his two best friends or have everyone die, Jonas Turner (Jason Statham, who first made his name as a competitive swimmer) has quit the diving business in favour of drinking away his life in Thailand.  But then along comes old buddy Mac (Cliff Curtis) and renowned marine scientist Zhang (Winston Chao) from Mana Oner, a research facility 200 miles off China, who want his help to rescue the crew of a trapped submersible that, having penetrated through ‘cloud’ cover into a whole new ocean world, have been attacked by what is quite possibly the same creature Turner  encountered, claim of which saw him declared crazy by  both facility medic Heller (Robert Taylor) and even his own now ex-wife (Jessica MacNamee), who just happens to be one of those trapped.

Managing to rescue two of them, it’s revealed that the creature is a 75ft Megaladon, the prehistoric great white killing machine long thought to be extinct. It also turns out that, in the rescue, they inadvertently, as the clunky dialogue puts it, opened up a superhighway for giant sharks which, first witnessed by precocious eight-year-old Meiying (Sophia Cai), granddaughter of Zhang whose own oceanographer daughter, Suyin (Li Bingbing), provides the burgeoning romantic interest (though there’s not even a quick kiss), when it comes to pay a call on the facility.

Along with the other ethnically and nationally diverse characters on the rig given names, tattooed marine biologist tech whizz Jaxx (Ruby Rose), smug billionaire financier Morris (Rain Wilson), engineer The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and DJ (Page Kennedy), whose only function seems to be comic relief, they set about planning to go all Robert Shaw on megaladon’s ass.

And if, a few narrow scrapes aside, that seems to be accomplished rather too easily, that’s because they apparently come in pairs, setting up a second desperate race against the clock to prevent the creature chomping its way through a  seafull of happy holidaymakers at a nearby crowded resort. Not to mention a Pekinese with a pink bow.

Although unusually devoid of any expletives, director Jon Turteltaub ensures it  does what it’s supposed to do (though it’s strangely skimpy on human snacking), Statham does what you expect him to do and the support cast romp cheerily through the crowd-pleasing action  and cardboard  dialogue which, naturally, finds room to flag up such poster eco messages as “we did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.” Brainless – and to some extent toothless – fun, it’s based on the first of several Meg novels by Steve Alten, so who knows what other oversized amphibians might be waiting to swim their way to a  sequel up that underwater superhighway.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mile 22  (18)

Even taking into account its troubled genesis (Will Smith was originally envisioned for the lead and the script was  given a major overhaul), the latest teaming from director Peter Berg and star Mark Whalberg is a violent incoherent mess. A troubled, volatile kid with a hair-trigger temper, James Silva (Whalberg) was naturally recruited for a top secret CIA black-ops outfit called The Overwatch, the so-called MI:like third option when diplomacy and military action fail. As seen in the opening preamble as they take down a Russian cell to recover some hard drives and things go pear-shaped, sporting a buzzcut ginger wig, John Malkovich (codename ‘mother’) and his technical crew run the logistics while Silva and his team, which includes acrimoniously divorced mom Alice (Lauren Cohan) and Sam Snow (WWA star turned actress Ronda Rousy), look after the bodycount.

Their latest mission comes when Li Noor (Raid star Iko Uwais), one of Alice’s sources and a cop in some unnamed South Asian dictatorship presents himself at the American Embassy who has the key to unlock the aforementioned hard drives which contain details of a terrorist plot involving stolen nuclear cesium, but he’ll only give them the code to unlock it if he’s given asylum in America, and they only have a set time before it self-destructs. Now Silva and the others have to transport him the 22 miles across the city to the pick up plane, while the country’s secret police seek to kill him for being a traitor. Meanwhile, somewhere in the skies, a Russian spy plane and some top ranking female officer, are tracking their target for a strike.

Uwais is given plenty of opportunity to display his martial arts skills as he despatches assorted henchman while Berg throws in a very obvious reference to The Raid, that does his own film no favours at all by comparison. Awash with American gung ho.  but starved of much by way of anything resembling character depth (Wahlberg shouts a lot and snaps an elastic band on his wrist to show his got anger issues), Berg keeps the camera constantly cutting away  to distract from the fact that nothing hangs together and takes forever to even begin to make passable sense, and even then it has to take time out for a recap.

Mercifully short at just 85 minutes, it does deliver a clever and unexpected twist that turns everything on its head, but then ends by teasing audiences about what happened to one of the main characters in the vain hope of setting up a sequel.  “You’re making a mistake,” someone says to Wahlberg. “I’ve made a lot of them”, he replies. This is one of the biggest.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Night School (12A)

The funniest thing here is in the opening sequences when audiences are expected to buy Kevin Hart as a teenage high school student, although, once you get past the unnecessary fart and vomit gags, and, of course, Hart’s tendency to mistake shouting and using a high-pitched voice as acting, there are  a few other amusing moments. The film also raises a salute to inspirational teachers, though probably taking students into a boxing ring to smack them in the face or pin them with wrestling moves to get them to focus might not get the Oftsed approval.

Hart is Teddy Walker, a high school dropout working as a BBQ grills salesman and living beyond his means to impress high class design executive girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Things look to be on the up when he’s promised he’ll take over the business, but no sooner has he proposed to Lisa than the whole thing goes up in flames  and, deep in debt, he’s forced to look for another job. His friend and former classmate Marvin (Ben Schwarz) would hire him as a financial analyst, but first he needs to get his high school diploma, having walked out of the test 17 years earlier.

While telling Lisa that he’s got the job, he returns to his old school to sign up for night school only to discover his former geeky nemesis, Stewart (Taran Killam), is now the principal, an uptight power freak with a  habit of using black talk, and still harbours a grudge for an old humiliation. However, overworked teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), with whom Teddy’s had an earlier run in at the traffic lights, agrees he can join her class, a bunch of other underachievers all working for their GED comprising  robot conspiracy nut Jaylen (Romany Malco), dorky Mac (Rob Riggle), Mila (a teenager trying to avoid juvenile detention) Mexican immigrant and aspiring singer Luis (Al Madrigal), a former waiter who got fired in Teddy’s attempt to avoid paying the bill, Bobby (Fat Joe), taking lessons from prison via Skype, and Theresa (comic highlight Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24) as a put-upon, sexually frustrated mother of three.

What little plot there is entails the class bonding, breaking into Stewart’s office to steal an upcoming test, and Teddy getting expelled, reinstated and dumped by Lisa as well as working behind the counter of, in an inspired touch, a Christian Chicken takeaway serving God’s own poultry. Unfortunately, such imagination highs are few and far between in a screenplay that plods a wholly predictable route (though it does avoid any student-teacher romance) en route to Teddy discovering why’s he academically-challenged and fulfilling his potential.

It’s a given that Hart is very much a  Marmite presence,  but Haddish rises above the script’s bitch slap clichés to make Carrie a straightshooter and dedicated teacher while the film is at its best when the class works together in rhythm. Even so, despite the pro-education message and the occasional touching moment, as directed by Girl Trip’s Malcom D Lee, with at least three endings,  it all feels like an extended series of sketches looking for a sitcom. A pass grade at best. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nun (15)

Continuing to milk The Conjuring franchise, this is positioned as a prequel to The Conjuring 2, bookended with cameos from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and kicking off with the latter’s painting of a scary-looking nun and the figure appearing in the hallway. Cut then to 50s Romania  and a remote castle abbey from where, following some spooky stuff down in the catacombs, a young nun hangs herself.  Her body discovered by young French-Canadian  Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) while delivering vegetables, the Vatican duly send specialist priest Father Anthony Burke (Demián Bichir)  and  young novitiate Irene (Taissa Farmiga, though nothing’s ever made of the connection) given to psychic visions to investigate.

Naturally, before long they’re up to their rosaries in dark passages, graveyards, walking dead and a plethora of black habit-clad nuns who may or may not be real.

It’s all down to the good old standby of some demon from hell, this one’s called Valak,  having broken through to the other world and seemingly roaming the castle in the guise of the aforementioned  malevolent nun who’ll haunt Lorraine Warren a couple of decades later, meaning our intrepid trio have to cast him back and seal the portal, for which they’ll need some drops of Christ’s blood which, wouldn’t you know, happen to be concealed somewhere within the walls.

Director Corin Hardy barely goes a couple of scenes without having some shadowy figure in a  habit scurry across the screen or loom behind one of the characters, occasionally switching tack for a boo moment by having a nun loom over someone with their face contorted into blood dripping fangs. Oh, and snakes. Presumably, this is designed to stop the audience noting that there’s no actual coherent plot (a flashback to a failed exorcism by Burke and undeveloped appearances by the boy he failed seem to come from screenplay pages they forgot to shred) and at times the film threatens to collapse into a campy Hammer spoof rather than sphincter-tightening scares that, as in the Conjuring itself, might have a passable grounding in reality. The result is an entertaining enough Tales from the Crypt knockoff. Never boring but still palpable stuff and nunsense. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Predator (15)

Thirty years since the Arnie-starring original and ten since the dismal last gasp Aliens vs. Predator:Requiem, Shane Black and co-writer Fred Dekker put a defibrillator to the franchise and zaps it back into robust life. Duly pretending the two Alien face-offs never happened,  this juggles three interconnected storylines, kicking off with a Predator spaceship crashing to Earth after being pursued by another and landing slapbang in a hostage rescue mission by Special Forces sniper turned mercenary Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), leaving his team dead. Shortly before he’s picked up for interrogation to ensure he doesn’t say anything, he ships the self-arming Predator gauntlet, helmet and a metal ball cloaking device back home. Meanwhile, dad’s being shipped off to a secure unit with a busload of PTSD military crazies, which ultimately brings them into contact with the third strand involving kick-ass biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) who’s been brought in by Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), head of a secret government lab and clearly the bad guy as he only has one name, to take a look at the captured  alien, which, it transpires, has human DNA in its system.  At which point, said alien comes out of sedation, kills everyone in sight and sets off to find its missing armaments, McKenna and his new motley crew rescuing Bracket before she’s eliminated as a security risk, and heading for home, unaware his young son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), a  tech genius on the Asperger’s spectrum, who shares the house with dad’s estranged wife (Yvonne Strahovski), herself no shrinking violet,  has opened the box and  started decoding the weaponry’s secrets. Not to mention its defence system coming in very useful when he’s bullied while out trick or treating

Matters get more complicated with the arrival of a second Predator  and his two dogs (think Predator Pitbulls) on a mission to kill the other (“It’s some kind of interstellar cops and robbers”) and find whatever it was he stole, which is what Traeger and his men are also after. All of which, set mostly over the course of one night,  sets the scene for a nonstop gorefest featuring any number of eviscerations and decapitations with McKenna and co taking on both the two Predators and Traeger, but still finding time for some wisecracking banter. Not to mention a series-ribbing running gag in which Bracket proposes that, really, the alien should be called a hunter not a predator.

Holbrook, who has a touch of the Brad Pitt about him, makes for a solid action hero, Munn joins the swelling action movie ranks of women with balls, Room star Tremblay delivers a soulfully understated turn as the kid who thinks he’s a disappointment to his dad and proves crucial to the big climax, while, as his new dysfunctional crew of  ‘Loonies’ with their assorted personality tics, Trevane Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera all get their moments, Jane especially fun as the Tourette’s-afflicted Baxley. Fast paced, funny and with post-Deadpool off the scale violence, if you like your popcorn splattered with blood, you’ll want a big bucket of this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Searching (12A)

Another film in which the narrative unfolds entirely via a screen, be it computer, phone or television, this is far more inventive and a hell of a lot better than Unfriended. The opening sequence, presented as collection of photos on videos stored on a  desktop folder offers a quick run-down of Korean-American family David Kim (John Cho), wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and daughter Margot (Michelle La), from the latter’s birth through to the death of her mother from  lymphoma. Today, father and daughter share the same house, but only seem to communicate via text and FaceTime. One night, while asleep and she’s out studying he misses two calls from her. The next day, there’s no response from her phone. Discovering she wasn’t in school and left her study group early, he naturally begins to worry and contacts the police. A detective specialising in missing children cases, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) makes contact and starts to investigate, an increasingly anxious David also pursuing his own enquiries, discovering the process that Margot seemed to not have any friends at school, has been lying about attending the piano lesson’s he’s been paying for  and had a life he knew nothing about.

Presenting him with his daughter’s fake ID, Vick suggests she may have run off, a possibility he refuses to accept. And then her car’s found in a lake, evidence within it  seeming to confirm David’s worst fears. However, there’s unexpected new discoveries and twists still to unfold.

Cho is terrific in conveying David anger at and concern  about his daughter as he gradually discovers how little he really knows about her, taking a hands-on approach when he feels the official investigation isn’t doing what it should, including attacking a kid he regards as a suspect and playing surveillance devices in someone’s house. Messing is equally effective  as a cop who is also a single parent, while solid support’s also provided by Joseph Lee as David’s stoner brother Peter who may have been one of the last people to see Margot.

Effectively using visual language as much as dialogue, as he switches from FaceTime to YouTube, iPhones, Twitter and other platforms, first-time director Aneesh Chaganty  and cowriter Sev Ohanian build a nailbitingly suspenseful crime thriller that carefully misdirects while offering subtle clues, at the same time making insightful and pertinent observations on parent-child relationships and communication in the digital age as well as the way real tragedy is somehow diluted and trivialised through online viral posts and hashtags. (Vue Star City)

 

The Wife (15)

Again underlining her status as one of the greatest actresses of her generation, until she finally explodes at the film’s ending, Glenn Close gives a master class in understatement and restrained tension as Joan Castleman, the sixty-something wife of older celebrated author, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), her former struggling university professor (Harry Lloyd) who divorced his wife to marry her, his star student (Annie Starke). As the film opens, persuading her to have sex to calm him down, he’s nervously awaiting news from Sweden, the pair subsequently bouncing up and down on the bed to celebrate his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Their daughter due to give birth at any moment, they take their son, David (Max Irons) himself an aspiring writer and resentful of his father’s seeming lack of support or interest, with them to receive the award as, between being fussed over by Swedish officials and flashbacks to university days and their ensuing affair,  the film slowly unfolds the relationship between Joan and her husband. Flirting with the young official photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned to shadow him in Sweden, we learn Joe’s had several affairs, to which Joan, who enjoys the comforts of being married to such a prestigious writer,  has turned a stoical blind eye. But there’s more to it. The flashbacks reveal that, back in the day, she herself had literary aspirations, her university essay ‘The Faculty Wife’, based on Joe’s marriage, held in high esteem. However, at a literary function, a minor female author (Elizabeth McGovern) cautions her to give up all hopes of being taken seriously or read, publishing being a highly chauvinistic domain. And so, it would seem, that Joan abandoned the idea and settled into becoming the dutiful, long-suffering wife, coaching him on his responsibilities and manners. At cocktail parties, Joe always acknowledges her as his inspiration and muse, but  adds that, no, she doesn’t write. And Joan smiles and carries on. However, Joe’s would be warts and all biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who’s contrived to also be in Sweden for the awards, has his own theories and is determined to wheedle out the truth, even if Joan refuses to spill the beans.

Anyone who knows the story of French authoress Collete (itself a soon to be released film) will have sussed out the marriage’s creative dynamic well before the subsequent revelations, summed up in a line about how “there’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.” As such, the logic feels flawed as to why such a clearly strong-willed  and talented woman would meekly accept the  situation, not even wishing to bask in reflected glory, or why she finally says enough is enough following the awards-ceremony in which he showers her with praise, saying he could not be the writer he is without her. Indeed, as the flashbacks show, it was she who, working at a publishers, got them to  look at his work and facilitated his masterpiece, The Walnut.

Adapting Meg Wolitzer’s 1992-set novel, director Bjorn Runge has a keen eye for the trappings, amusingly drawing out the red tape and absurd protocol of such events, the couple even being awakened to a candle-lit serenade. But, he lacks imagination, the flashbacks have none of the main narrative’s brittle edge and he also overdoes the resonances and narrative design, with David’s work in progress mirroring his mother’s essay in depicting a marriage in crisis while Joe’s chat up line involving James Joyce quote about falling snow is made literal in the final moments.

Pryce does a decent job in shaping Joe as not a bad man but one who’s weak and narcissistic, while Slater is excellent as the slippery journo, the café chat between him and an inscrutable Joan a particular highlight, but this is unquestionably Close’s film, rising above the flaws in the material to command the screen and keep you engaged even as you’re questioning the plausibility. (Empire Great Park)

Yardie (15)

Making his directorial debut, Idris Elba has opted to adapt Victor Headley’s 1992 novel about the Caribbean drug gangs of  70s London. Other than the usual first-time director flaws, like over extending a scene, hesitancy and  framing, Elba  makes a decent enough first of things, greatly supported by his cinematographer, John Conroy, who he worked with on Luther. The problems lie in the narrative and the  performances.

Opening in 1973 Kingston, it sets up the turf war between two rival gangs with young street-rat Denis (Antwayne Eccleston) pitching on help is Rastafarian older brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary) try to bring peace by setting up a sound system to get the opposing sides dancing. All’s going well until a young boy in the crowd guns Jerry down.

Fast forward several years, and D (Aml Ameen) now works for record label producer and drugs dealer King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), but, still looking for revenge, when his actions threaten to spark another gang war, King Fox sends him to London  along with a brick of cocaine, to cool off.

His job’s to deliver the coke to Hackney mad dog white rasta gang boss Rico (Stephen Graham) but, for reasons that are never quite clear, he does a runner instead, leaving Rico’s thugs in pursuit, and, hooking up with three teenage  wannabe sound system DJs sets up a drugs deal with the local Turks instead.  Thereby threatening to start a gang war in London rather than Kingston.

At the same time, he gets back in touch with his estranged girlfriend and baby mama, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and also sets about trying to track down the now grown Clancy who shot Jerry. During all this he’s haunted by his brother’s ghost, unable to settle since young Denis disrupted the funeral rituals.

Though ticking all the East End gang thriller boxes as he goes, Elba commendably stays true to the novel’s Jamaican patois, but, in so doing, unfortunately renders much of the dialogue unintelligible if you don’t speak the lingo. The film won’t travel. Equally problematic is the attempt to juggle the gang narrative and chart the rise of the reggae and dub sound systems that were a big thing in 80s London and, as such, the trio who make up soundclash crew High Noon remain ciphers, simply there to fuel a further revenge quest as the film builds to a dancehall battle as High Noon take on Rico’s crew with King Fox and Clancy lurking in the wings.

Despite being landed with having to deliver portentous voiceovers about  choosing which path you follow, Ameen does a solid enough job and there’s real chemistry between him and Jackson who makes the best of a one-dimensionally written role.  Likewise, Shepherd is suitably snakelike as the manipulative and decidedly not to be trusted King Fox, but then, on the other hand’s there’s Graham’s wildly caricature turn as the psychotically deranged, coke hoovering Rico, all tightly permed hair and an accent that careens wildly between geezer and ganja.

Aided by a  soundtrack that includes Grace Jones, King Creator, Yellowman and a newly discovered Bob Marley cut  sung by his grandson, Skip, as well as copious Red Stripe product placement, it does a decent  job of capturing time and place. But, uneven, confused and a times ponderously drawn out and dull with no dynamic and some decidedly lacklustre action scenes, it ultimately ends up making you want to dig out Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come DVD instead. (Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Competition: Win two tickets to a secret and intimate UB40 show in Birmingham

Brum Notes has teamed up with reggae legends UB40 to offer one lucky winner two tickets to a secret and intimate performance by the band, featuring James Brown, Duncan Campbell, Robin Campbell, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan and Brian Travers, in Birmingham on Sunday 7 October.

The acclaimed act, celebrating 40 years in the business in 2018, will perform new tracks from their upcoming album to a select audience of fans and supporters in a yet-to-be-disclosed city location.

UB40, who emerged from Birmingham in 1978, is one of the city’s most successful musical exports and have enjoyed global success selling over 70 million records worldwide.

The band’s latest album, For The Many, is due for release in February 2019, and a Pledge campaign is currently underway. Find out more about how you can support UB40’s campaign here.

Competition – how to enter

To be in with a chance of winning two tickets to the show, head to the official Brum Notes Facebook page and post a link to your favourite UB40 song, along with the hashtag #UB40secretgig by 6pm on Friday 5 October.

A winner will be selected at random shortly after and notified by 12 pm on Saturday 6 October.

Competition – terms and conditions

The tickets will grant the winner and a guest entry to a secret and intimate live UB40 show at a Birmingham location on Sunday 7 October 2018.

Details of the location will be revealed privately to the winner by 12 pm on Saturday 6 October.

No cash alternative is available.

Brum Notes’ decision is final.

The tickets are non-transferable.

 

Free Half-Dayers return for festival

James Cook

Birmingham Comedy Festival’s Free Half-Dayers are back, with 16 free shows across two successive Sundays (7 and 14 October 2018).

Taking place at Cherry Reds and The Victoria pub, in John Bright Street, Birmingham (just a few yards from Grand Central and New Street Station), Birmingham Comedy Festival’s Free Half-Dayer: Part One (Sunday 7 October 2018) features a revival of classic 1960s radio series Round The Horne (with much-loved characters Ramblin’ Syd Rumpo, and the legendary Julian and Sandy); sketch duo Good Kids (who are nominated for the festival’s EG Breaking Talent Award); Northfield’s acclaimed Lindsey Santoro; Lusia Omilean tour support Aaron Twitchen; and Cherrybomb Comedy host Tom Ham; plus Danny Clives, Alex Hylton, Jay Handley, and Star Trek fan Rik Carranza.

Part Two (Sunday 14 October 2018) sees appearances from multi-award-winning The Elvis Dead creator Rob Kemp, with his new Wheel Of Shows; Edinburgh Fringe veteran Mickey Sharma; Coronation Street’s Gareth Berliner; classic Chicago style long-form improvised comedy troupe Fat Penguin Improv; and Josh Pugh and Phil Pagett’s Knowledge Club. They’re joined by James Cook, Hannah Silvester, and the return of the game show with a difference, Board Game Smackdown.

Mixing stand-up comedy with music, sketches, games, and more, all hour long shows are free (donations encouraged), with performances starting at 1.15pm and concluding at 6pm.

No advance booking is required, simply turn up, drop in, and see as many shows as you like. Visitors are also free to go back and forth between both venues.

Jim Beam will also be there serving Jim Beam Bourbon Highballs.

The award-winning Birmingham Comedy Festival runs from Friday 4 to Sunday 14 October 2018 with over 70 performances across the city, including appearances from Ab Fab’s Joanna Lumley, James Acaster, US comic Rich Hall, Infinite Monkey Cage’s Robin Ince, and Hospital People creator Tom Binns, as well as theatre, art, podcasters, burlesque, and more.

Jim Beam Highball presents Birmingham Comedy Festival Free Half-Dayers at Cherry Reds and The Victoria pub, John Bright Street, Birmingham on Sunday 7 and Sunday 14 October 2018 from 1.15pm. For more information see: www.bhamcomfest.co.uk

Rob Kemp's Wheel Of ShowsLISTINGS

Jim Beam Highball presents:
Birmingham Comedy Festival FREE Half-Dayers
Two days, two city centre venues and 16 shows. All shows are FREE/ by donation/ Pay What You Want, no booking required, just pop along and see as many shows as you like …

PART 1: Sunday 7 October 2018

* CHERRY REDS *

Aaron Twitchen: Can’t Catch A Rainbow – Never let anyone stop you. They can’t stop a rainbow if they can’t catch the end of it. A comedy show about friendship, love and wine from Luisa Omielan’s tour support. 1.15pm

Lindsey Santoro: Looks Like A Boiled Egg – Join Northfield’s Princess as she recounts tales of misadventures in life for your amusement. 2.30pm

Ham & Clives: Bang You Out – Prepare to get banged out by the pairing of Pleasance Comedy Reserve star Danny Clives and Cherrybomb Comedy resident host Tom Ham. 3.45pm

Rik Carranza: Still A Fan – Rik is THE fan of Star Trek. But what happens when obsession becomes too much? A show for everyone who knows that fandom goes beyond merch’, conventions and trivia. 5pm

Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN

* THE VICTORIA *

Alex Hylton: Everybody’s Different And I’m The Same – Join one of Huffington Post’s Must See New Acts of the Edinburgh Fringe as he tries to find out what makes him so special … 1.15pm

Good Kids – Cult sketch-comedy cowboys descend for an hour of wicked-ass mayhem. Put your phone in your pocket and your giggle boots on ’cause this one’s the big one! 2.30pm

Jay Handley: White Jesus – Jay shares wrong-headed opinions on matters he should leave well alone. When not at the Fringe, he can be found arrogantly inflicting his world view on audiences across the UK. 3.45pm

Round The Horne: Resuscitated – A fond revival of one of the most popular radio comedy shows of the ’60s. With fave characters inc Ramblin’ Syd Rumpo, Charles & Fiona, and Julian & Sandy. 5pm

The Victoria pub, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN

PART 2: Sunday 14 October 2018

* CHERRY REDS *

James Cook: Sarcasmic – Brum comic James returns with a new show. It’s called ‘Sarcasmic’, so we suppose it must be like a sarcastic orgasm or something. 1.15pm

Hannah Silvester: Unique Child of the Universe – Join the award-winning comedian as she bangs on about all kinds of stuff in front of a lunch-time crowd. It’ll be lovely! 2.30pm

Gareth Berliner: I Paid For 50mins Of Your Time – Gareth is a funny bloke who’s prepared to invest financially in you as an audience. But you better be a good one or he may want his money back! 3.45pm

Mickey Sharma – Mickey is a professional with five Edinburgh Fringe shows under his belt. He brings his best hour to Brum! 5pm

Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN

* THE VICTORIA *

Fat Penguin Improv: The Armando Diaz Experience
Classic Chicago style long-form improvised comedy delivered by the high-paced Fat Penguin crew. Featuring some of Birmingham’s best performers. 1.15pm

Josh and Phil’s Knowledge Club
Podcasters Josh Pugh and Phil Pagett present a lecture on the importance of education. You’ll find out why learning can be fun, fulfilling, and so on. 2.30pm

Rob Kemp’s Wheel of Shows
Feeling the pressure of unexpected success after last year’s award-winning The Elvis Dead, Rob returns with the non-committal, impostor syndrome-motivated Wheel of Shows, featuring 10 show ideas! 3.45pm

Board Game Smackdown
The funniest festival comedians play board/ card/ party/ table-top games live on stage. Hosted by award-winning comedian and UK board gaming champion James Cook. 5pm

The Victoria pub, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN

For more information, see: www.bhamcomfest.co.uk
Twitter / Facebook / Instagram: @bhamcomfest

Can you dig PWEI?

Tracks from a 1996 ‘lost album’ by Pop Will Eat Itself are  unleashed as part of a new career-spanning survey.

Def Comms 86-18 (out now via Cherry Red) features material from all the West Mids band’s eight studio albums, plus unheard alternate mixes, a recently recorded demo, and more.

Compiled with founder member and vocalist Graham Crabb, the four CD collection begins with 1986-1989 (Disc One) and selections from their first releases, The Poppies Say GRRrrr! and Poppiecock (including Oh Grebo, I Think I Love You and Theresapsychopathin My Soup), through Beaver Patrol, There Is No Love Between Us Anymore, Can U Dig It? and Wise Up! Sucker!.

Disc Two spans 1990-1993 and includes Karmadrome, the Adrian Sherwood mix of Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies, and X, Y And Zee.

Disc Three looks at 1993-2018 with 7-inch mixes of Ich Bin Ein Auslander and RSVP, and includes No Contest, Talent+Attitude=$, The Demon and 100% Is **It from the so-called ‘lost’ album.

Meanwhile Disc Four focuses on Remixes, Rarities And Unreleased, with previously unreleased Fatman, Oldskool Cool and Eyes Wide Open.

Formed in Stourbridge in the mid-80s, and signed to local indie label, Chapter 22, Pop Will Eat Itself’s early tracks were described as ‘grebo’ – a heavy punk fuelled sound – but the influence of hip hop (Run DMC, The Beastie Boys) and dance/ rock acts such as The KLF, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Big Audio Dynamite, led PWEI (aka The Poppies) down a different path.

Further industrial and electronic dance influences (techno, house) seeped in, and the band can be seen as a precursor to such acts as The Prodigy, combining a heavy guitar sound with samples, scratching and beats.

Can You Dig It? perfectly laid out their influences: Marvel and DC comics, Renegade Soundwave, hard rockers AC/DC, Run DMC, The Fall’s Hit The North, Transformers, Bruce Lee, Alan Moore, Terminator, DJ Spinderella …

PWEI disbanded in 1996, with Clint Mansell going on to a successful film music career in Hollywood, Richard March formed Bentley Rhythm Ace and can now be seen regularly playing bass with Rhino And The Ranters, while drummer Fuzz Townshend presents TV series Car SOS.

PWEI were revived in 2011, and continue to play live and record with Graham Crabb.

PWEI: Def Comms 86-18, Communications 1986-2018 is available now. For details, see: www.cherryred.co.uk/artist/pop-will-eat-itself/

 

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