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Interview: There Will Be Blood – Live

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood: Live

There Will Be Blood: Live is the latest in an ongoing line of concert/ film-screenings.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film traces the rise of ruthless Californian oil man Daniel Plainview (an Oscar-winning turn from Daniel Day-Lewis), and a soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

Incorporating elements from Brahams and Arvo Pärt, as well as Greenwood’s own Popcorn Superhet Receiver, the soundtrack is being brought to life by the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO), conducted by Hugh Brunt – who answers our questions.

Very much a forward thinking company, the LCO have also worked with Foals, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Frank Ocean, Terry Tiley and Steve Reich.

What are some of the key musical passages?

The opening is quite striking. There’s about 15mins where there’s no dialogue, just this incredible cinematography and music. The first piece has 25 individual string players all on a different note, and they go up and down. There’s a shot of the hills, this stark barren landscape. It’s a pretty arresting start to a film and it engages the viewer from the get go.

Then, half way through there’s the lead character, Daniel Planview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his brother surveying the land. Jonny used an excerpt from a previous piece, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, and he asks the string players to strike their strings with a plectrum. It’s not pizzicato, not a bow struck on the strings, it’s just guitar picks, to create this particular, cool, sound.

The score also incorporates an early electronic instrument from the 1920s, an ondes Martenot. Has incorporating it into a live performance been challenging? Does it, for example, stay in tune …?

Tuning is not the biggest issue. Having it within an orchestra is the biggest challenge. It has three speakers, so the sound is coming from where the instrument is positioned, it is placed next to its source. But you have to achieve live a mix between the instrument and those around it. It can bloom, be overpowering, but that’s one of its strengths as well. In a hall, you have to go out and hear it and make sure you get the right balance.

Typically with these sorts of shows, the orchestra would be be performing with a click-track or timecode … but you don’t!?

Yes. There’s none of that guiding. What it means is doing it that old school way. In the era of silent films they did not have that technology.

There’s no technology in that respect, it’s a piece of understanding through performing and rehearsal, and making sure those hit points are hit. Between those points that means the music is freer, it’s far more rewarding when you’re not shackled to a timecode or click-track.  You can be very musical. When it’s working and it’s the very best, it feels like the orchestra is giving cues to the film. It’s like an opera, it’s well-oiled. When everyone is working  together, the sensation you have … you know when that next cut is coming. It’s a very old school way of working.

How did you come to work with Jonny?

We’ve been performing Jonny’s music since 2008, when we were starting out. The very first piece of his we played was Popcorn Superhet Receiver – a section of which was used in There Will Be Blood. We played three or four of his pieces. In 2012 we came to work with him for The Master, his second film with Paul Thomas Anderson which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams. That was the first time we worked together. Then we went on tour with Jonny on electric guitar and ondes Martenot. We did 10-15 shows around the UK and Europe showcasing his chamber pieces and new stuff he’d written.

Then he engaged us for the Radiohead album [A Moon Shaped Pool], for string arrangements and vocal arrangements; and then for Frank Ocean, as Jonny wrote the string arrangements as well for that record.

It’s been a real pleasure to work with him.

You’ve also worked with Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, who’s from this part of the world (Wolverhampton).

Yes, he is isn’t he? The first show we worked on was the Barbican in February 2016 and that was working on new material – melding acoustic instrument sounds and electronic sounds, and looking at the dialogue between them – and his back catalogue. We toured that to Moscow in the summer. It was a really interesting process, we were fascinated with what the instruments received, how we interpreted what we were sending out. There was this constant dialogue between the two spaces [Actress and LCO] … so that was great. Hopefully, we’ll do more.

Any plans to release the stuff you developed from those performances?

Quite possibly .. it’d be great to thing that these pieces could reach a wider audience.

You just performed Arthur Russell’s orchestral work Tower of Meaning (Jan 2017), with Russell collaborators Peter Zummo and Bill Ruyle. How did the shows go?

They went very well. There were quite a few of the Arthur Russell shows as there was a lot of demand, and we also live streamed it via NTS, so reached even more people. That was a great coming together of so many people’s efforts. Russell was pretty versatile.

In March 2017, you’re doing another film/ orchestra event, this time for the Oscar-nominated Moonlight …

There’s a live screening at the Barbican. It sounds amazing, we’ve been lucky to see bits of the film and it’s quite overpowering, quite overwhelming. It’s another case of music performed live that heightens those emotions. The composer, Nicholas Britell, will be performing with is on keyboards and sampler. As with earlier performances with Jonny, that helps guide us … it’s really exciting.

* There Will Be Blood: Live, with the LCO, is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Sunday 5 February 2017. For more information and tickets, see: thsh.co.uk

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

 

NEW RELEASES

 

Split (15)

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

Wasting no time the film opens at a diner where outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, recently seen in The Witch and, rather more effectively, Morgan) is waiting to be picked up from the party birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and classmate Marcia (Jessica Sula) didn’t really want to invite her to in the first place. Offered a lift by Claire’s dad, while he’s loading things into the boot, a stranger gets into  the driving street, chloroforms the girls and drives off.

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

Shortly afterwards, they see and hear a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, the figure turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently the 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, the psychiatrist who has been treating his/their case. By way of a Skype conference call, the film helpfully explains the disorder whereby patients can become one of several very different personalities, each with different traits and that, there have been examples, of  one personality not having the disability of another. She believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

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

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

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

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

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark last minute twists, one of which  fills in a crucial piece of withheld information  about the setting  and, in the final seconds, another that delivers an audacious filmography self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Jackie (15)

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

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

Partly shooting in 16mm and with frequent intense close ops, the film capture the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in both dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral (her riposte to news that DeGaul would not attend the funeral unless he was in a motorcade was brilliant political strategy), Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy. Far more than the “silly little debutante” some perceived her to be.

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

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme perhaps heavy handedly, but effectively nevertheless, underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

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

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

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (Saroo had another brother, Kallu, while his fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa Williams), directed by Garth Davis in his feature debut, Luke Davies’ screenplay works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best turn by Patel is well matched by an understated but powerful Oscar-bait turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo, but while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality or plays the tug between two mothers card as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second, overextended half of Saroo’s story, with far too many loose ends,  is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children (something reinforced in the end credits),  inevitably recalling Patel’s earlier film, Slumdog Millionaire. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Directed by D.J. Caruso in his biggest budget outing to date, predictable an illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware (there’s a great scene where Cage and Serena compare tattoos) and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

6 Of The Best Fest

Mockingbird Cinema.

A festival celebrating British films made by women with director/producer Q&As

 

Sat

The Levelling (tbc)

Clover Catto receives a call telling her that her younger brother Charlie is dead, which means she must return to her family farm and face her father, someone she hasn’t spoken to in years.

Light Years (12A)

Singer Beth Orton makes her acting debut in writer-director Esther May Campbell magical and poignant dream-state film about a dying mother and her three children, the youngest of whom, sets off to find her among the stars.
The Incident (15)

A successful couple find their lives upended and their relationship unravel when they each make a decision to ignore the plight of a troubled teenage girl.

Adult Life Skills (15)

Jodie Whittaker stars in Rachel Tunnard’s film about a woman who, approaching 30, has retreated from life and social contact, living in her mom’s shed and making videos with her thumbs as the actors. The arrival of an old friend forces her out of isolation as she becomes involved with a cowboy-obsessed 8-year-old and a local estate agent in narrative that explores themes of finding yourself and making peace with who you are.

Prevenge (tbc)

Wry British black ante/post-natal depression comedy from writer-director Alice Lowe who also stars as Ruth, a seven-month pregnant widow who, believing she’s being guided by her unborn baby, embarks on a homicidal spree.

 

NOW PLAYING

Assassin’s Creed (12A)

The transition of video game to big screen embraces a history that ranges from shortcomings (Tomb Raider) to outright disasters (Bloodrayne) with just the occasional success (Warcraft) to encourage studios to keep trying. Launched in 2007and now on its 17th version, Assassin’s Creed has proven one of the most durable  console games. But, unless you’re a dedicated player, this live action adaptation from director Justin Kurzel (who directed his leading stars here in a brilliant version of Macbeth), based largely around the original game, but reinterpreted as dystopian sci fi, is going to prove confusing bordering on incoherent.

Although it changes the name of the protagonist from bartender Desmond Miles to convicted murderer Callum Lynch (an intense Michael Fassbender), whose Assassin mother was killed by his own father (Brendan Gleeson as the older version) when he was just a  child, the premise remains pretty much intact. Lynch is a descendent of the Assassin bloodline, an ancient secret society formed during  the Spanish Inquisition to prevent the Knight Templars getting their hands on an artefact from Eden (here some sort of techno-apple containing the secret to free will) they want to use to bring mankind under their control.

To locate it, Cal is ferreted away from death row to a secret high-tech Madrid facility run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), CEO of Abstergo Industries and member of the current Knights Templar (headed bv Charlotte Rampling), whose scientist daughter,  Sophia (Marion Cotillard, is engaged on a  programme called the Animus, that, strapped to a harness with an implant in his neck, can send him back in time (at least virtually) to inhabit the memories of his Assassin ancestor Aguilar. So, back in Spain, he finds himself a sort of 15th century parkour expert, vicariously fighting alongside Maria (Ariane Labed), a fellow Assassin, to rescue a prince who’s been kidnapped by Templars leader, Torquemada, to force his Sultan father into  handing over the Apple of Eden, only to themselves wind up captured by Torquemada’s enforcer, Ojeda.

That’s about as lucid as it gets. For reasons that are never made apparent, the shambolic plot sees the facility also housing various other inmates who are apparently the descendents of other assassins (which seemingly contradicts the assertion that Callum is the last) and  some  guff about having to enter the Animus willingly in order not to get burned out.

Irons wisely plays things with a twinkle in his eye, giving the film what few sparks of humour it has; however,  Fassbender buys into the film’s po-faced seriousness and portentous dialogue, while  Cottilard, on the other hand, simply looks totally bewildered by the whole thing.  Throw in assorted hallucinations, Christopher Columbus, quite literal Leaps of Faith and the words of an 11th-century Persian missionary (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) as the foundation of the Creed, which operates in the dark to do the work of the light, and what you get a puree of the Da Vinci Code and The Matrix served up with a side order of smoke-shrouded frantically kinetic action sequences shot through a moodily lit murky gauze. Admittedly, some of it looks impressive and images of darkly hooded figures with bladed gauntlets diving from tall buildings have a sort of frisson, but that’s undercut by the ineptitude of the screenplay and constant enigmatic (i.e. meaningless) symbolic shots of an eagle swooping across landscapes past and present. It’s not completely jaw-droppingly awful,  but it does make you positively yearn for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Ballerina (U)

An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this follow your heart animation. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams.

Set in France towards the end of the 19th century, Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning) is a resident at a Brittany  orphanage where the Mother Superior does her best to discourage dreams, because they never come true and only cause you misery. Possessed of a ballerina musical box, the only legacy of her mother, Félicie dreams of being a dancer, even more so when her wannabe inventor best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan) shows her a postcard of the Grand Opera House in Paris. He promises to take her there, if they escape together. Which they duly due with the aid of a pair of his chicken-inspired wings, narrowly escaping the clutches of the Orphanage supervisor. However, arriving in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is just starting to be built, the pair get separated and, wandering into the Opera House, Félicie is befriended by cleaner Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), herself a former dancer whose career was ended when she hurt her leg.

Odette works for a Cruella deVil-like woman who is determined her brattish daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) will not only learn ballet at the Opera House under famed choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell), but dance a pas de deux opposite the prima ballerina in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker.

However, after Camille breaks her treasured musical box, Félicie intercepts the invitation to join the school and passes herself off as her. Despite Merante declaring she’ll be the first to be expelled, needless to say, she impresses him enough with her energy and determination to succeed that she remains to the final selection, which is when, of course, her deception is uncovered, leaving her to compete against the real  and better trained Camille for the star prize. Naturally, Odette, who’s become a surrogate mother, plays her part in training her to match technique to the passion in her heart. Meanwhile, Victor has got himself a job working for Gustav Eiffel and is not best pleased when  the company’s star male dancer, a blonde handsome Russian prince, starts making moves on Félicie.

Needless to say, incorporating a climactic chase up a work in progress  Statue of Liberty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected touch following a spectacular dance battle between Camille her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.

It doesn’t have the visual panache of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it does have plenty of heart (and  rather far too many head banging/falling over moments) and Fanning gives an engaging vocal performance, so it’s shame the filmmakers felt it necessary to lather it with  anonymous modern pop songs rather than something more suited to the period. It takes a while to find its feet, but, like Félicie, its charm will win you over.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Bye Bye Man (15)

The latest addition to the bogey man genre of horror films, this particularly echoes Candyman in that the malevolent entity is summoned by speaking their name. Sharing  rooms in an old rundown house off campus, University of Wisconsin students  jealous  Elliot (Doug Smith), flighty girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and best friend  John (Lucien Laviscount) find themselves haunted and threatened by a gray-skinned, spectral, skeletal demon-monster called the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones), apparently the force behind all of mankind’s most heinous acts. Say his name out loud and (nodding to The Shining) he enters your soul and turns you into a killer. Adopting the usual scares of hallucinatory visions, including the obligatory maggots and animated bloody corpses, as spurs to murder, it features cameos by Faye Dunaway as the  wife of a possessed man who blasted his neighbours and family and  Carrie-Anne Moss as the local police detective. Like most of its kind, it starts off promisingly and has some suitably pleasing moments for the gore fans, but runs out of steam as it lapses into the same old same old, suggests that, in terms of its cinema stay and franchise prospects, the title may well prove prophetic. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

Three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce, Howard (Will Smith) is no longer the dynamic, inspirational force of the New York ad agency of which he holds the majority shares. Cue a hamfisted visual metaphor about him building massive domino structures and then toppling them. His friends, Whit (Edward Norton), a divorced dad whose young daughter resents him, Claire (Kate Winslet), a single workaholic who looks longingly at sperm donor pamphlets, and Simon (Michael Pena), a family man with a tell-tale cough, are all concerned about his disconnection from life. As executive partners in the firm, they’re also concerned that his behaviour is putting the company in jeopardy. They want to sell it to save it, but Howard has the majority shares. So he needs to be ruled incompetent to vote.

A casting call encounter with actress Amy (Keira Knightley) inspires Whit to hire her and her colleagues, streetwise Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and  imperious but worldly-wise Brigitte (Helen Mirren, hamming up the luvvie) to play the roles of, respectively, Love, Time and Death (Howard’s former mantra for life)  to whom Howard has  apparently been writing letters, admonishing them over his child’s death. The idea is to ‘gaslight’ him into believing he’s really talking to these metaphysical abstractions and film him acting in a way to show the board he’s mentally unsound, and, if it helps him find his way back and move on, all the better too.

Meanwhile, Howard brings himself to visit the therapy group for bereaved parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), except he can’t bring himself to say his daughter’s name, let alone talk about her death. Also divorced and having lost a child, she tells Howard how, while waiting at the hospital an old woman told her not to be blind to the collateral beauty around her. Howard doesn’t get what she’s talking about and, frankly, probably neither will the audience.

What with A Monster Calls and the forthcoming Manchester By The Sea, this seems to be the month for films about death, grief, loss, letting go and moving on with life. This, a blatantly sentimental  spin on A Christmas Carol, directed by David Frankel and written by Alan Loeb (who gave the world sperm donor comedy Switch), is the least of the three.

Smith does unsmiling inner anguish well enough, but, for all the screenplay’s manipulation (which includes a ludicrous final twist), never really emotionally engages, while, given their mixed well-meaning/self-serving motivations, it’s hard to know whether to sympathise with or condemn Norton, Winslet and Pena’s characters, although, the screenplay works hard to make you realise they too are going through the emotional mill. Needless to say, the three actors (ooh, or are they!) all have insights and observations to offer them as well as the platitudes they serve up to Howard. There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments among the saccharine and half-formed subplots, but otherwise this is manipulative  and mawkishly trite floss.  (Vue Star City)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

La La Land (12A)

Having  swept the Golden Globes and likely to do the same at the BAFTAs and Oscars, its title a reference to its Los Angeles/Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a Cinemascope love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

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

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another humiliating and unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up on her own, drawn into a jazz club by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for not sticking to the cheery festive tunes set-list and slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.

The film starts again, this time following Seb who, lonely and miserable, lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

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

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

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

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

 

Live By Night (15)

Gone Baby Gone, The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo revealed Ben Affleck to be a fine director and, in the case of the first two,  solid screenwriter. This, his third as a double-hyphenate, adapted, like GBG,  from a Dennis Lehane novel, rarely feels like the work of the same man. Set during Prohibition America, it stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the son of  a Boston police superintendent  (Brendan Gleeson) who returns from WWI to become an outlaw, sticking up card games and the like, who’s reluctantly forced  into turning gangster through the rivalry for the rum trade between the Italians, headed by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and the Irish mob, run by Albert White (Robert Glenister) with whose moll, Emma (Sienna Miller), he’s having an affair.

After she betrays him and is, he believes, murdered by White, Joe is forced to quit Boston and is set up in Tampa by Pescatore, to run the liquor operation there and squeeze White out of the picture, something that sits well with his thirst for revenge.  Bringing in former sidekick Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe proves a big success, striking up a relationship with the Cubans and especially heiress Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), and coming to an arrangement with the pragmatic corrupt  local police chief, Figgis (Chris Cooper).

Unfortunately, the latter has a Klan-connected racist  brother-in-law (Matthew Maher) who sets about stirring up trouble  and a heroin junkie turned born again preacher daughter (Elle Fanning) who puts a spoke in Joe’s plans to open a  casino to move into gambling once Prohibition is repealed.

As you can see, it’s all something of a sprawling saga and the feeling that it might have been better served as an Empire Boardwalk-like series is compounded by the voice-overed prologue that comes on like one of those ‘previously on’ round-ups’.

The film never recovers from this messy start, Affleck never seeming to have a grip on the material, as either writer, director or, unusually flat in the charisma stakes, star as the narrative stumbles its way to several endings. There’s no doubting the period detail, Fanning, Glenister, Cooper, Maher and Miller all give impressive performances,  and the climactic shoot-out is thrillingly staged, but Affleck never brings Joe to life in a way that engages the audience in his fate and struggles, a problem that, unfortunately, also afflicts the film itself.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

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

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

With 2011’s Margaret effectively still born, this is essentially writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow up to his 2000 debut You Can Count On Me and is guaranteed to earn best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming awards.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

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

Working from Lonergan’s insightful screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (a cert for a supporting actress nomination)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Electric; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza)

 

Moana (PG)

The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and   Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.

She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about  how  shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who  knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave  comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.

Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.

And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway  cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple  have the courage to  be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips  “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against  bursting into song.

Cravhalo brings a lively  spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including  a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore  nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the  new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.

The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny  another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Monster Calls (12A)

With a definite nod towards Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish director J.A. Bayona follows up The Impossible with a magic realism masterpiece about grief, fear, guilt and death with  Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age bestseller.

With dad (a brief but effective Toby Kebbell) relocating to America and remarried, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small rural English town with his mom (Felicity Jones). “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, not only is he regularly bullied at school, but his artist mum has cancer and is getting weaker and his somewhat chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to come and stay with her.  He also has vivid nightmares in which the church and local graveyard sink into the earth, he clinging to the ground while hanging on to his mother’s hand as she dangles over the abyss.

Following  one nightmare, he’s terrified when the ancient yew tree in the churchyard uproots itself and, a sort of arboreal BFG,  takes on monstrous humanoid form resembling a drawing Conor and his mother made, stomping to his bedroom window and, craggily voiced by Liam Neeson, saying that Conor has called out to him and now he has three stories to tell, after which, in return,  Conor must tell him the story that holds to truth to his dreams.

Presented in water colour animation, the first story tells of an old king who remarries a woman some call a witch. When the king dies, the queen determines to marry the prince, but he runs off with his commoner love, except there’s dark twist, that sees his lover murdered and his stepmother burned for the crime. The tree returning at the appointed hour of 12.07, its second story involves an ill-tempered apothecary who is persecuted by the parson whose yew tree he wishes to cut down to make medicines. The parson refuses, but when his daughters fall ill he comes begging the old man for help. Again, there is a dark twist.  The third tale is about a man who, tired of being invisible to those who refused to see him, summoned a monster to get himself noticed. Things do not end well. As the monster says, there’s not always a good guy, nor are things always what they appear.

As you might imagine, all three tales relate to Conor’s own emotional turmoil, For example, when the monster destroys the parson’s house, Conor joins in only to suddenly find that he’s trashed his grandmother’s room while, in the third, he snaps and takes revenge for the bullying. Clearly, these stories are intended as moral lessons, offering the boy an insight into his anger and emotions. They are scary, yes, but their purpose is to enable Conor to face the truth that terrifies him and, in the process to heal. This is made clear in the fourth story, Conor’s, but to reveal anything would spoil the heartbreaking reveal.

Filmed almost entirely from Conor’s viewpoint, the film poignantly but unsentimentally addresses the painful reality of loss, tragedy balanced with welcome humour and suffused throughout with a sense of wonder.

While her appearances are fleeting, Jones  is superb as the mother distraught at leaving her son behind, while, despite a somewhat stiff British accent, Weaver deftly juggles brittle facade and aching heart, but, in virtually every scene and called on to run through a gamut of conflicting emotions, it’s MacDougall who carries the film on his shoulders.

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that had its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was written off  as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.

Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster.  Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan), works in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate  his clapped out old pick up.

Meanwhile, smarmy villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard.  To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.

It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.

Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as they climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments of stupid fun, but, for a film that purports to have an anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only.  (Cineworld  NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Passengers (12A)

 A castaways love story set on a mammoth space ship this  has a promising set up. Somewhere in the future, corporate spacecraft the Avalon and its 255 crew  are taking 5000 passengers to start new lives across the universe on the idyllic colony of Homestead II. Since it’s going to take 120 years to get there, they’re all in suspended animation while the ship charts its preset route. It has a shield to deflect meteors, but a collision with a large chunk of space rock sends things awry, waking up mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.

Finding himself alone save for a perky corporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of  considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to do the right thing  and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned  like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance, two lonely people marooned in space.

Naturally, at some point, she learns what actually happened, causing a rift between them. But, when the ship’s systems all start malfunctioning, they have to work together to try and survive. Fortuitously, they have a helping hand from one of the senior crew (Laurence Fishburne) who also wakes prematurely and is around long enough to open the flight deck, reveal the systems are all shutting down and pass on his authorisation bracelet before the pair find themselves on their own again. Now, it’s a race against the clock to stop the ship going into meltdown and killing everyone on board.

With some Robinson Crusoe, a splash of Gravity and a dash of Titanic, it’s an interesting premise, but, for all its musing on life and loneliness, ultimately the story has nowhere to go. The tone too is uneven. Much of the first half  plays comedic notes, but then everything goes serious and dramatic once Aurora finds Jim screwed her life  and the systems go haywire. Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but director Morten Tyldum has no feel for the spectacular, rendering both the couple’s tethered romantic venture into deep space and the climactic attempt to shut down the reactor all rather ho hum. Ultimately the film ends up rather like its two characters, passengers stranded on an empty vehicle on autopilot. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;   Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Silence (15)

It’s  taken Martin Scorsese some 30 years to bring to the screen Shūsaku Endō’s novel about a 17th Century Jesuit missionary in feudal Japan and the struggle he wrestles with as to whether to apostatise (renounce God and his faith) in order to save those villagers who have converted from torture or death. As you might imagine, it’s as much an  intense and profound film as it is a book, itself based in actual events, addressing as it does such questions as free will, faith, martyrdom, doubt and the nature of belief.

Learning that  their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), apparently renounced God to save his life when his fellow missionaries were being killed and has gone Japanese, fervent young Portuguese priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) persuade their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them go and learn the truth, despite the danger they will face from the Japanese samurai, wary of the threat Christianity and its attendant colonialism poses, and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) as they hunt down the peasant converts, forcing them to recant (by placing their foot on an image of Christ) or be executed.

The padres’ first encounter with a Japanese is  Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a villager who makes a habit of apostatising whenever he’s in danger and subsequently coming back for forgiveness. He’s essentially Judas to Rodrigues’ Christ, the latter driven by a desire to find glory by embracing martyrdom, although, ultimately it’s the converts rather than he who tend to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.

At nearly three hours, it can be a bit of a slog, particularly in the second half when Driver disappears from the narrative as the pair are forced to split up and  the film focuses on Rodriguez’s internal and external dilemmas and crises of faith.

It’s a very violent film, albeit in a detached matter that involves boiling water, drownings on crosses, burnings, being suspended head first over a  pit to bleed to death and one sudden decapitation that speaks about the Samurai mentality in much the same way that The Railway Man spoke about Japanese PoW camp commanders, Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) smiling graciously while ordering or watching sadistic tortures.

A subtly nuanced and committed performance from Garfield   downplays the character’s arrogance in the book and instead focuses on the consuming doubt that comes from the silence he’s met with when calling on God to  explain why the villagers must suffer. However, where The Mission and The Last Temptation of Christ were fairly clear, here the  philosophical and spiritual musings, especially in the austere third hour, are likely to prove too complex and rarefied for the average film audience to interpret. Indeed, when Neeson reappears and argues why Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, rather than viewing him as one last device to break Rodriguez, he seems to make perfectly logical sense. Even so, commandingly acted, visually striking and serious-minded, it’s a film that haunts, even as it challenges.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.

In the following enquiry, the offhand and often smirking National Transportation Safety Board investigators (represented by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) were less enthusiastic and more sceptical, feeling that he should have followed protocol and, by undertaking a forced water landing, had put everyone’s lives in danger. According to their simulations, the plane could have safely made it back to either LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro Airport.

It’s a matter of record that Sully’s actions were ultimately vindicated, rather undercutting  any sense of dramatic tension to Clint Eastwood’s film which ultimately turns into a  sort of NTSB hearing version of a courtroom drama complete with the equivalent of the last minute surprise witness as Sully asks them to take the human factor into account in their simulations.

And, indeed, focusing on the aftermath rather than the event,  it is the human factor that the film’s about, exploring the idea of a ‘hero’, Sully (played impeccably by a white-haired Tom Hanks) protesting that he was simply a man doing the job he was trained to do and that, anyhow, it was a crew effort.

For an Eastwood film, despite a brisk 96 minutes running time, it has a somewhat bitty structure, cutting between the post crash events and what happened during the flight (keeping shots of the actual forced landing –well worth seeing in IMAX – and plane evacuation until towards the end) with neither the pointless flashbacks to Sully’s early years as a pilot nor the phone conversations with his worried wife (Laura Linney) really adding much to proceedings.

Hanks is, as you would assume, excellent as a man asking himself whether he might have done things differently (he’s tormented by visions of the plane crashing into a New York skyscraper) and patiently enduring the bureaucratic red tape of the investigation. And although Aaron Eckhart provided solid support (as well as the jokes and the ripostes to the enquiry suits ) as  loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles, his is a far more backseat performance, while, despite a couple of attempts at character sketches (an elderly golf dad and his son) the passengers and the rest of the crew are rarely more than extras. As a celebration of a professionalism and a salute to “ just a man doing a job”,  trusting his instincts, but nevertheless having the humility to question the decisions he makes, along with a subtext that questions the reliance on computer technology over human experience, it’s a rather old-fashioned affair that cruises at engaging low altitude, but never really soars. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Underworld: Blood Wars (15)

It’s five years since we last saw Kate Beckinsale in the so-so Underworld saga of the war between vampires and werewolves, since which time she found critical acclaim and credibility in Love & Friendship. However, presumably contractual obligations see her back in the shiny black vinyl-shiny leather  catsuit for a fifth time  as Selene, the pure-blood vampire Death Dealer who, last time around, murdered her Vampire Elder mentor Marcus, rendering her a hunted outcast.  A quick voice over brings thing up to speed, learning that she’s cut all ties with Eve, her hybrid  daughter by Lycan/Vampire cross Michael,  to save her from being found. Something the Lycan’s enhanced  leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) is keen to do, believing her blood holds the secret to finally defeating the Vampires.

Given that, Selene is taken back into the Eastern Coven fold, now run by the duplicitous Semira (Lara Pulver), with Charles Dance back in black as Thomas, the Vampire Elder  whose son  David (Theo James), she brought back to life in the last film and is now Selene’s ally, so she can train the new recruits. Rather inevitably, Semira’s agenda isn’t all it seems.

Having made a cursory pass at some sort of dramatic narrative, the film basically devolves into a lengthy series of chases, fights and  Lycan shape-shifting, though the appearance of  a coven of white frocked blonde vampires does add something new to the mix. Beckinsale seems totally uninvolved throughout  and the look has all the hallmarks of a reined in budget. After all this time, it’s likely to only attract the dwindling curious faithful along with those wanting to see Beckinsale in figure-hugging leather, admittedly, probably a fair number.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Why Him? (15)

Screenwriter John Hamburg pretty much mined to death the chalk and cheese  father and prospective son-in-law bromantic comedy  in Meet The Parents/Fokkers, but, this time also adding director to his credits, he’s giving it another whirl with what, given the language, might  well be termed Meet The Motherfokkers.

Not best known for his broad comedy skills, Bryan Cranston is Ned Fleming, a traditional, middle-class CEO of a struggling print company who, at his 55th birthday party, discovers that his Harvard student daughter Stephanie (amiably bland Zoey Deutsch) is dating someone called Laird Mayhew (James Franco), although the only sight everyone gets of him is his bare buttocks on the video link.

Invited to spend Christmas with the couple in California, buttoned-up Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and their pubescent  aspiring businessman son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive to discover that Laird is in fact the  obscenely wealthy owner of a video game company who lives in a high tech palatial mansion with bison and llamas roaming the grounds, an artificial intelligence system with the voice of The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco  and  Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key, mining most of the laughs), an Austrian  personal assistant who serves as both his  therapist and Cato to his Clouseau (a gag Hamburg feels obliged to explain for those unfamiliar with The Pink Panther).  But, a red rag to analog era Ned, absolutely no paper.

He’s also a shirtless, heavily tattooed, grinning, puppy dog, free spirit man-child idiot whose artworks include a dead moose in a tank of its own urine (no prizes for guessing what happens to that) and assorted paintings of animals copulating, and who has no filter between brain and mouth, forever dropping the F word and inappropriate comments.  Scotty’s impressed, his old fashioned father rather less so.

He’s even less enthused when, in one his intended bonding chats, Laird asks Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. Naturally, the horrified dad says no, leading to a challenge whereby Laid, desperate for approval (and a father figure) says that he if hasn’t won him over by Christmas Day, then he won’t propose.

With Cranston playing it dryly deadpan to Franco’s gonzo cartoon, what follows is a sort of macho pissing content, some of it funny, much of it laboured, almost all of it shop worn and over extended (though teabagging by moose is a new one) that proceeds in jerky fits and starts to a wholly predictable (well, perhaps, save for embarrassing cameos by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as part of an extended Kiss homage) ending. Given the dearth of decent comedies doing the rounds, this is worth a look, but don’t blame me if you come out just thinking Why Did I Bother?  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Q&A: Dinosaur

Dinosaur

After several years as The Laura Jurd Quartet, the fast-rising four-piece have rebranded as Dinosaur, releasing their acclaimed debut album – Together, As One – at the tail end of last year.

Since coming to attention of critics in 2010, trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd has released two albums under her own name, as well as participating in a variety of other projects/ releases, including Blue-Eyed Hawk. She’s presently a BBC New Generation Artist, and was recently named as one of Culturetrip’s 10 Young British Jazz Musicians You Need To Know.

Released on Edition Records (Tim Garland etc), Together, As One, is one of the most exciting UK jazz debuts in some time. Featuring Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), Jurd sees the album – which was partly shaped by playing live at such venues as Digbeth’s Spotted Dog – as being very much the product of a close friendship between the band members, a “joyous and natural experience,” which echoes with late period Miles Davis, as well as Steve Reich, electronica and more.

Tracks such as the synth-riffing Living, Breathing and slow-burning Awakening, saw the album justifiably ranked in several leading end of year polls, including Jazzwise Magazine’s Top 20 Jazz Albums of 2016, and The Quietus’ The Best Jazz Of 2016.

“We tried our very best to do everything right with this release, how the album looks, the build up to it,” explains bandleader Jurd – who answers our Qs prior to the band’s Birmingham gig (18 Jan 2017, Hare and Hounds). “We’re just really chuffed that people have recognised the effort and that people seem to be enjoying the music.”

DinosaurWhy did you select the name ‘Dinosaur’ for the quartet?

We’d been playing under the name of the Laura Jurd Quartet and it just felt like the music had moved on from that sound. The music became more electric, more groove-based and over time I felt we’d become a strong unit as a band. I always imagined having a band called Dinosaur – it was my fantasy … skronky, extrovert, trumpet-led rock band! I wouldn’t exactly say our sound is like that all the time, but the music I was writing got closer to that kind of territory. Dinosaurs are the creatures that best represent that sound to me – plus I think they are pretty awesome! I’m sure the band will keep developing and perhaps become something completely different in the future – but our four personalities will always remain part of the sound.

You play both trumpet and synth on the new album – while they’re obviously very different instruments … would you say that your approach to them is (broadly) similar, or different?

I’m a trumpet player and that’s the instrument that I dedicate my time to. The synth plays more of an auxiliary role in the band and is used to add colour and at times an extra layer to the sound of the band. My first instrument was the piano so I’m very much at home with keyboard instruments. It’s a digital synth and it’s fun exploring the various sounds that can be created and manipulated. The trumpet is a lot more unforgiving in the sense that to keep in physical shape I undertake a structured practice routine each day. To ensure I have a personal sound and enough technique and stamina to get me through the music I’m playing requires a lot of focus, patience and mindfulness each day.

Late Miles Davis is cited as a reference point by several writers discussing the record – was he a reference point when you were making this collection?

When writing that music I wasn’t particularly thinking about Miles, however being such a fan of his for so many years I think his influence finds its way into everything that I do. To me he is a complete icon – beyond the realms of jazz and trumpet playing etc. He is the master of intent. I’ve been listening to a lot of the 70s Miles album’s recently – Live Evil, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson – they are all amazing.

You recorded the album in three days, back in March 2016, in London; how did the tracks come together/ develop? Were they fully formed by the time you stepped into the studio, for example?

Before going into the studio, I had set-up a few gigs in order for us to really familiarise ourselves with the new music. After rehearsing and playing the music in a few of the UK’s best-loved grass-roots jazz gigs (The Lescar – Sheffield, Spotted Dog – Birmingham), we had really made the material our own. By the time we got into the studio, each take felt just like another performance really. We were able to sit back and have fun getting some album-worthy takes of each tune, which made the whole process very stress-free. Saying that, it’s hard to feel stressed with such incredible and inspiring bandmates – both musically and as human beings – they really are special!

You’ve been working with Elliot, Conor and Corrie for many years now. How did you all come together/ meet? And what, to you, are the strengths of each player? What do they bring to Dinosaur that’s unique?

We pretty much all met at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich, London. I knew Conor a little before that as we both went to Alton College for sixth form. I’d say that it’s the contrasting yet complimentary characteristics of each player in the band that make it work so well. I could talk about why I love each musician until the cows come home, but here are a few immediate thoughts for now.

Conor is a complete rock. His time feel and the way he plays a groove is as good as it gets. That along with his monstrous ear for harmony and melody makes for the ultimate electric bass player! Paired with Corrie Dick on drums is a dream rhythm section. Every time Corrie hits a drum it’s like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. He has this amazing focus and way of engaging with the present that makes his playing very special. One of my favourite things about Corrie’s playing is that the spaces in between the notes he plays feel so great. Elliot is the ultimate inventor – true composer/ improviser. With a love for so many artistic worlds whether its music, art or theatre his improvising is always brimming with originality. He never seems to let his artistic instinct become over-shadowed by self-awareness and throws his entire being into everything he does.

Dinosaur play the Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, on Wednesday 18 January 2017. Tickets £12.50 (door)/ £10 (advance).

For more details on Dinosaur, see: laurajurd.com

News: Mutes share new song ‘Vanishing’ from debut album

Mutes' new song 'Vanishing' is available for free download now

Birmingham noise-pedallers Mute have revealed a track from their forthcoming debut album, set to be released in summer 2017 through FOMA Records.

‘Vanishing’, a collision of motorik beats, sharp harmonised vocals and frenzied guitarwork, is the first new song to be shared by the band since frontman James Brown’s ‘Inertia’ EP in February 2016.

The song, written and mastered by band guitarist and principal songwriter Brown (God Damn), is now available to stream via the Mutes’ Soundcloud and download via Mutes’ Bandcamp.

In their own words, the new material “is indicative of the promise upon which (the) forthcoming LP promises to deliver – higher fidelity, more complex songwriting and a dark-hinted disposition that runs throughout (an) ambitious collection of tracks.”

Catch Mutes live at Birmingham’s Hare & Hounds on Thursday February 2nd, supporting Menace Beach. Further information and tickets here.

News: Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi pens song for Birmingham

Tony Iommi and boys from Birmingham Cathedral Choir

Legendary Black Sabbath guitarist and proud Birmingham supporter Tony Iommi has written and released a piece of music celebrating his home city.

How Good It Is, was produced in conjunction with the Dean of Birmingham the Very Reverend Catherine Ogle and performed by Iommi and men and boys from the Cathedral Choir.

The five-minute arrangement, which celebrates peace, harmony and the Cathedral’s role in the heart of the city, features the Handsworth-born music pioneer on acoustic guitar.

Sixty-eight-year-old Iommi, who helped give birth to the heavy metal music genre in the 1960s, is currently on ‘The End’ world tour with Black Sabbath, and will be performing two last-ever gigs at Birmingham’s Genting Arena on February 2nd and 4th 2017.

He described writing the music for Birmingham Cathedral as ‘a nice thing to do’ for his hometown.

“It’s great to be involved with the Cathedral and doing something for it,” he said. “When Catherine mentioned it, it felt like a nice thing to do, to be able to give something to the city.”

Lyrics for How Good It Is

Inspired by Psalm 133

How good, oh how good…

How good it is

Where friendship dwells

How good it is

When kindred live

In peace and love

How good it is

When strangers meet

And find a home

How good it is, so good….

This is home, this is home…

Our city, God’s city, our home….

So good, so good, together, so good…

Catherine Ogle, April 2016

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

NEW RELEASES

La La Land (12A)

Having already pretty much swept the Golden Globes and likely to repeat the triumphs at the BAFTAs and Oscars (where it should add Best Film to the tally too), writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a Cinemascope love letter to the  golden age of Hollywood musical (as well as those of French director Jacques Demy)  that manages to be timeless, embracing a period look in its tone, design and settings while simultaneously striking contemporary notes (though the George Michael reference is a but unfortunate), combining  the slick polish of 50s hoofing movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

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

Beginning in Winter and set over the space of a year, the film first follows Mia as, following another humiliating and unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up on her own, drawn into a jazz club by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (a cameoing JK Simmons) for not sticking to the cheery festive tunes set-list and slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.

The film starts again, this time following Seb who, lonely and miserable, lives in a run-down apartment where, amid unpacked boxes, he tells his exasperated sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and she gets her own back with a deliberately patronising request, but from here their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA (a scene that includes a Gene Kelly-referencing lamppost) and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars following a screening of Rebel Without a Cause. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called (in a  nod to Art Blakely) The Messengers.

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

Neither of them professional singers or dancers, a sparkling Stone and smouldering Gosling, are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry (one screenwriter rambles on to Mia about a franchise “reimagining of Goldilocks and the Three Bears from the perspective of the bears”), it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

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

 

The Bye Bye Man (15)

Opening without any press previews, both here and in the States,  this is the latest addition to the bogey man genre of horror films, particularly echoing Candyman in that the malevolent entity is summoned by speaking their name. Sharing  rooms in an old rundown house off campus, University of Wisconsin students  jealous  Elliot (Doug Smith), flighty girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and best friend  John (Lucien Laviscount) find themselves haunted and threatened by a gray-skinned, spectral, skeletal demon-monster called the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones), apparently the force behind all of mankind’s most heinous acts. Say his name out loud and (nodding to The Shining) he enters your soul and turns you into a killer. Adopting the usual scares of hallucinatory visions, including the obligatory maggots and animated bloody corpses, as spurs to murder, it features cameos by Faye Dunaway as the  wife of a possessed man who blasted his neighbours and family and  Carrie-Anne Moss as the local police detective, it clearly fancies itself as the next Final Destination.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Live By Night (15)

Gone Baby Gone, The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo revealed Ben Affleck to be a fine director and, in the case of the first two,  solid screenwriter. This, his third as a double-hyphenate, adapted, like GBG,  from a Dennis Lehane novel, rarely feels like the work of the same man. Set during Prohibition America, it stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the son of  a Boston police superintendent  (Brendan Gleeson) who returns from WWI to become an outlaw, sticking up card games and the like, who’s reluctantly forced  into turning gangster through the rivalry for the rum trade between the Italians, headed by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and the Irish mob, run by Albert White (Robert Glenister) with whose moll, Emma (Sienna Miller), he’s having an affair.

After she betrays him and is, he believes, murdered by White, Joe is forced to quit Boston and is set up in Tampa by Pescatore, to run the liquor operation there and squeeze White out of the picture, something that sits well with his thirst for revenge.  Bringing in former sidekick Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe proves a big success, striking up a relationship with the Cubans and especially heiress Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), and coming to an arrangement with the pragmatic corrupt  local police chief, Figgis (Chris Cooper).

Unfortunately, the latter has a Klan-connected racist  brother-in-law (Matthew Maher) who sets about stirring up trouble  and a heroin junkie turned born again preacher daughter (Elle Fanning) who puts a spoke in Joe’s plans to open a  casino to move into gambling once Prohibition is repealed.

As you can see, it’s all something of a sprawling saga and the feeling that it might have been better served as an Empire Boardwalk-like series is compounded by the voice-overed prologue that comes on like one of those ‘previously on’ round-ups’.

The film never recovers from this messy start, Affleck never seeming to have a grip on the material, as either writer, director or, unusually flat in the charisma stakes, star as the narrative stumbles its way to several endings. There’s no doubting the period detail, Fanning, Glenister, Cooper, Maher and Miller all give impressive performances,  and the climactic shoot-out is thrillingly staged, but Affleck never brings Joe to life in a way that engages the audience in his fate and struggles, a problem that, unfortunately, also afflicts the film itself.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

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

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

With distribution problems leaving 2011’s Margaret effectively still born, to all intents and purposes this is essentially writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow up to his 2000 debut You Can Count On Me and is guaranteed to earn film best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming awards.

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

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

Working from Lonergan’s insightful screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or perhaps just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (who must surely secure a supporting actress nomination)  who makes the biggest emotional  with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Electric; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall)

 

Underworld: Blood Wars (15)

It’s five years since we last saw Kate Beckinsale in the so-so Underworld saga of the war between vampires and werewolves, since which time she found critical acclaim and credibility in Love & Friendship. However, presumably contractual obligations (and the franchise’s  modest box office) see her back in the shiny black vinyl-shiny leather  catsuit for a fifth time  as Selene, the pure-blood vampire Death Dealer who, last time around, murdered her Vampire Elder mentor Marcus, rendering her a hunted outcast.  A quick voice over brings thing up to speed, learning that she’s cut all ties with Eve, her hybrid  daughter by Lycan/Vampire cross Michael,  to save her from being found. Something the Lycan’s enhanced  leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) is keen to do, believing her blood holds the secret to finally defeating the Vampires.

Given that threat, Selene is taken back into the Eastern Coven fold, now run by the duplicitous Semira (Lara Pulver, Sherlock’s Irene Adler), with Charles Dance back in black as Thomas, the Vampire Elder  whose son  David (Theo James), she brought back to life in the last film and is now Selene’s ally, so she can train the new recruits. Rather inevitably, Semira’s agenda isn’t all it seems.

Having made a cursory pass at some sort of dramatic narrative, the film, which sees cinematographer and TV director Anna Foerster making her feature debut, basically devolves into a lengthy series of chases, fights and  Lycan shape shifting though the appearance of coven of white frocked blonde vampires does add something new to the mix. Beckinsale seems totally uninvolved throughout  and the film’s look has all the hallmarks of a reined in budget. After all this time, it’s likely to only attract the dwindling curious faithful along with those wanting to see Beckinsale in figure-hugging leather (admittedly, probably a fair number), suggesting that, while it sets up yet another sequel, like James’s other franchise role, Divergence, the  follow-up may well find itself relegated to TV or On Demand.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Assassin’s Creed (12A)

The transition of video game to big screen embraces a history that ranges from shortcomings (Tomb Raider,) to outright disasters (Bloodrayne) with just the occasional success (Warcraft) to encourage studios to keep trying. Launched in 2007and now on its 17th version, Assassin’s Creed has proven one of the most durable  console games. But, unless you’re a dedicated player, this live action adaptation from director Justin Kurzel (who directed his leading stars here in a brilliant version of Macbeth), based largely around the original game, but reinterpreted as dystopian sci fi, is going to prove confusing bordering on incoherent.

Although it changes the name of the protagonist from bartender Desmond Miles to convicted murderer Callum Lynch (an intense Michael Fassbender), whose Assassin mother was killed by his own father (Brendan Gleeson as the older version) when he was just a  child, the premise remains pretty much intact. Lynch is a descendent of the Assassin bloodline, an ancient secret society formed during  the Spanish Inquisition to prevent the Knight Templars getting their hands on an artefact from Eden (here some sort of techno-apple containing the secret to free will) they want to use to bring mankind under their control.

To locate it, Cal is ferreted away from death row to a secret high-tech Madrid facility run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), CEO of Abstergo Industries and member of the current Knights Templar (headed bv Charlotte Rampling), whose scientist daughter,  Sophia (Marion Cotillard, is engaged on a  programme called the Animus, that, strapped to a harness with an implant in his neck, can send him back in time (at least virtually) to inhabit the memories of his Assassin ancestor Aguilar. So, back in Spain, he finds himself a sort of 15th century parkour expert, vicariously fighting alongside Maria (Ariane Labed), a fellow Assassin, to rescue a prince who’s been kidnapped by Templars leader, Torquemada, to force his Sultan father into  handing over the Apple of Eden, only to themselves wind up captured by Torquemada’s enforcer, Ojeda.

That’s about as lucid as it gets. For reasons that are never made apparent, the shambolic plot sees the facility also housing various other inmates who are apparently the descendents of other assassins (which seemingly contradicts the assertion that Callum is the last) and  some  guff about having to enter the Animus willingly in order not to get burned out.

Irons wisely plays things with a twinkle in his eye, giving the film what few sparks of humour it has; however,  Fassbender buys into the film’s po-faced seriousness and portentous dialogue, while  Cottilard, on the other hand, simply looks totally bewildered by the whole thing.  Throw in assorted hallucinations, Christopher Columbus, quite literal Leaps of Faith and the words of an 11th-century Persian missionary (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) as the foundation of the Creed, which operates in the dark to do the work of the light, and what you get a puree of the Da Vinci Code and The Matrix served up with a side order of smoke-shrouded frantically kinetic action sequences shot through a moodily lit murky gauze. Admittedly, some of it looks impressive and images of darkly hooded figures with bladed gauntlets diving from tall buildings have a sort of frisson, but that’s undercut by the ineptitude of the screenplay and constant enigmatic (i.e. meaningless) symbolic shots of an eagle swooping across landscapes past and present. It’s not completely jaw-droppingly awful,  but it does make you positively yearn for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Ballerina (U)

An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this follow your heart animation. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams.

Set in France towards the end of the 19th century, Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning) is a resident at a Brittany  orphanage where the Mother Superior does her best to discourage dreams, because they never come true and only cause you misery. Possessed of a ballerina musical box, the only legacy of her mother, Félicie dreams of being a dancer, even more so when her wannabe inventor best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan) shows her a postcard of the Grand Opera House in Paris. He promises to take her there, if they escape together. Which they duly due with the aid of a pair of his chicken-inspired wings, narrowly escaping the clutches of the Orphanage supervisor. However, arriving in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is just starting to be built, the pair get separated and, wandering into the Opera House, Félicie is befriended by cleaner Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), herself a former dancer whose career was ended when she hurt her leg.

Odette works for a Cruella deVil-like woman who is determined her brattish daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) will not only learn ballet at the Opera House under famed choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell), but dance a pas de deux opposite the prima ballerina in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker.

However, after Camille breaks her treasured musical box, Félicie intercepts the invitation to join the school and passes herself off as her. Despite Merante declaring she’ll be the first to be expelled, needless to say, she impresses him enough with her energy and determination to succeed that she remains to the final selection, which is when, of course, her deception is uncovered, leaving her to compete against the real  and better trained Camille for the star prize. Naturally, Odette, who’s become a surrogate mother, plays her part in training her to match technique to the passion in her heart. Meanwhile, Victor has got himself a job working for Gustav Eiffel and is not best pleased when  the company’s star male dancer, a blonde handsome Russian prince, starts making moves on Félicie.

Needless to say, incorporating a climactic chase up a work in progress  Statue of Liberty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected touch following a spectacular dance battle between Camille her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.

It doesn’t have the visual panache of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it does have plenty of heart (and  rather far too many head banging/falling over moments) and Fanning gives an engaging vocal performance, so it’s shame the filmmakers felt it necessary to lather it with  anonymous modern pop songs rather than something more suited to the period. It takes a while to find its feet, but, like Félicie, its charm will win you over.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

Three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce, Howard (Will Smith) is no longer the dynamic, inspirational force of the New York ad agency of which he holds the majority shares. Cue a hamfisted visual metaphor about him building massive domino structures and then toppling them. His friends, Whit (Edward Norton), a divorced dad whose young daughter resents him, Claire (Kate Winslet), a single workaholic who looks longingly at sperm donor pamphlets, and Simon (Michael Pena), a family man with a tell-tale cough, are all concerned about his disconnection from life. As executive partners in the firm, they’re also concerned that his behaviour is putting the company in jeopardy. They want to sell it to save it, but Howard has the majority shares. So he needs to be ruled incompetent to vote.

A casting call encounter with actress Amy (Keira Knightley) inspires Whit to hire her and her colleagues, streetwise Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and  imperious but worldly-wise Brigitte (Helen Mirren, hamming up the luvvie) to play the roles of, respectively, Love, Time and Death (Howard’s former mantra for life)  to whom Howard has  apparently been writing letters, admonishing them over his child’s death. The idea is to ‘gaslight’ him into believing he’s really talking to these metaphysical abstractions and film him acting in a way to show the board he’s mentally unsound, and, if it helps him find his way back and move on, all the better too.

Meanwhile, Howard brings himself to visit the therapy group for bereaved parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), except he can’t bring himself to say his daughter’s name, let alone talk about her death. Also divorced and having lost a child, she tells Howard how, while waiting at the hospital an old woman told her not to be blind to the collateral beauty around her. Howard doesn’t get what she’s talking about and, frankly, probably neither will the audience.

What with A Monster Calls and the forthcoming Manchester By The Sea, this seems to be the month for films about death, grief, loss, letting go and moving on with life. This, a blatantly sentimental  spin on A Christmas Carol, directed by David Frankel and written by Alan Loeb (who gave the world sperm donor comedy Switch), is the least of the three.

Smith does unsmiling inner anguish well enough, but, for all the screenplay’s manipulation (which includes a ludicrous final twist), never really emotionally engages, while, given their mixed well-meaning/self-serving motivations, it’s hard to know whether to sympathise with or condemn Norton, Winslet and Pena’s characters, although, the screenplay works hard to make you realise they too are going through the emotional mill. Needless to say, the three actors (ooh, or are they!) all have insights and observations to offer them as well as the platitudes they serve up to Howard. There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments among the saccharine and half-formed subplots, but otherwise this is manipulative  and mawkishly trite floss.  (Cineworld Solihull;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I, Daniel Blake (15)

A sobering serio-comic tragedy for our benefit cuts times, Ken Loach returns to skewer the callousness of an uncaring system, opening with voice over tas recently widowed,59-year-old Newcastle joiner  Daniel (Dave Johns) delivers a series of increasingly frustrated responses to the  ‘health care professional’ assessing his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.

Inevitably, although his doctors and physiotherapists have told him not to return to work following his heart attack, he’s declared fit and his application’s denied. Duly visiting the job centre, he’s met with a minefield of  implacable digital-by-default bureaucracy and threats of sanctions, the patronising staff  ignoring his protestations that he can’t fill anything in online as he doesn’t have a computer or  know how to use one. While there, he witnesses the treatment of a Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and her two kids, recently relocated from London, who, late for an appointment, are refused benefits. He comes to her aid and both are duly ejected. Being a man of kindness and compassion, he helps her further, getting her food and doing repairs around her new flat and bonding with her and the children, the self-possessed Daisy (Briana Shann) and the younger, OCD Dylan (Dylan McKiernan).

The relationship between the members of this impromptu family and the good natured rapport between Daniel and his chancer high-rise neighbour stand in direct contrast to the uncaring attitudes of those embodying the Department of Work and Pensions, although, there is one token job centre employee who does show sympathy and tries to help Daniel through the labyrinth.

Written by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, there are times when it edges into both sentimentality and caricature, but the central characterisations and performances  are superb and both the act of protest that gives rise to the title and Daniel’s final testimony will make you want to cheer and cry respectively. At the end of the day, its social commentary about a  Kafkaesque bureaucracy isn’t saying anything new, but, as the government’s war of attrition on the poor  continues to gather force, it’s a movingly potent  reminder that those on the other side of the desk, on the other end of the phone, aren’t clients or numbers, but people with feelings and rights, especially to their dignity and respect. (Fri-Sun: MAC)

 

Moana (PG)

The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and   Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.

She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about  how  shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who  knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave  comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.

Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.

And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway  cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple  have the courage to  be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips  “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against  bursting into song.

Cravhalo brings a lively  spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including  a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore  nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the  new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.

The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny  another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Monster Calls (12A)

With a definite nod towards Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish director J.A. Bayona follows up The Impossible with a magic realism masterpiece about grief, fear, guilt and death with  Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age bestseller.

With dad (a brief but effective Toby Kebbell) relocating to America and remarried, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small rural English town with his mom (Felicity Jones). “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, not only is he regularly bullied at school, but his artist mum has cancer and is getting weaker and his somewhat chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to come and stay with her.  He also has vivid nightmares in which the church and local graveyard sink into the earth, he clinging to the ground while hanging on to his mother’s hand as she dangles over the abyss.

Following  one nightmare, he’s terrified when the ancient yew tree in the churchyard uproots itself and, a sort of arboreal BFG,  takes on monstrous humanoid form resembling a drawing Conor and his mother made, stomping to his bedroom window and, craggily voiced by Liam Neeson, saying that Conor has called out to him and now he has three stories to tell, after which, in return,  Conor must tell him the story that holds to truth to his dreams.

Presented in water colour animation, the first story tells of an old king who remarries a woman some call a witch. When the king dies, the queen determines to marry the prince, but he runs off with his commoner love, except there’s dark twist, that sees his lover murdered and his stepmother burned for the crime. The tree returning at the appointed hour of 12.07, its second story involves an ill-tempered apothecary who is persecuted by the parson whose yew tree he wishes to cut down to make medicines. The parson refuses, but when his daughters fall ill he comes begging the old man for help. Again, there is a dark twist.  The third tale is about a man who, tired of being invisible to those who refused to see him, summoned a monster to get himself noticed. Things do not end well. As the monster says, there’s not always a good guy, nor are things always what they appear.

As you might imagine, all three tales relate to Conor’s own emotional turmoil, For example, when the monster destroys the parson’s house, Conor joins in only to suddenly find that he’s trashed his grandmother’s room while, in the third, he snaps and takes revenge for the bullying. Clearly, these stories are intended as moral lessons, offering the boy an insight into his anger and emotions. They are scary, yes, but their purpose is to enable Conor to face the truth that terrifies him and, in the process to heal. This is made clear in the fourth story, Conor’s, but to reveal anything would spoil the heartbreaking reveal.

Filmed almost entirely from Conor’s viewpoint, the film poignantly but unsentimentally addresses the painful reality of loss, tragedy balanced with welcome humour and suffused throughout with a sense of wonder.

While her appearances are fleeting, Jones  is superb as the mother distraught at leaving her son behind, while, despite a somewhat stiff British accent, Weaver deftly juggles brittle facade and aching heart, but, in virtually every scene and called on to run through a gamut of conflicting emotions, it’s MacDougall who carries the film on his shoulders.

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that had its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was written off  as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.

Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster.  Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan), works in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate  his clapped out old pick up.

Meanwhile, smarmy villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard.  To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.

It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.

Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as they climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments of stupid fun, but, for a film that purports to have an anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only.  (Cineworld  NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Passengers (12A)

A castaways love story set on a mammoth space ship this  has a promising set up. Somewhere in the future, corporate spacecraft the Avalon and its 255 crew  are taking 5000 passengers to start new lives across the universe on the idyllic colony of Homestead II. Since it’s going to take 120 years to get there, they’re all in suspended animation while the ship charts its preset route. It has a shield to deflect meteors, but a collision with a large chunk of space rock sends things awry, waking up mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.

Finding himself alone save for a perky corporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of  considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to do the right thing  and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned  like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance, two lonely people marooned in space.

Naturally, at some point, she learns what actually happened, causing a rift between them. But, when the ship’s systems all start malfunctioning, they have to work together to try and survive. Fortuitously, they have a helping hand from one of the senior crew (Laurence Fishburne) who also wakes prematurely and is around long enough to open the flight deck, reveal the systems are all shutting down and pass on his authorisation bracelet before the pair find themselves on their own again. Now, it’s a race against the clock to stop the ship going into meltdown and killing everyone on board.

With some Robinson Crusoe, a splash of Gravity and a dash of Titanic, it’s an interesting premise, but, for all its musing on life and loneliness, ultimately the story has nowhere to go. The tone too is uneven. Much of the first half  plays comedic notes, but then everything goes serious and dramatic once Aurora finds Jim screwed her life  and the systems go haywire. Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but director Morten Tyldum has no feel for the spectacular, rendering both the couple’s tethered romantic venture into deep space and the climactic attempt to shut down the reactor all rather ho hum. Ultimately the film ends up rather like its two characters, passengers stranded on an empty vehicle on autopilot. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;   Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Silence (15)

It’s  taken Martin Scorsese some 30 years to bring to the screen Shūsaku Endō’s novel about a 17th Century Jesuit missionary in feudal Japan and the struggle he wrestles with as to whether to apostatise (renounce God and his faith) in order to save those villagers who have converted from torture or death. As you might imagine, it’s as much an  intense and profound film as it is a book, itself based in actual events, addressing as it does such questions as free will, faith, martyrdom, doubt and the nature of belief.

Learning that  their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), apparently renounced God to save his life when his fellow missionaries were being killed and has gone Japanese, fervent young Portuguese priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) persuade their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them go and learn the truth, despite the danger they will face from the Japanese samurai, wary of the threat Christianity and its attendant colonialism poses, and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) as they hunt down the peasant converts, forcing them to recant (by placing their foot on an image of Christ) or be executed.

The padres’ first encounter with a Japanese is  Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a villager who makes a habit of apostatising whenever he’s in danger and subsequently coming back for forgiveness. He’s essentially Judas to Rodrigues’ Christ, the latter driven by a desire to find glory by embracing martyrdom, although, ultimately it’s the converts rather than he who tend to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.

At nearly three hours, it can be a bit of a slog, particularly in the second half when Driver disappears from the narrative as the pair are forced to split up and  the film focuses on Rodriguez’s internal and external dilemmas and crises of faith.

It’s a very violent film, albeit in a detached matter that involves boiling water, drownings on crosses, burnings, being suspended head first over a  pit to bleed to death and one sudden decapitation that speaks about the Samurai mentality in much the same way that The Railway Man spoke about Japanese PoW camp commanders, Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) smiling graciously while ordering or watching sadistic tortures.

A subtly nuanced and committed performance from Garfield   downplays the character’s arrogance in the book and instead focuses on the consuming doubt that comes from the silence he’s met with when calling on God to  explain why the villagers must suffer. However, where The Mission and The Last Temptation of Christ were fairly clear, here the  philosophical and spiritual musings, especially in the austere third hour, are likely to prove too complex and rarefied for the average film audience to interpret. Indeed, when Neeson reappears and argues why Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, rather than viewing him as one last device to break Rodriguez, he seems to make perfectly logical sense. Even so, commandingly acted, visually striking and serious-minded, it’s a film that haunts, even as it challenges.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Snowden  (15)

On Jun 5, 2013, in an article written by reporters Glenn Greenwald and Edward McAskill, The Guardian newspaper published a headline claiming  the Obama administration had forced telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans. It was the first of a series of revelations unmasking the covert surveillance of communications being carried out by the US government on its allies, other countries and its own citizens. On June 10, it revealed the identity of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, a computer expert, former CIA intelligence officer and employee of defence contractor Booz Allen. In an interview, he said he was revealing the classified information about surveillance programmes (mostly from the NSA), some 10,000 documents in all, because ” I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded … My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

The political fallout was, if anything, even greater than WikiLeaks and Snowden was, inevitably, declared a traitor by the US government. Others, of course, saw him a hero fighting to expose a Big Brother system. Oliver Stone is one such. In his most politically overt film since Nixon, he tells what led Snowden (played meticulously by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to make his life-changing decision as, initially an enthusiastic, straitlaced (no drinks, no drugs) and basically politically conservative computer geek looking to serve his country, to what he and his colleagues were being asked to do.

The characters are a mix of fact and fiction. Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson are Greenwald and McAskill, who were contacted to meet Snowden in Hong Kong, while Melissa Leo plays Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who recorded Snowden’s revelations and convinced him to appear on camera, eventually releasing her Oscar winning documentary, Citizenfour, in 2014. Likewise, Shailene Woodley plays Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s real life liberal-minded pole-dancing performance artist girlfriend  and a hefty chunk of the film focuses on how being unable to talk about his top secret work impacted on their relationship.

On the other hand, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans), the high ranking CIA official who becomes his mentor, training him up as his top cyberspace warrior, Nicholas Cage’s disillusioned Agency veteran put to grass, the CIA hacker dude (Ben Schnetzer) who shows him the  program that can hack into anyone and everyone’s lives, the Geneva agent (Timothy Olyphant) whose turning of a contact first pricks Snowden’s conscience and his various NSA colleagues (Scott Eastwood among them) are fictionalised amalgams

Adopting a procedural approach, often nodding to espionage thriller tropes, the film cuts back and forth between the hotel room interview and events leading up, while, following the publication and outing,  and Snowden’s flight to, ultimately, Russia, sees Stone incorporate both newsreel footage and, for a recreation of  the televised interview with Alan Rusbridger, the real Edward Snowden playing himself. It is dense with technical jargon, but never to extent of being unfathomable and, like the news articles, it reveals the extent of the US government’s surveillance bit by bit, letting you gradually take in the enormity of what you are seeing and the way in which those behind it not only accept it, but treat it as a bit of a laugh.

The pros and cons of surveillance in a terror-ridden world are open to debate, and, while the film is clearly on Snowden’s side, it does offer enough of the counter arguments to fuel the debate.  In a Trump-climate America, it perhaps rather inevitably floundered at the box office, but, arguably last year’s  most important film, it will hopefully prove a greater draw here. (Mon, Wed/Thu;MAC)

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.

In the following enquiry, the offhand and often smirking National Transportation Safety Board investigators (represented by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) were less enthusiastic and more sceptical, feeling that he should have followed protocol and, by undertaking a forced water landing, had put everyone’s lives in danger. According to their simulations, the plane could have safely made it back to either LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro Airport.

It’s a matter of record that Sully’s actions were ultimately vindicated, rather undercutting  any sense of dramatic tension to Clint Eastwood’s film which ultimately turns into a  sort of NTSB hearing version of a courtroom drama complete with the equivalent of the last minute surprise witness as Sully asks them to take the human factor into account in their simulations.

And, indeed, focusing on the aftermath rather than the event,  it is the human factor that the film’s about, exploring the idea of a ‘hero’, Sully (played impeccably by a white-haired Tom Hanks) protesting that he was simply a man doing the job he was trained to do and that, anyhow, it was a crew effort.

For an Eastwood film, despite a brisk 96 minutes running time, it has a somewhat bitty structure, cutting between the post crash events and what happened during the flight (keeping shots of the actual forced landing –well worth seeing in IMAX – and plane evacuation until towards the end) with neither the pointless flashbacks to Sully’s early years as a pilot nor the phone conversations with his worried wife (Laura Linney) really adding much to proceedings.

Hanks is, as you would assume, excellent as a man asking himself whether he might have done things differently (he’s tormented by visions of the plane crashing into a New York skyscraper) and patiently enduring the bureaucratic red tape of the investigation. And although Aaron Eckhart provided solid support (as well as the jokes and the ripostes to the enquiry suits ) as  loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles, his is a far more backseat performance, while, despite a couple of attempts at character sketches (an elderly golf dad and his son) the passengers and the rest of the crew are rarely more than extras. As a celebration of a professionalism and a salute to “ just a man doing a job”,  trusting his instincts, but nevertheless having the humility to question the decisions he makes, along with a subtext that questions the reliance on computer technology over human experience, it’s a rather old-fashioned affair that cruises at engaging low altitude, but never really soars. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Why Him? (15)

Screenwriter John Hamburg pretty much mined to death the chalk and cheese  father and prospective son-in-law bromantic comedy  in Meet The Parents/Fokkers, but, this time also adding director to his credits, he’s giving it another whirl with what, given the language, might  well be termed Meet The Motherfokkers.

Not best known for his broad comedy skills, Bryan Cranston is Ned Fleming, a traditional, middle-class CEO of a struggling print company who, at his 55th birthday party, discovers that his Harvard student daughter Stephanie (amiably bland Zoey Deutsch) is dating someone called Laird Mayhew (James Franco), although the only sight everyone gets of him is his bare buttocks on the video link.

Invited to spend Christmas with the couple in California, buttoned-up Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and their pubescent  aspiring businessman son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive to discover that Laird is in fact the  obscenely wealthy owner of a video game company who lives in a high tech palatial mansion with bison and llamas roaming the grounds, an artificial intelligence system with the voice of The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco  and  Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key, mining most of the laughs), an Austrian  personal assistant who serves as both his  therapist and Cato to his Clouseau (a gag Hamburg feels obliged to explain for those unfamiliar with The Pink Panther).  But, a red rag to analog era Ned, absolutely no paper.

He’s also a shirtless, heavily tattooed, grinning, puppy dog, free spirit man-child idiot whose artworks include a dead moose in a tank of its own urine (no prizes for guessing what happens to that) and assorted paintings of animals copulating, and who has no filter between brain and mouth, forever dropping the F word and inappropriate comments.  Scotty’s impressed, his old fashioned father rather less so.

He’s even less enthused when, in one his intended bonding chats, Laird asks Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. Naturally, the horrified dad says no, leading to a challenge whereby Laid, desperate for approval (and a father figure) says that he if hasn’t won him over by Christmas Day, then he won’t propose.

With Cranston playing it dryly deadpan to Franco’s gonzo cartoon, what follows is a sort of macho pissing content, some of it funny, much of it laboured, almost all of it shop worn and over extended (though teabagging by moose is a new one) that proceeds in jerky fits and starts to a wholly predictable (well, perhaps, save for embarrassing cameos by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as part of an extended Kiss homage) ending. Given the dearth of decent comedies doing the rounds, this is worth a look, but don’t blame me if you come out just thinking Why Did I Bother?  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

No ‘Scrubs’ – The Best Songs from the Show

Although no longer on our screens, Scrubs was one of America’s most resonant and irresistible programmes – delicately balancing cringe-inducing comedy with painful pathos, the long-running American sitcom achieved this through a stellar soundtrack. The songs chosen always helped elevate the storyline’s emotional arc, whether it be one of Turk’s zaniest moments or a trademark JD self-battle.

Scrubs, which starred Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke, aired for nine years and music was a huge part of its show – sometimes incidental, in the case of lawyer Ted’s band The Worthless Peons and the episode of ‘My Musical’. However, more prominent were the songs that were plucked from the vaults. Here are some of the most arresting and effective tracks that aired during the show’s run.

MODEST MOUSE – ‘Missed the Boat’ (Episode: My Waste of Time)

Scrubs was starting to wilt around this period, particularly with Braff becoming more of a transient figure and the lack of cohesive storylines. However, My Waste of Time makes the most of this state of flux – Dr Cox is beginning to revel in his new role as Chief of Medicine (although the previous incumbent, Dr Kelso, is still lingering around), while JD and Elliot try to rekindle their past relationship, and find that they have drifted apart. Soundtracking this is esoteric Portland rockers Modest Mouse, whose jangly reflection ‘Missed the Boat’ came bouyed by a classic Johnny Marr motif.

TOAD THE WET SPROCKET – ‘Something’s Always Wrong’ (Episode: My Big Brother)

Whether or not Zach Braff was as involved in the Scrubs soundtracks as he was for his films remains to be seen, but one group often called up to the plate are wistful Californians Toad the Wet Sprocket. ‘Something’s Always Wrong’, with its contemplative guitar riff and Glen Phillips’ reflective growl, added pathos to the scene in which JD finally realises his older brother is not the world-beating breadwinner he envisioned.

CHEAP TRICK – ‘Surrender’ (Episode: My Old Man)

Another popular choice for Scrubs episodes, power pop legends Cheap Trick helped usher in the JD / Elliot romance with ‘I Want You To Want Me’. However, it’s their barnstorming, glam-tinged anthem ‘Surrender’, with its chorus of “mommy’s alright / daddy’s alright / they just seem a little weird” highlighting the feelings of indifference the main characters have for their parents.

DAVID GRAY – ‘Please Forgive Me’ (Episode: My First Day)

One of Scrubs‘ many plus points was its ability to plumb songs from the strangest corners to really affect the emotion of a scene. On the surface, wobbly-headed troubadour David Gray may seem an odd fit, but his slightly skewed, off-kilter apology ‘Please Forgive Me’ soundtracks one of the show’s first, and most pivotal, scenes – JD feeling way over his head.

JOSEPH ARTHUR – ‘In the Sun’ (Episode: My New God)

In the early noughties, Joseph Arthur was almost inescapable. The songsmith’s breathy, yet grizzled, vocal delivery meshed wonderfully with his numerous guitar techniques, not least on the delicate lament ‘In the Sun’. The song, which has been covered from everyone from Coldplay to R.E.M., soundtracked Dr Cox’s son Jack’s baptism, in which all the anger and resentment the regulars had been feeling gets washed away at the sight of a new life being ingrained into society.

BARENAKED LADIES – ‘If I Had $1,000,000 Dollars’ (Episode: My Fruit Cups)

Barenaked Ladies enjoyed a regular slot soundtracking Scrubs, and when listening to the Canadian band’s brand of music, it’s no surprise – chief songwriters Ed Robertson and Steven Page had a gift for combining seemingly goofy subject matters with heartfelt urgency. On the surface, ‘If I Had A Million Dollars’ is a deceptively throwaway slice of immature ambition, but within its lofty ambitions is a track of yearning wistfulness.

THE FRAY – ‘How To Save A Life’ (Episode: My Lunch)

Christian rock band The Fray didn’t have much longevity, and their staple song ‘How To Save A Life’ was used ad infinitum around a slew of television shows. Its most poignant and arresting use, though, came in ‘My Lunch’, where Dr Cox, stressed from a devastating mistake, finally loses it. The fact it came straight after a trademark ‘The Todd’ scene is even more remarkable.

JOSHUA RADIN – ‘Winter’ (Episode: My Screw Up)

Scrubs had the ability to make the viewer laugh one minute and cry the next, but it perhaps never hit such weepy highs as it did in ‘Episode’. As Dr Cox finally comes to terms with his best friend’s untimely passing, the autumnal, gentle ditty of ‘Winter’ allows the curmudgeonly doctor to finally express some emotion.

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE – ‘Hey Julie’ (Episode: My Half-Acre)

Fountains of Wayne were a perfect fit for Scrubs – ‘Stacy’s Mom’ aside, the four-piece revelled in white-collar mundanity and the minutae of American suburbia. ‘Hey Julie’ keeps the band’s wry humour in check over a folk-tinged acoustic guitar riff, as the drudgery of punching the clock is counterbalanced with seeing your one true love again.

THE CORAL – ‘Dreaming Of You’ (Episode: My Monster)

The relationship between JD and Elliot fueled the show’s run in the romantic field, but before they firmly became an item they gave into their temptations in a big way as the pressures of work were given a sexy release valve. Soundtracking a rather sultry scene, stuffed dog aside, is Liverpudlian skiffle merchants The Coral and ‘Dreaming Of You’.

ERASURE – ‘A Little Respect’ (Episode: My Best Friend’s Mistake)

Not many episodes centred around a song itself – coming close was Colin Hay’s ‘Overkill’ – but on ‘My Best Friend’s Mistake’ there are thirty minutes devoted to Andy Bell’s ’80s staple (sorry, Wheatus fans). The song becomes a running thread throughout the episode, and even the surly Janitor allows himself a line or two while doing some undesirable toilet maintenance. The message is clear, though – no matter what position of authority you find yourself in, you deserve the respect of others, preferably with the beats of an ’80s ballad.

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Silence (15)

Now 74, it’s taken Martin Scorsese some 30 years to bring Shūsaku Endō’s novel about a 17th Century Jesuit missionary in feudal Japan and the struggle he wrestles with as to whether to apostatise (renounce God and his faith) in order to save those villagers who have converted from torture or death. As you might imagine, it’s as much intense and deeply profound film as it is a book, itself based in actual events and previously adapted for both stage and screen, addressing as it does such questions as free will, faith, martyrdom, doubt and the nature of belief.

Learning from a long-delayed letter that  their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), apparently renounced God to save his life when his fellow missionaries were being killed and has gone Japanese, fervent young Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the slightly more intense  Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) persuade their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them go and learn the truth, despite the danger they will face from the Japanese samurai, wary of the threat Christianity and its attendant colonialism poses, and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) as they hunt down the peasant converts, forcing them to recant (by placing their foot on an image of Christ) or be executed.

The padres’ first encounter with a Japanese is  Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a villager who makes a habit of apostatising whenever he’s in danger (even though, the first time, it cost his family’s lives) and subsequently coming back for forgiveness. He’s essentially Judas to Rodrigues’ Christ, the latter driven by a desire to find glory by emulating Christ’s martyrdom, although, ultimately (thanks to the smilingly devious Inoue)   it’s the converts rather than he who tend to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.

At nearly three hours, it can be a bit of a repetitive slog, particularly in the second half when Driver disappears from the narrative (until a brief object lesson return towards the end)  as the pair are forced to split up and  the film focuses in on Rodriguez’s internal and external dilemmas and crises of faith.

It’s a very violent film, albeit in a detached matter that involves boiling water, drownings on crosses, burnings, being suspended head first over a  pit to bleed to death and one sudden decapitation that speaks about the Samurai mentality in much the same way that The Railway Man spoke about Japanese PoW camp commanders, Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) smiling graciously while ordering or watching sadistic tortures.

A subtly nuanced and committed performance from Garfield   downplays the presumptuous character’s arrogance in the book and instead focuses on the consuming doubt that comes from the silence he’s met with when calling on God to  explain why the villagers must suffer. However, where The Mission and The Last Temptation of Christ were fairly clear, here the  philosophical and spiritual musings, especially in the austere third hour, are likely to prove too complex and rarefied for the average film audience to interpret. Indeed, when Neeson reappears and argues why Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, rather than viewing him as one last device to break Rodriguez, he seems to make perfectly logical sense. The powerful scene where the tormented padre ‘hears’ the voice of Christ justifying his acceding to the inevitable, is also somewhat undercut by the pragmatic Christian artefact witch hunt he and Ferreira subsequently take up. Even so, commandingly acted, visually striking and serious-minded, it’s a film that haunts, even as it challenges.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Assassin’s Creed (12A)

The transition of video game to big screen embraces a history that ranges from shortcomings (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Prince of Persia,) to outright disasters (Doom, Bloodrayne, Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat) with just the occasional success (Angry Birds, Warcraft) to encourage studios to keep trying. Launched in 2007and now on its 17th version, Assassin’s Creed has proven one of the most popular and durable of console games. But, unless you’re a dedicated player, despite its high profile cast and mega-budget, this live action adaptation from director Justin Kurzel (who previously directed a brilliant version of Macbeth), based largely around the original game, but reinterpreted as dystopian sci fi, is going to prove confusing bordering on incoherent.

Although it changes the name of the protagonist from bartender Desmond Miles to convicted murderer Callum Lynch (an intensely serious Michael Fassbender), whose Assassin mother was killed by his own father (Brendan Gleeson as the older version) when he was just a  child, the premise remains pretty much intact. Lynch is a descendent of the Assassin bloodline, an ancient secret society formed during  the Spanish Inquisition to prevent the Knight Templars getting their hands on an artefact from Eden (here some sort of techno-apple containing the secret to free will) they want to use to eradicate all violence and bring mankind under their control.

To locate it, his execution faked, Cal is ferreted away from death row to a secret high-tech mountain-top Madrid facility run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), CEO of Abstergo Industries and member of the current Knights Templar (headed bv Charlotte Rampling), whose scientist daughter,  Sophia (Marion Cotillard, who co-starred with Fassbender in Macbeth), is engaged on a  programme called the Animus, that, strapped to a harness with an implant in his neck, can send him back in time (at least virtually) to inhabit the memories of his Assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha. So, back in Spain, 15th century he finds himself a sort of 15th century parkour expert, bouncing off walls and vicariously fighting alongside fellow Maria (Ariane Labed), a fellow Assassin, to rescue Prince Ahmed de Granada, who has been kidnapped by Templars leader, Torquemada, to force his Sultan father into  handing over the Apple of Eden, only to wind up captured by Torquemada’s enforcer, Ojeda, and condemned to the stake.

That’s about as lucid as it gets. For reasons that are never made apparent (either to the audience or, presumably, the befuddled cast), the shambolic plot sees the facility also housing various other inmates (Michael K Williams among them) who are apparently the descendents of other assassins (which seemingly contradicts the earlier assertion that Callum is the last one) and  some  guff about having to enter the Animus willingly in order not to get burned out.

Irons wisely plays things with a twinkle in his eye and tongue in cheek, giving the film what few sparks of humour it has, but Fassbender buys into the film’s po-faced seriousness and portentous dialogue with a Hamlet-like intensity. Cottilard, on the other hand, simply looks totally bewildered by the whole thing.  Throw in assorted hallucinations, Christopher Columbus, quite literal Leaps of Faith and the supposed last words of 11th-century Persian missionary Hassan-i Sabbah (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) as the foundation of the Creed, which operates in the dark to do the work of the light, and what you get a puree of the Da Vinci Code and The Matrix served up with a side order of smoke-shrouded frantically kinetic action sequences shot through a moodily lit murky gauze. Admittedly, some of it looks impressive and images of darkly hooded figures with bladed gauntlets diving from tall buildings have a sort of frisson, but that’s more than undercut by the ineptitude of the screenplay and constant enigmatic (i.e. meaningless) symbolic shots of an eagle swooping across landscapes past and present. It’s not completely jaw-droppingly awful,  but it does make you positively yearn for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Chi-Raq (15)

During the 90s, Spike Lee could do no wrong. He was, arguably, the first African-American A List director, reeling off such box office and critical successes as  She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Clockers, Summer of Sam, Mo’ Better Blues and, of course, Malcolm X. But then, with flawed satire Bamboozled, things started to go wrong and he spent most of the next decade making (often acclaimed) TV documentaries, between misfires like She Hate Me, the overlooked 25th Hour and mainstream heist thriller concession Inside Man.

This is his first feature offering since the twin disasters of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and the remake of Oldboy, bankrolled not by a Hollywood studio but Amazon. It’s also a  return to the passionate angry filmmaking of his early work, a rework of  Aristophanes’ Green comedy Lysistrata, in which the omen from warring sides deny their husbands sex unless they agree to peace, reimagined in gangster culture Chicago, or Chi-Raq as its dubbed here, a city where black-on-black gun deaths in the past 15 years outnumber American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

With Samuel L Jackson serving as Dolmedes, the chorus, and adopting the classical use of rhyme, it opens with Nick Cannon’s powerful  rap Pray 4 My City, the lyrics appearing on the otherwise black screen, before introducing Cannon as Demetrius Dupree, the head of the purple-clad Spartans, and his woman., Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the gang in deadly rivalry with the orange-clad Trojans, led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).

When a young girl is killed in crossfire and no witnesses will come forward, the grief of the mother (Jennifer Hudson) and peace-activist Miss Evans (Angela Bassett), , inspires Lysistrata to emulate the 2003 sex strike led by Leymah Gbowee which helped end the Liberian Civil War, and engage the Trojan women in a plan to end the fighting, one succinctly summed up in the slogan, No Peace, No Pussy.

Often highly theatrical with highly choreographed dance routines (as in the church service for a murder victim and an erotic dance routine to the Chi-Lites), and featuring  John Cusack as the  local preacher declaring how “We go from third-rate schools to first-class, high-tech prisons”, it’s blunt, often crude, sometimes glaringly obvious (guns as phallic symbols) and unapologetically didactic, but it’s also Lee’s best in a over a decade. (Tue-Thu; MAC)

Life, Animated (PG)

Directed bv Oscar-winning documentary film-maker Roger Ross Williams, this tackles the subject of autism by detailing the life of Owen Suskind, as told in the book by his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron. Diagnosed as autistic aged three, Owen was unable to communicate until his parents realised that he was using animated Disney films to make sense of the social cues in the world around him (he also learned to read from the films’ credits) and they began to use dialogue from films like The Lion King, Bambi and The Jungle Book to talk to him. Through this Owen, who is now 23 and living independently, was also able to respond and form friendships. Mixing narration and animation, it offers an illuminating and inspiring insight in the world of autistics with all its emotional highs and lows as well as the power of storytelling. (Mon/Tue: MAC)

NOW PLAYING

Arrival (12A)

It’s been almost twenty years since the last thoughtful and intellectually serious film about first contact (that being Jodie Foster is Robert Zemeckis’ Contact), but, following up Sicario, director Denis  Villeneuve has delivered a masterful contribution to the genre that is up there with both that and Close Encounters, and which, like them, is more focused on its human characters than its aliens.

When a dozen elliptical black obelisks suddenly appear over different sites around the world, England, Russia, India, China and the US among them,  and just hover there doing nothing (media hysteria and public panic inevitably grow. Meanwhile, US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists top linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join a multinational team, along with maverick theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and help decipher the language, essentially noises, they have recorded from the occupants, dubbed heptapods on account of their squid-like appearance with  seven tentacle limbs at the base of their towering bodies.

Before all this, however, a prologue reveals that Banks has suffered tragedy, her marriage having fallen apart and having seen her baby daughter Hannah grow up only to die young of cancer, flashbacks of which regularly enter her mind when she’s trying to communicate with the two aliens, whom she and Ian  dub Abbott and Costello,  as they  seek to decipher the inky swirl hieroglyphs that are their written language.  As you might assume, those flashbacks have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, as she and Donnelly seek to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ visit, some countries, headed up by China and Russia, are getting edgy and, on the basis of their own linguists’ interpretations of the aliens use of the  term ‘weapon’, are moving towards military confrontation, their CIA liaison wants to shut operations down and the clock is ticking.

As  with the best sci fi, the film isn’t about aliens but humanity and the big questions of life as the screenplay addresses themes of love, loss, time, communication and perception in serious-minded, but never heavy-handed fashion. Relying on audiences’ familiarity with screen narrative conventions, the film cleverly harbours an M Night Shyamalan-like twist that, although the hints do gather in the final stretch, is virtually impossible to see coming and which delivers a breathtakingly audacious and heartfelt emotion-laded resolution.

Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Vue Star City)

 

Ballerina (U)

An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this follow your heart animation. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams.

Set in France towards the end of the 19th century, Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning) is a resident at a Brittany  orphanage where the Mother Superior does her best to discourage dreams, because they never come true and only cause you misery. Possessed of a ballerina musical box, the only legacy of her mother, Félicie dreams of being a dancer, even more so when her wannabe inventor best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan) shows her a postcard of the Grand Opera House in Paris. He promises to take her there, if they escape together. Which they duly due with the aid of a pair of his chicken-inspired wings, narrowly escaping the clutches of the Orphanage supervisor. However, arriving in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is just starting to be built, the pair get separated and, wandering into the Opera House, Félicie is befriended by cleaner Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), herself a former dancer whose career was ended when she hurt her leg.

Odette works for a Cruella deVil-like woman who is determined her brattish daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) will not only learn ballet at the Opera House under famed choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell), but dance a pas de deux opposite the prima ballerina in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker.

However, after Camille breaks her treasured musical box, Félicie intercepts the invitation to join the school and passes herself off as her. Despite Merante declaring she’ll be the first to be expelled, needless to say, she impresses him enough with her energy and determination to succeed that she remains to the final selection, which is when, of course, her deception is uncovered, leaving her to compete against the real  and better trained Camille for the star prize. Naturally, Odette, who’s become a surrogate mother, plays her part in training her to match technique to the passion in her heart. Meanwhile, Victor has got himself a job working for Gustav Eiffel and is not best pleased when  the company’s star male dancer, a blonde handsome Russian prince, starts making moves on Félicie.

Needless to say, incorporating a climactic chase up a work in progress  Statue of Liberty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected touch following a spectacular dance battle between Camille her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.

It doesn’t have the visual panache of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it does have plenty of heart (and  rather far too many head banging/falling over moments) and Fanning gives an engaging vocal performance, so it’s shame the filmmakers felt it necessary to lather it with  anonymous modern pop songs rather than something more suited to the period. It takes a while to find its feet, but, like Félicie, its charm will win you over.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

Three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce, Howard (Will Smith) is no longer the dynamic, inspirational force of the New York ad agency of which he holds the majority shares. Cue a hamfisted visual metaphor about him building massive domino structures and then toppling them. His friends, Whit (Edward Norton), a divorced dad whose young daughter resents him, Claire (Kate Winslet), a single workaholic who looks longingly at sperm donor pamphlets, and Simon (Michael Pena), a family man with a tell-tale cough, are all concerned about his disconnection from life. As executive partners in the firm, they’re also concerned that his behaviour is putting the company in jeopardy. They want to sell it to save it, but Howard has the majority shares. So he needs to be ruled incompetent to vote.

A casting call encounter with actress Amy (Keira Knightley) inspires Whit to hire her and her colleagues, streetwise Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and  imperious but worldly-wise Brigitte (Helen Mirren, hamming up the luvvie) to play the roles of, respectively, Love, Time and Death (Howard’s former mantra for life)  to whom Howard has  apparently been writing letters, admonishing them over his child’s death. The idea is to ‘gaslight’ him into believing he’s really talking to these metaphysical abstractions and film him acting in a way to show the board he’s mentally unsound, and, if it helps him find his way back and move on, all the better too.

Meanwhile, Howard brings himself to visit the therapy group for bereaved parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), except he can’t bring himself to say his daughter’s name, let alone talk about her death. Also divorced and having lost a child, she tells Howard how, while waiting at the hospital an old woman told her not to be blind to the collateral beauty around her. Howard doesn’t get what she’s talking about and, frankly, probably neither will the audience.

What with A Monster Calls and the forthcoming Manchester By The Sea, this seems to be the month for films about death, grief, loss, letting go and moving on with life. This, a blatantly sentimental  spin on A Christmas Carol, directed by David Frankel and written by Alan Loeb (who gave the world sperm donor comedy Switch), is the least of the three.

Smith does unsmiling inner anguish well enough, but, for all the screenplay’s manipulation (which includes a ludicrous final twist), never really emotionally engages, while, given their mixed well-meaning/self-serving motivations, it’s hard to know whether to sympathise with or condemn Norton, Winslet and Pena’s characters, although, the screenplay works hard to make you realise they too are going through the emotional mill. Needless to say, the three actors (ooh, or are they!) all have insights and observations to offer them as well as the platitudes they serve up to Howard. There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments among the saccharine and half-formed subplots, but otherwise this is manipulative  and mawkishly trite floss.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I, Daniel Blake (15)

A sobering serio-comic tragedy for our benefit cuts times, Ken Loach returns to skewer the callousness of an uncaring system, opening with voice over tas recently widowed,59-year-old Newcastle joiner  Daniel (Dave Johns) delivers a series of increasingly frustrated responses to the  ‘health care professional’ assessing his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.

Inevitably, although his doctors and physiotherapists have told him not to return to work following his heart attack, he’s declared fit and his application’s denied. Duly visiting the job centre, he’s met with a minefield of  implacable digital-by-default bureaucracy and threats of sanctions, the patronising staff  ignoring his protestations that he can’t fill anything in online as he doesn’t have a computer or  know how to use one. While there, he witnesses the treatment of a Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and her two kids, recently relocated from London, who, late for an appointment, are refused benefits. He comes to her aid and both are duly ejected. Being a man of kindness and compassion, he helps her further, getting her food and doing repairs around her new flat and bonding with her and the children, the self-possessed Daisy (Briana Shann) and the younger, OCD Dylan (Dylan McKiernan).

The relationship between the members of this impromptu family and the good natured rapport between Daniel and his chancer high-rise neighbour stand in direct contrast to the uncaring attitudes of those embodying the Department of Work and Pensions, although, there is one token job centre employee who does show sympathy and tries to help Daniel through the labyrinth.

Written by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, there are times when it edges into both sentimentality and caricature, but the central characterisations and performances  are superb and both the act of protest that gives rise to the title and Daniel’s final testimony will make you want to cheer and cry respectively. At the end of the day, its social commentary about a  Kafkaesque bureaucracy isn’t saying anything new, but, as the government’s war of attrition on the poor  continues to gather force, it’s a movingly potent  reminder that those on the other side of the desk, on the other end of the phone, aren’t clients or numbers, but people with feelings and rights, especially to their dignity and respect. (Fri-Sun: MAC)

 

Moana (PG)

The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and   Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.

She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about  how  shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who  knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave  comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.

Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.

And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway  cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple  have the courage to  be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips  “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against  bursting into song.

Cravhalo brings a lively  spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including  a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore  nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the  new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.

The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny  another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Monster Calls (12A)

With a definite nod towards Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish director J.A. Bayona follows up The Impossible with a magic realism masterpiece about grief, fear, guilt and death with  Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age bestseller.

With dad (a brief but effective Toby Kebbell) relocating to America and remarried, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small rural English town with his mom (Felicity Jones). “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, not only is he regularly bullied at school, but his artist mum has cancer and is getting weaker and his somewhat chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to come and stay with her.  He also has vivid nightmares in which the church and local graveyard sink into the earth, he clinging to the ground while hanging on to his mother’s hand as she dangles over the abyss.

Following  one nightmare, he’s terrified when the ancient yew tree in the churchyard uproots itself and, a sort of arboreal BFG,  takes on monstrous humanoid form resembling a drawing Conor and his mother made, stomping to his bedroom window and, craggily voiced by Liam Neeson, saying that Conor has called out to him and now he has three stories to tell, after which, in return,  Conor must tell him the story that holds to truth to his dreams.

Presented in water colour animation, the first story tells of an old king who remarries a woman some call a witch. When the king dies, the queen determines to marry the prince, but he runs off with his commoner love, except there’s dark twist, that sees his lover murdered and his stepmother burned for the crime. The tree returning at the appointed hour of 12.07, its second story involves an ill-tempered apothecary who is persecuted by the parson whose yew tree he wishes to cut down to make medicines. The parson refuses, but when his daughters fall ill he comes begging the old man for help. Again, there is a dark twist.  The third tale is about a man who, tired of being invisible to those who refused to see him, summoned a monster to get himself noticed. Things do not end well. As the monster says, there’s not always a good guy, nor are things always what they appear.

As you might imagine, all three tales relate to Conor’s own emotional turmoil, For example, when the monster destroys the parson’s house, Conor joins in only to suddenly find that he’s trashed his grandmother’s room while, in the third, he snaps and takes revenge for the bullying. Clearly, these stories are intended as moral lessons, offering the boy an insight into his anger and emotions. They are scary, yes, but their purpose is to enable Conor to face the truth that terrifies him and, in the process to heal. This is made clear in the fourth story, Conor’s, but to reveal anything would spoil the heartbreaking reveal.

Filmed almost entirely from Conor’s viewpoint, the film poignantly but unsentimentally addresses the painful reality of loss, tragedy balanced with welcome humour and suffused throughout with a sense of wonder.

While her appearances are fleeting, Jones  is superb as the mother distraught at leaving her son behind, while, despite a somewhat stiff British accent, Weaver deftly juggles brittle facade and aching heart, but, in virtually every scene and called on to run through a gamut of conflicting emotions, it’s MacDougall who carries the film on his shoulders.

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that had its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was written off  as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.

Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster.  Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan), works in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate  his clapped out old pick up.

Meanwhile, smarmy villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard.  To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.

It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.

Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as they climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments of stupid fun, but, for a film that purports to have an anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Passengers (12A)

A castaways love story set on a mammoth space ship this  has a promising set up. Somewhere in the future, corporate spacecraft the Avalon and its 255 crew  are taking 5000 passengers to start new lives across the universe on the idyllic colony of Homestead II. Since it’s going to take 120 years to get there, they’re all in suspended animation while the ship charts its preset route. It has a shield to deflect meteors, but a collision with a large chunk of space rock sends things awry, waking up mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.

Finding himself alone save for a perky corporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of  considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to do the right thing  and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned  like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance, two lonely people marooned in space.

Naturally, at some point, she learns what actually happened, causing a rift between them. But, when the ship’s systems all start malfunctioning, they have to work together to try and survive. Fortuitously, they have a helping hand from one of the senior crew (Laurence Fishburne) who also wakes prematurely and is around long enough to open the flight deck, reveal the systems are all shutting down and pass on his authorisation bracelet before the pair find themselves on their own again. Now, it’s a race against the clock to stop the ship going into meltdown and killing everyone on board.

With some Robinson Crusoe, a splash of Gravity and a dash of Titanic, it’s an interesting premise, but, for all its musing on life and loneliness, ultimately the story has nowhere to go. The tone too is uneven. Much of the first half  plays comedic notes, but then everything goes serious and dramatic once Aurora finds Jim screwed her life  and the systems go haywire. Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but director Morten Tyldum has no feel for the spectacular, rendering both the couple’s tethered romantic venture into deep space and the climactic attempt to shut down the reactor all rather ho hum. Ultimately the film ends up rather like its two characters, passengers stranded on an empty vehicle on autopilot. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.

In the following enquiry, the offhand and often smirking National Transportation Safety Board investigators (represented by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) were less enthusiastic and more sceptical, feeling that he should have followed protocol and, by undertaking a forced water landing, had put everyone’s lives in danger. According to their simulations, the plane could have safely made it back to either LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro Airport.

It’s a matter of record that Sully’s actions were ultimately vindicated, rather undercutting  any sense of dramatic tension to Clint Eastwood’s film which ultimately turns into a  sort of NTSB hearing version of a courtroom drama complete with the equivalent of the last minute surprise witness as Sully asks them to take the human factor into account in their simulations.

And, indeed, focusing on the aftermath rather than the event,  it is the human factor that the film’s about, exploring the idea of a ‘hero’, Sully (played impeccably by a white-haired Tom Hanks) protesting that he was simply a man doing the job he was trained to do and that, anyhow, it was a crew effort.

For an Eastwood film, despite a brisk 96 minutes running time, it has a somewhat bitty structure, cutting between the post crash events and what happened during the flight (keeping shots of the actual forced landing –well worth seeing in IMAX – and plane evacuation until towards the end) with neither the pointless flashbacks to Sully’s early years as a pilot nor the phone conversations with his worried wife (Laura Linney) really adding much to proceedings.

Hanks is, as you would assume, excellent as a man asking himself whether he might have done things differently (he’s tormented by visions of the plane crashing into a New York skyscraper) and patiently enduring the bureaucratic red tape of the investigation. And although Aaron Eckhart provided solid support (as well as the jokes and the ripostes to the enquiry suits ) as  loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles, his is a far more backseat performance, while, despite a couple of attempts at character sketches (an elderly golf dad and his son) the passengers and the rest of the crew are rarely more than extras. As a celebration of a professionalism and a salute to “ just a man doing a job”,  trusting his instincts, but nevertheless having the humility to question the decisions he makes, along with a subtext that questions the reliance on computer technology over human experience, it’s a rather old-fashioned affair that cruises at engaging low altitude, but never really soars. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Why Him? (15)

Screenwriter John Hamburg pretty much mined to death the chalk and cheese  father and prospective son-in-law bromantic comedy  in Meet The Parents/Fokkers, but, this time also adding director to his credits, he’s giving it another whirl with what, given the language, might  well be termed Meet The Motherfokkers.

Not best known for his broad comedy skills, Bryan Cranston is Ned Fleming, a traditional, middle-class CEO of a struggling print company who, at his 55th birthday party, discovers that his Harvard student daughter Stephanie (amiably bland Zoey Deutsch) is dating someone called Laird Mayhew (James Franco), although the only sight everyone gets of him is his bare buttocks on the video link.

Invited to spend Christmas with the couple in California, buttoned-up Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and their pubescent  aspiring businessman son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive to discover that Laird is in fact the  obscenely wealthy owner of a video game company who lives in a high tech palatial mansion with bison and llamas roaming the grounds, an artificial intelligence system with the voice of The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco  and  Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key, mining most of the laughs), an Austrian  personal assistant who serves as both his  therapist and Cato to his Clouseau (a gag Hamburg feels obliged to explain for those unfamiliar with The Pink Panther).  But, a red rag to analog era Ned, absolutely no paper.

He’s also a shirtless, heavily tattooed, grinning, puppy dog, free spirit man-child idiot whose artworks include a dead moose in a tank of its own urine (no prizes for guessing what happens to that) and assorted paintings of animals copulating, and who has no filter between brain and mouth, forever dropping the F word and inappropriate comments.  Scotty’s impressed, his old fashioned father rather less so.

He’s even less enthused when, in one his intended bonding chats, Laird asks Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. Naturally, the horrified dad says no, leading to a challenge whereby Laid, desperate for approval (and a father figure) says that he if hasn’t won him over by Christmas Day, then he won’t propose.

With Cranston playing it dryly deadpan to Franco’s gonzo cartoon, what follows is a sort of macho pissing content, some of it funny, much of it laboured, almost all of it shop worn and over extended (though teabagging by moose is a new one) that proceeds in jerky fits and starts to a wholly predictable (well, perhaps, save for embarrassing cameos by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as part of an extended Kiss homage) ending. Given the dearth of decent comedies doing the rounds, this is worth a look, but don’t blame me if you come out just thinking Why Did I Bother?  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Blood, Ket and Tears – Club L’Amour Announces Last Ever Show

Digbeth is something of a Pandora’s box – you can visit it a number of times, and on each occasion uncover another jewel in its crumbling crown. One such pearl has to be Club L’Amour. It may not have slayed Snobs or pilloried Propaganda, but over the past two years, it has continually provided indie purists with a platform to hear and play some of the scene’s most exciting sounds. Now, after twenty-four months of bacchanalian abandon, it has announced its last ever show.

The fortnightly event, which is hosted at the multicoloured Canaan that is SUKI10C, will officially bow out on Friday 3 February. During its tenure, it has enticed acts such as RAT BOY, Pale Waves and Ash Mammal onto its smoke-riddled, sardine-sized stage, as well as local legends such as Gleam, Afterbloom, The Cosmics, The Assist and Semantics. More than that, though, it has been as an indie Byker Grove, an after-school club for those that lie in bed listening to Loveless, dream of owning a frozen banana stand and want to hear bootleg live versions of DIIV announcing where they’re from.

For many of us, Club L’Amour has served as a sanctuary. I, like many, was originally skeptical when I first made the trip (in fact, I’m sure I had 9-9 dialed on my iPhone as a precaution), but one year on, I am so glad that I was able to indulge in its atmosphere while I could. I have seen and made friends with an innumerable amount of bands, both local and touring, as well as hearing some of alternative music’s finest cuts.

What can be said about Club L’Amour that hasn’t already been uttered already? When I first came and was subsequently bathed in a grimy salvation, I made it my mission to try and get the club more established; I wrote about the club night for every publication I could, tried to cajole all my friends into visiting and even tried to make my nan host her 70th birthday party there (she went to a Harvester instead). Such was the impact it had on me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one – a range of people have credited the club with helping them make valuable contacts, play brilliantly gloomy gigs, and fall in love and Xanax.

Then there were the cast of characters. In one corner would be Benny C, thumbing through his scarily organised CD binders with surprisingly steady precision. In another would be Josh Rochelle-Bates, struggling to stand up under the strain of his all-leather ensemble. Nicole proved a more than amiable host, drawing anything from breasts to basses on our hands while Kez adjusted his beanie with gentlemanly accuracy. It will be a shame to see it end.

More details are to be announced soon, but as Club L’Amour closes its doors, the indie outcasts must shake off the dust and find somewhere else to down their aesthetic sorrows. Until the 10th anniversary edition, that is. At least then we can bring our kids to the sesh.

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 30-Thu Jan 5

 

NEW RELEASE

A Monster Calls (12A)  With a definite nod towards the style of Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish director J.A. Bayona follows up The Impossible with a magic realism masterpiece about grief, fear, guilt and death with  Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age bestseller.

With dad (a brief but effective Toby Kebbell) relocating to America and remarried, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small rural English town with his mom (Felicity Jones). “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, he’s a troubled kid. Not only is he regularly bullied at school, but his artist mum has cancer and is getting weaker and his somewhat chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to come and stay with her.  He also has vivid nightmares in which the church and local graveyard sink into the earth, he clinging to the ground while hanging on to his mother’s hand as she dangles over the abyss.

Following  one nightmare, he’s terrified when the ancient yew tree in the churchyard uproots itself and, a sort of arboreal BFG,  takes on monstrous humanoid form (looking not unlike a drawing Conor and his mother made), stomping down to his bedroom window and, craggily voiced by Liam Neeson (a photograph of whom eagle-eyed viewers will see on a shelf, presumably his grandfather),  saying that Conor has called out to him and now he has three stories to tell, after which, in return,  Conor must tell him the story that haunts him and holds to truth to his dreams.

Presented in water colour animation, the first story tells of an old king who remarries a woman some call a witch. When the king dies, the queen determines to marry the prince, but he runs off with his commoner love, except there’s dark twist, that sees his lover murdered and his stepmother burned for the crime. The tree returning at the appointed hour of 12.07, its second story involves an ill-tempered apothecary who is persecuted by the parson, whose yew tree he wishes to cut down to make medicines. The parson refuses, but when his daughters fall ill he comes begging the old man for help. Again, there is a dark twist, the yew monster coming alive and destroying the parson’s house.  The third tale is about a man who, tired of being invisible to those who refused to see him, summoned a monster to get himself noticed. Things do not end well. As the monster says, there’s not always a good guy, nor are things always what they appear.

As you might imagine, all three tales relate to Conor’s own emotional turmoil, For example, when the monster destroys the parson’s house, Conor joins in only to suddenly find that he trashed his grandmother’s room while, in the third, he snaps and takes revenge for the bullying. Clearly, these stories are intended as moral lessons, offering the boy an insight into his anger and emotions. They are scary, yes, but their purpose is to enable Conor to face the truth that terrifies him and, in the process to heal. This is made clear in the fourth story, Conor’s, but to reveal anything would spoil the heartbreaking reveal.

Filmed almost entirely from Conor’s viewpoint, often seen through half closed doors,  the film poignantly but unsentimentally addresses the painful reality of loss, the themes complemented by the production design and colours, tragedy balanced with welcome humour and suffused throughout with a sense of wonder.

In her second film in a month, Jones, while her appearances are fleeting, is superb as the loving mother distraught at leaving her son behind, while, despite a somewhat stiff British accent, Weaver deftly juggles brittle facade and aching heart, but, in virtually every scene and called on to run through a gamut of conflicting emotions, it’s MacDougall who carries the film on his shoulders.

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (From Sun: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

It’s Christmas, and three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce, Howard (Will Smith) is no longer the dynamic, inspirational force of the New York ad agency of which he holds the majority shares. Cue a hamfisted visual metaphor about him building massive domino structures and then toppling them. As his friends, Whit (Edward Norton), a divorced dad whose young daughter resents, Claire (Kate Winslet), a single workaholic who looks longingly at sperm donor pamphlets, and Simon (Michael Pena), a family man with a tell-tale cough, are all concerned about his disconnection from life. As executive partners in the firm, they’re also concerned that his behaviour is putting the company in jeopardy. They want to sell it to save it, but Howard has the majority shares. So he needs to be ruled incompetent to vote.

A casting call encounter with actress Amy (Keira Knightley) inspires Whit to follow her to the local theatre where she’s rehearsing and, after convincing his fellow partners, to hire her and her colleagues, streetwise Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and the imperious but worldly-wise Brigitte (Helen Mirren, hamming up the luvvie) to play the roles of, respectively, Love, Time and Death (Howard’s former mantra for life)  to whom, they have learned from the private eye they hired, Howard has been writing letters, admonishing them over his child’s death. The idea is to ‘gaslight’ him (as Mirren puts it) into believing he’s really talking to these metaphysical abstractions and get him on film acting in a way to show the board he’s mentally unsound so they can sell, and, if it helps him find his way back and move on, all the better too.

Meanwhile Howard, who does things like riding his bicycle against the traffic, brings himself to visit the therapy group for bereaved parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), except he can’t bring himself to say his daughter’s name, let alone talk about her death or his grief. Also divorced and having lost a child, she tells Howard how, while waiting at the hospital an old woman told her not to be blind to the collateral beauty around her. Howard doesn’t get what she’s talking about and, frankly, probably neither will the audience.

What with A Monster Calls and the forthcoming Manchester By The Sea, this seems to be the month for films about death, grief, loss, letting go and moving on with life. This, a sort of spin on A Christmas Carol, directed by David Frankel (whose last decent work was Marley and Me) and written by Alan Loeb (who gave the world sperm donor comedy Switch), is the least and most blatantly sentimental of the three.

Although a long way from The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith does unsmiling inner anguish well enough, but, for all the screenplay’s manipulation (which includes a ludicrous final twist epiphany), never really emotionally engages, while, given their mixed well-meaning/self-serving motivations, it’s hard to know whether to sympathise with or condemn Norton, Winslet and Pena’s characters, although, the screenplay works hard to make you realise they too are going through the emotional mill, Needless to say, the three actors (ooh, or are they!) all have insights and observations to offer them as well as the fortune cookie platitudes they serve up to Howard.

There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments among the saccharine and half-formed subplots, most notably a note Madeleine shows Howard from her ex-husband, but otherwise this is manipulative  and mawkishly trite floss.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Monster Trucks (PG)

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that has its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was already written off  as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.

Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster.  Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan) and working in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate  his clapped out old pick up.

Meanwhile, smarmy panto villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard.  To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.

It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend (her son’s not a fan) and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.

Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as the climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments if stupid fun, but for a film that purports to have an anti-fracking, anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Why Him? (15)

Screenwriter John Hamburg pretty much mined to death the chalk and cheese  father and prospective son-in-law bromantic comedy  in Meet The Parents/Fokkers, but, this time also adding director to his credits, he’s giving it another whirl with what, given the language, might  well be termed Meet The Motherfokkers.

Not best known for his broad comedy skills, Bryan Cranston is Ned Fleming, a traditional, middle-class CEO of a struggling print company who, at his 55th birthday party, discovers that his Harvard student daughter Stephanie (amiably bland Zoey Deutsch) is dating someone called Laird Mayhew (James Franco), although the only sight everyone gets of him is his bare buttocks on the video link.

Invited to spend Christmas with the couple in California, buttoned-up Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and their pubescent  aspiring businessman son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive to discover that Laird is in fact the  obscenely wealthy owner of a video game company who lives in a high tech palatial mansion with bison and llamas roaming the grounds, an artificial intelligence system with the voice of The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco  and  Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key, mining most of the laughs) an Austrian  personal assistant who serves as both his  therapist and Cato to his Clouseau (a gag Hamburg feels obliged to explain for those unfamiliar with The Pink Panther).  But, a red rag to analog era Ned, absolutely no paper.

He’s also a shirtless, heavily tattooed (his special surprise is their Christmas card on his back) grinning, puppy dog, free spirit man-child idiot whose artworks include a dead moose in a tank of its own urine (no prizes for guessing what happens to that) and assorted paintings of animals copulating, and who has no filter between brain and mouth, forever dropping the F word and inappropriate comments.  Scotty’s impressed, his old fashioned father rather less so, though he does admit that Laird building him a dedicated bowling alley in the basement is pretty cool.

Not exactly warming to Laird, he’s even less enthused when, in one his intended bonding chats, he asks Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. Naturally, the doting, horrified dad says no, leading to a challenge whereby Laid, desperate for approval (and a father figure) says that he if hasn’t won him over by Christmas Day, then he won’t propose. What on earth does Steph see in Laird? Well, apparently he reminds her of her dad, Don’t even go there.

With Cranston playing it dryly deadpan to Franco’s gonzo cartoon, what follows is a sort of macho pissing content, some of it funny, much of it laboured, almost all of it shop worn and over extended (though teabagging by moose is a new one) that proceeds in jerky fits and starts to a wholly predictable (well, perhaps, save for embarrassing cameos by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as part of an extended Kiss homage) ending. Given the dearth of decent comedies doing the rounds, this is worth a look, but don’t blame me if you come out just thinking Why Did I Bother?  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Arrival (12A)

It’s been almost twenty years since the last thoughtful and intellectually serious film about first contact (that being Jodie Foster is Robert Zemeckis’ Contact), but, following up Sicario, director Denis  Villeneuve has delivered a masterful contribution to the genre that is up there with both that and Close Encounters, and which, like them, is more focused on its human characters than its aliens.

When a dozen elliptical black obelisks suddenly appear over different sites around the world, England, Russia, India, China and the US among them,  and just hover there doing nothing (media hysteria and public panic inevitably grow. Meanwhile, US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists top linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join a multinational team, along with maverick theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and help decipher the language, essentially noises, they have recorded from the occupants, dubbed heptapods on account of their squid-like appearance with  seven tentacle limbs at the base of their towering bodies.

Before all this, however, a prologue reveals that Banks has suffered tragedy, her marriage having fallen apart and having seen her baby daughter Hannah grow up only to die young of cancer, flashbacks of which regularly enter her mind when she’s trying to communicate with the two aliens, whom she and Ian  dub Abbott and Costello,  as they  seek to decipher the inky swirl hieroglyphs that are their written language.  As you might assume, those flashbacks have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, as she and Donnelly seek to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ visit, some countries, headed up by China and Russia, are getting edgy and, on the basis of their own linguists’ interpretations of the aliens use of the  term ‘weapon’, are moving towards military confrontation, their CIA liaison wants to shut operations down and the clock is ticking.

As  with the best sci fi, the film isn’t about aliens but humanity and the big questions of life as the screenplay addresses themes of love, loss, time, communication and perception in serious-minded, but never heavy-handed fashion. Relying on audiences’ familiarity with screen narrative conventions, the film cleverly harbours an M Night Shyamalan-like twist that, although the hints do gather in the final stretch, is virtually impossible to see coming and which delivers a breathtakingly audacious and heartfelt emotion-laded resolution.

Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Vue Star City)

 

Ballerina (U)

An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this follow your heart animation. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams.

Set in France towards the end of the 19th century, Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning) is a resident at a Brittany  orphanage where the Mother Superior does her best to discourage dreams, because they never come true and only cause you misery. Possessed of a ballerina musical box, the only legacy of her mother, Félicie dreams of being a dancer, even more so when her wannabe inventor best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan) shows her a postcard of the Grand Opera House in Paris. He promises to take her there, if they escape together. Which they duly due with the aid of a pair of his chicken-inspired wings, narrowly escaping the clutches of the Orphanage supervisor. However, arriving in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is just starting to be built, the pair get separated and, wandering into the Opera House, Félicie is befriended by cleaner Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), herself a former dancer whose career was ended when she hurt her leg.

Odette works for a Cruella deVil-like woman who is determined her brattish daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) will not only learn ballet at the Opera House under famed choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell), but dance a pas de deux opposite the prima ballerina in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker.

However, after Camille breaks her treasured musical box, Félicie intercepts the invitation to join the school and passes herself off as her. Despite Merante declaring she’ll be the first to be expelled, needless to say, she impresses him enough with her energy and determination to succeed that she remains to the final selection, which is when, of course, her deception is uncovered, leaving her to compete against the real  and better trained Camille for the star prize. Naturally, Odette, who’s become a surrogate mother, plays her part in training her to match technique to the passion in her heart. Meanwhile, Victor has got himself a job working for Gustav Eiffel and is not best pleased when  the company’s star male dancer, a blonde handsome Russian prince, starts making moves on Félicie.

Needless to say, incorporating a climactic chase up a work in progress  Statue of Liberty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected touch following a spectacular dance battle between Camille her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.

It doesn’t have the visual panache of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it does have plenty of heart (and  rather far too many head banging/falling over moments) and Fanning gives an engaging vocal performance, so it’s shame the filmmakers felt it necessary to lather it with  anonymous modern pop songs rather than something more suited to the period. It takes a while to find its feet, but, like Félicie, its charm will win you over.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bleed For This (15)

Even if you’re not a boxing fan, you’ll probably be familiar with Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. But Vinny Pazienza? Probably not. Dubbed the Pazmanian Devil, he was an Italian American boxer from Rhode Island who held three world titles at different weights in the 80s and early 90s, but doesn’t even figure on the Google list of top names in boxing history. All of which suggests there may not be a huge audience for this biopic by Boiler Room director Ben Younger, even if it does feature another terrific performance from Whiplash star Miles Teller.

Like the best boxing movies, the story here is more about what happens outside of the ring and details how Paz, as he later renamed himself, made arguably the greatest comeback in boxing history when, shortly after winning after the junior middleweight world title in 1991, he suffered a broken neck in a car crash and was told he might not even walk again, let alone box.   However, he elected to have halo surgery, whereby a circular metal neck brace was quite literally bolted to his skull for three months, During this time, with the help of his trainer, Kevin Rooney, unbeknownst to his family and against doctors’ orders, he began a workout regime, going on to take the world Super Middleweight Title by beating Robert Duran in 1994.

All this is dutifully addressed in the film with a charismatic Teller solidly delivering both Vinny’s early flash swagger and subsequent refusal to accept what everyone told him and putting himself through a punishing regime which, with one misstep could have left him paralysed, in order to return to the ring. He’s bolstered by two other effective turns by Ciaran Hinds as his gym-owning high pressure father, and Aaron Eckhart as the balding, hard drinking Rooney finding is own redemption through training Vinny.

It’s an inspirational story of one man’s spirit against the odds, but it never quite lands the knockout blow. The other figures in Paz’s life, his devout Catholic mother (Katey Sagal) who can’t bring herself to watch her son’s matches, brash sister Doreen (Amanda Clayton), promoter Lou Duva (Ted Levine) who, then his manager, announced Vinny’s retirement following defeat to Roger Mayweather, without consulting him, and the anonymous girlfriends are all just loosely sketched.

The film also compresses and skips events. Although it presents the Duran match as Paz’s comeback, in reality he’d already made that in 1992, and had won a further three fights before meeting Duran. There’s also the problem in that the ringside action is all rather underwhelming and the final fight feels somewhat of an anticlimax. The film has some fancy footwork and lands several solid blows, but  it’s always a  contender never a champ.  (Vue Star City)

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

One of the Marvel Universe’s  biggest box office hits, this sees Benedict Cumberbatch  perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant and egotistical New York neurosurgeon who, his hands crippled in a car accident, sets off to Tibet in search of a mysterious order than he believes can heal him, eventually being taken in and mentored by  the so called Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton)  and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mystic arts. Initial skepticism quickly giving way to a driven desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, Strange’s first challenge comes when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disciple turned rogue who stole a forbidden spell, returns to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world, thereby  allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.

The occult arts are, of course, a licence to let the special effects run riot and the film doesn’t stint, characters creating warp holes with their special rings, both the Ancient One and Kaecilius using spells to make reality – as in the streets and buildings of New York – fold in on itself like some living kaleidoscopic Escher nightmare, everyone wielding mystical weapons and Strange, equipped with the Eye of Agamotto and his iconic sentient red cloak, able to move time back and forth.

However, as with all the Marvel Universe films, it’s about more than visual spectacle with the cast and screenplay bringing philosophical, psychological and emotional depth to proceedings, one scene in particular managing to be simultaneously funny, thrilling and dramatic, as Strange has to fight not only against those bent on destroying the world, but also his own insecurities and damaged sense of self-worth. Indeed, with his line in flippant humour, Cumberbatch’s Strange  is cut from similar cloth to Tony Stark.

Unlike the comics, here  Wong (Benedict Wong) is the keeper of the Ancient One’s library and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum as opposed to Strange’s valet,  while the romantic interest is provided  not by fellow mystic Clea, but by fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a name Marvel fans will recall from the short-lived Night Nurse and Nightcrawler comics. And while  Ejiofor may feel somewhat underused this time round, his role as Strange’s nemesis in the comic, ensures he’ll have much more to do in the inevitable sequel while the  obligatory  end credit scenes reveal that, before then, Strange will be casting a spell over the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak.  (Vue Star City)

The Eagle Huntress (U)

For generations, the nomad Kazakh minority that inhabit the   Altai mountains of Mongolia have hunted with eagles, a working relationship that, largely targeting foxes,  provides them the food and fur needed to survive as well as entering into competitions. Capturing them when young, the hunters keep the eagles for seven years before tradition dictates they return them to the wild. It is a tradition that has been an exclusively make province, handed down from father to son. Until now.  Mixing staged recreation and verite footage, US-based British director Otto Bell’s documentary charts the journey of 13-year-old Aisholpan, the rosy-cheeked daughter of Agalai, a seventh-generation Master Eagle Hunter, as she seeks to follow in his footsteps. As in most of the world, she finds breaking into a male domain something of a challenge, especially in a  culture where women are designated wives and yurt-keepers and are clearly not up to such rigours. As one interviewee notes, “women get cold”.

Aisholpan is having none of that as, trained by her father, she first has to climb down a cliff to get her own baby eagles and then teach it to respond to her calls and hunt in the grand tradition of the ancient art of falconry. And it’s not just hunting where she’s determined to make her mark. Despite some tut tutting from the elders, she not only becomes the first female and youngest entrant  in the annual Golden Eagle competition, but keeps up dad’s  trophy shelf success too.

Narrated by  Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, the film not only offers Aisholpan’s inspirational girl power story, but also affords an illuminating look into Kazakh customs as well as social change that is slowly overtaking tradition, not to mention some ravishiong footage of the starkly beautiful landscapes, as the film builds to the youngster’s first hunt, the true test of her abilities. The fact that of what you see was done for the camera rather, doesn’t negate the story it tells and, while it could possibly have done without Sia warbling  the ‘you can do anything’ message over the end credits, beating the audience over the head with a  vocal hammer, this is a terrific inspiring and educational piece of filmmaking.  (MAC)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The closing reveal  sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander  and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Moana (PG)

The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and   Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.

She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about  how  shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who  knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave  comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.

Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.

And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway  cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple  have the courage to  be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips  “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against  bursting into song.

Cravhalo brings a lively  spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including  a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore  nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the  new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.

The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny  another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Office Christmas Party (15)

Although the development  of ‘the internet of things” means the breakthrough that restores order to chaos and facilitates everyone’s happy ending is about three years out of date, there’s much fun to be had in this festive-themed ensemble comedy about an office party that gets seriously out of hand when the uptight HR director (Kate McKinnon)  inadvertently drops a bag of cocaine into the snow machine.

So, how does it get to that point? The Chicago branch of internet technology company Zenotek is struggling to turn a  profit, or at least the sort of profit demanded by acting CEO, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), a brittle  numbers cruncher who turns up to tell her happy go lucky, fun-loving brother Clay (T.J. Miller) that, not only is he not holding his planned Christmas bash and all bonuses are cancelled, but that she’s going to fire most of the employees and, if that’s not enough, shut the branch down. It seems she’s resentful of the fact that Clay was daddy’s favourite and left him the Chicago branch, which he managed, as an inheritance. Now she’s makes the Grinch look like the life and soul of the party.

However, family friend and chief technical officer, Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) has a solution. If they can land a major contract with a potential big leagues client, then she’ll keep the branch open and everyone’s jobs will be safe. However, when Clay, Josh and his co-worker (and simmering romantic interest) Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn) pitch to Walter (Courtney B Vance), the company’s rep, with her not yet quite resolved new interconnectivity idea, he passes. The only thing to do is to defy Carol, stage the most lavish office party, invite Walter and, with Clay playing Santa,  impress him with Zenotek’s family culture. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Adopting a similar approach to The Hangover (though not quite as crude), it threads together a variety of characters with their own sub-plots, among them the love-hate relationship between Mary (a woman with some dark secrets) and permanently angry Custom Relations manager Jeremy (Rob Corddry),  Nate (Karan Soni), the ineffectual manager who desperately hires a sexy escort to pose as the imaginary hot girlfriend his sceptical underlings rightly don’t believe he has, and single mom Allison (Vanessa Bayer) who doesn’t make the wisest choice of colleague for a little r&r in the daycare centre. Then, as an added comic attraction, there’s a very funny turn by Jillian Bell as Trina, Nate’s escort’s deranged pimp,

However, it’s Miller, McKinnon, Munn, Bateman and Aniston who lead the comedic charge, with Bateman providing the bemused centre of calm (and deadpan lines) and Aniston relishing her opportunity to play the bitch, most notably in an airport lounge scene as she ruins one little girl’s Christmas. It’s a bit slow to get going and the script keeps leaving the party mayhem for a different film where Josh, Carol, Tracey and Mary have to rescue Clay (and the $300,000 strapped to his body) from Trina and save Chicago from an internet meltdown. However, there’s also a slyness to it that sets up teasers for scenarios that never actually happen, such as the Rottweiler wife from whom Josh is finally divorced in the opening scenes or the urn Clay has containing dad’s ashes. Or maybe they just got forgotten in the frenzy.  (Empire Great Park)

Passengers (12A)

A castaways love story set on a mammoth space ship, this  has a promising set up. Somewhere in the future, corporate spacecraft the Avalon and its 255 crew  are taking 5000 passengers to start new lives across the universe on the idyllic colony of Homestead II. Since it’s going to take 120 years to get there, they’re all in suspended animation while the ship charts its preset route. It has a shield to deflect meteors, but a collision with a large chunk of space rock sends things awry, waking up mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.

Finding himself alone save for a perky corporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of  considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to do the right thing  and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned  like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance, two lonely people marooned in space.

Naturally, at some point, she learns what actually happened, causing a rift between them. But, when the ship’s systems all start malfunctioning, they have to work together to try and survive. Fortuitously, they have a helping hand from one of the senior crew (Laurence Fishburne) who also wakes prematurely and is around long enough to open the flight deck, reveal the systems are all shutting down and pass on his authorisation bracelet before the pair find themselves on their own again. Now, it’s a race against the clock to stop the ship going into meltdown and killing everyone on board.

With some Robinson Crusoe, a splash of Gravity and a dash of Titanic, it’s an interesting premise, but, for all its musing on life and loneliness, ultimately the story has nowhere to go. The tone too is uneven. Much of the first half  plays comedic notes, but then everything goes serious and dramatic once Aurora finds Jim screwed her life  and the systems go haywire. Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but director Morten Tyldum has no feel for the spectacular, rendering both the couple’s tethered romantic venture into deep space and the climactic attempt to shut down the reactor all rather ho hum. Ultimately the film ends up rather like its two characters, passengers stranded on an empty vehicle on autopilot. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones   is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn  and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be  the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.

In the following enquiry, the offhand and often smirking National Transportation Safety Board investigators (represented by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) were less enthusiastic and more sceptical, feeling that he should have followed protocol and, by undertaking a forced water landing, had put everyone’s lives in danger. According to their simulations, the plane could have safely made it back to either LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro Airport.

It’s a matter of record that Sully’s actions were ultimately vindicated, rather undercutting  any sense of dramatic tension to Clint Eastwood’s film which ultimately turns into a  sort of NTSB hearing version of a courtroom drama complete with the equivalent of the last minute surprise witness as Sully asks them to take the human factor into account in their simulations.

And, indeed, focusing on the aftermath rather than the event,  it is the human factor that the film’s about, exploring the idea of a ‘hero’, Sully (played impeccably by a white-haired Tom Hanks) protesting that he was simply a man doing the job he was trained to do and that, anyhow, it was a crew effort.

For an Eastwood film, despite a brisk 96 minutes running time, it has a somewhat bitty structure, cutting between the post crash events and what happened during the flight (keeping shots of the actual forced landing –well worth seeing in IMAX – and plane evacuation until towards the end) with neither the pointless flashbacks to Sully’s early years as a pilot nor the phone conversations with his worried wife (Laura Linney) really adding much to proceedings.

Hanks is, as you would assume, excellent as a man asking himself whether he might have done things differently (he’s tormented by visions of the plane crashing into a New York skyscraper) and patiently enduring the bureaucratic red tape of the investigation. And although Aaron Eckhart provided solid support (as well as the jokes and the ripostes to the enquiry suits ) as  loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles, his is a far more backseat performance, while, despite a couple of attempts at character sketches (an elderly golf dad and his son) the passengers and the rest of the crew are rarely more than extras. As a celebration of a professionalism and a salute to “ just a man doing a job”,  trusting his instincts, but nevertheless having the humility to question the decisions he makes, along with a subtext that questions the reliance on computer technology over human experience, it’s a rather old-fashioned affair that cruises at engaging low altitude, but never really soars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Trolls (U)

Created in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, known as Gonks in the UK,  were a huge fad in both the 60s and at different times from the 70s to the 90s.  Now they’re back, making their feature film starring debut in  this animated Day-Glo musical adventure from the various creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda that’s aimed very firmly at the under-7s.

A felt scrapbook prologue introduces the Trolls as “the happiest creatures the world had ever known”, always ready to burst into a song or dance and hugging every hour. They  once lived in a tree in the middle of the town, but their neighbours, the ogre-like Bergens, led by King Gristle (John Cleese),  had no idea what happiness was. They were the most miserable creatures in the world. Seeing how happy the Trolls were, they thought that they could feel that happiness too – if they ate a Troll. And so began the annual ritual of Trollstice, during which the Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski) would pluck Trolls from the tree and serve them up. Until the day came for Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to have his first taste of Troll and it was found that the Trolls had all escaped, leaving the Prince in tears and Chef in exile.

Twenty years later, after being led to freedom by King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), the Trolls live safely hidden in the forest, enjoying a  life that is all rainbows, under the uber-enthusiasm of the brightly pink Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). To commemorate their escape from the cooking pot, she’s planning to hold the biggest, brightest and loudest party ever. Something that Branch (Justin Timberlake), who, coloured a drab grey, is, for reasons we discover later, the world’s only unhappy troll, warns will give their location away.

And, so it is that, in the midst of their celebrations, along comes Chef who  scoops up a bagful of Trolls, including blue Biggie (James Cordon), the giraffe-like Cooper, hippie-philosopher Creek (Russell Brand),  fashion twins Satin & Chenille (Icona Pop) and Sparky who, to the delight of the youngsters, farts glitter dust.

And so, Poppy resolves to rescue them, a quest in which she’s reluctantly joined by Branch and which will involve them joining forces  with scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who’s secretly in love with Prince Gristle, giving her a Cinderella-styled rainbow hairdo makeover, complete with discarded skating boot in place of a glass slipper. And, inevitably, any number of mostly disco-driven songs, the soundtrack featuring both new Timberlake numbers  and old hits like True Colors and I’m Coming Out.

Although there’s some sly references, there’s very little here for the grown-ups. However,  as well as a subtle anti-drugs caution about pill-popping to feel good,  the message about how true happiness lies within you has no age limits and, while the film’s relentless energy may be exhausting, it’s also infectious with such various  inspired and funny moments as the talking Cloud Guy. Anyone older than their shoe size may find it annoying, but it’s still hard not to leave without a  smile on your face.  (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240