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Review: Fatboy Slim, Birmingham Arena

Fatboy Slim Birmingham Arena image Gareth Griffiths

Fatboy Slim’s in-the-round arena show delivers an intriguing combination of the euphoria of a rave and the pomp and circumstance typically reserved for a stadium rock show. And with Fatboy Slim, real name Norman Cook, there’s always a bit of his trademark cheek thrown in for good measure.

The set up is incredible. Having spoken with Cook a few weeks prior, his description of the hydraulic revolving stage made some impressive claims but this is a spectacle to behold.

From that stage shoot laser, streamers, strobes, glitter, fireworks, flame throwers and smoke machine plumes. The cost of admission may be a touch more than your average club night but this was a night of the big guns and a spoilt audience.

Though Cook professes to offer escapism and an avoidance of political discourse within his shows, it’s interesting that he should pick ‘This Is America’ by Childish Gambino as one of his set pieces – one of the most politically charged and arguably best songs of 2018. Of course, he may have chosen it for its genius alone. He’s a big fan of putting his own spin on the material of others, his mashup of Major Lazer’s ‘Pon De Floor’ and Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’, for example, is inspired.

What does seem missing, however, are his hits. He shies away from playing any of his biggest songs in their entirety or recognisable forms; with the exclusion perhaps of ‘Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat.’ – which opened the show – and ‘Right Here, Right Now’ – which brought it to a close.

We hear just snippets of the likes of ‘Fucking In Heaven’ and ‘Praise You’, and ‘Weapon of Choice’ is recognised only in a brief clip of Christopher Walken’s incredible music video performance. This avoidance of playing most of Cook’s songs is perhaps understandable for an artist that is a) a DJ and b) a DJ with a career of over 25 years, though I won’t lie, I’d have liked to have heard them nonetheless.

The beat only truly abates at two moments in his whole performance – when he doffs the cap to two of the all time greats – Freddie Mercury and Aretha Franklin. The appearances of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Say A Little Prayer’ take many by surprise, not least myself, and these playbacks spark quite endearing school disco-esque singalongs – respectfully, Cook refrains from any Queen remix.

He work the stage so hard, so emphatically and so lovingly – it’s clear that at the very top of his agenda is showing his audience a good time.

The screens display many psychedelic visualisations, trippy CGI versions of Fatboy Slim himself, and – at one point – an array of iconic celebrities and historical figures. This varying video content was a fascinating element of the show but also gave the audience a more active experience, rather than a passive one. Rather than escapism, we are more aware of the here and now, but we are elevated.

This was a show that was simultaneously everything that I expected and nothing like I expected, With this approach to performing live, he combines intimacy with extravagance and Rave with Rock’N’Roll – and we never stop dancing. 

Words: Gareth Griffiths

Review: Nils Frahm, O2 Academy Birmingham

Nils Frahm O2 Academy Birmingham credit Ellie Koepke

Nils Frahm serves up a flawless performance and a stiff middle finger to the corporate agenda in a stunning Birmingham debut.

A frosty Wednesday evening and certainly not Nils’ usual haunt. Yet the anticipation in the air is electric. A dense crowd quickly gathers, packing out the room’s central expanse that lays in the shadow of an impressive stage setup.  

Carefully illuminated, the composer’s signature gear is purposely presented for all to see: a Roland Juno-60, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron M400, and a grand piano feature alongside other analogue and digital modular equipment.

As the lights finally dim, Frahm emerges on stage acknowledging the audience with a courteous bow and a casual demeanour topped off with a wry smile and flat cap.

Image: Sam Wood

Now sat, back turned, curled over the Mellotron, the first melodies trickle out over faint whispers and shuffling bodies. The creaking of the mechanism is very much a part of the composition giving way to a sombre intro that builds, incandescently, into the dance orientated “Sunson” – much to everyone’s delight. 

It’s clear, even from early on, that the artist knows his demographic. The performance meanders between self-reflective solo work and densely layered electronica. Sustenance for long-standing followers and new converts alike.   

Extended renditions of “My Friend the Forest” and “Because This Must Be” reflect the virtuosity of a dedicated performer, with moments of raw, stripped back intensity acting as a primer for more spills. 

Titular track “All Melody” reveals a far more animated state (and a joyous introduction of arpeggiated woodwind!). Jostling between synths, FX pedals, and sample pads, Frahm’s busy stage presence is intoxicating to watch. 

Despite the intentional distortions and digital manipulation of sound in tracks like “#2”, the composer Neo-Classical/IDM creations always remain impossibly organic; testament to years of refined programming and electroacoustic experimentation. 

In fact, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is actually being performed live at all.

Frahm had teased earlier in the evening – through one of his many whimsical interactions with the crowd – that he had a “little announcement to make about the O2 (Academy Group)”.

“I think O2 is a bit broke” he says, “it seems, maybe, that they just want to own anything that seems a bit cool”. Further criticism follows; talk of inflated charges, disingenuous corporatisation of music, unfair treatment of artists and their fans. This is not just a jab at the O2 but a fiery revolt against the actions of big business in the music industry:    

“… and they want 25% of merchandise… so here’s a fun fact, we’re going to sell it on the street from our van around the back!”

Image: Ellie Koepke

Nothing like an impassioned (and comically delivered) speech against the corporate agenda to win the respect of your audience – not that there was anymore left to win. In what could have been a disastrous fall out had only served to bolster the integrity of the show. 

Entering the final moments of the performance Frahm gives a meta breakdown of how the night will end citing that “the encore is some last century shit”. This tongue in cheek to and fro has been present for the duration.

The predetermined ‘encore’ is a frantic medley of key flourishes, ambient textures and euphoric build ups. “Says” eases in with ethereal grace, the emotion of every key, the impact of dizzying crescendos seemingly felt by every soul in the room. It really doesn’t get much better than this. 

Drumming out a percussive rhythm on the inner tendrils of the grand piano, the performance comes to an artfully abrupt end. Bowing as he started, hand on heart, the love for his Birmingham turn-out is all too apparent.

The booking is a bold move from Birmingham promoters Leftfoot and This Is Tmrw, but it’s paid off in spades. With a stage full of vintage instruments, each carrying a story, soul and personality, and a performer with such flair and infectious likability, the experience has been unforgettable. A rarity in today’s saturated climate.   

And for the record – yes, the back alley merch van claim was legit. 

Words: Kristian Birch-Hurst

Ranking Roger, 2-Tone pioneer and The Beat vocalist, dies

Ranking Roger photographed by Ian Davies in Birmingham in 2018. Credit: www.iandaviesphoto.com

2-Tone pioneer Ranking Roger, who sang with successful Birmingham ska bands The Beat and General Public, has died aged 56.

A statement by The Beat reported the artist, real name Roger Charlery, passed away ‘peacefully at home…surrounded by family’ on Tuesday 26 March.

The Birmingham-born vocalist and musician, known for his energetic and politicised performances, suffered a stroke in 2018, medical treatment for which reportedly revealed lung cancer and two brain tumours.

Thousands of tributes from fans, artists, industry figures followed a short post on The Beat’s official Facebook page which began ,“He fought & fought & fought, Roger was a fighter”.

Horace Panter, bassist with The Specials, wrote, “Saddened to hear that Ranking Roger has died. I worked with him from 1983 until 1991 in General Public, his solo album project, Radical Departure and 2 years in Specialbeat. He was a great performer and always gave at least 100%……..I’ll miss him”.

Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg tweeted a link to The Beat’s hit song ‘Stand Down Margaret’ following the news of the ska star’s death, also saying, “Very sorry to hear that Ranking Roger has passed away. Rest easy, Rude Boy”.

“The Beat music embodied love, joy, and unity.” The Selecter’s Pauline Black said in an interview earlier today, “He was the epitome of that. He was the baby of the 2-Tone family”.

Described as ‘one of the original black punks’ by Jez Collins of Birmingham Music Archive, Ranking Roger was invited to join fellow vocalist Dave Wakeling in The Beat after a spell in Birmingham band The Dum Dum Boys. 

Collins explains, “Roger started his musical career as the drummer in his first band as well developing a habit of jumping up on stage at punk gigs, The Damned at Barbarellas being one notable occasion, grabbing the mic and ‘toasting’ to the crowd.”

“It was doing this at an early The Beat gig that led to him to being asked to join the band. Roger became the focal point of The Beat bringing his brilliant voice and vibrant energy to the band and illuminating their stage presence. Intensely political, The Beat gained a global audience of their very particular Brummie take on Two Tone.”

Charlery’s Jamaican toasting style contributing to The Beat’s overall style, which embraced punk ethics and messaging, and the structure and vibrancy of ska and reggae.

The Beat were part of the 2-Tone music movement which originated in Coventry, UK in the late 1970s, releasing single “Tears Of A Clown / Ranking Full Stop” on the 2-Tone Records label managed by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, before self-releasing their debut album ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ in 1980. 

Renowned UK cartoonist and artist Hunt Emerson, who designed the album cover as well as ‘The Beat Girl’ character, paid tribute to his friend and colleague, saying, “I’m saddened and devastated to hear that Ranking Roger has passed away. He was one of the greatest performers I’ve ever seen, he was a delightful, friendly guy, and he was far too young to die yet!”

“This is so sad. I’ve known Roger since 1979, when he joined the Beat at 16 or 17. He was a real original; his energy was one of the driving forces of the whole 2-Tone Ska thing. He liked to think of himself as a Rude Boy, but he was too good-natured and gentle for that. He recently released two albums close together – Bounce, and Public Confidential – which are brilliant. The one complements the other. So much promise…”

“My sympathies go to Murphy – Ranking Junior – and to Pauline, and to all his friends and family. Rest easy Roger – I’ll miss you.”

The Beat went on to release two more albums Wha’ppen? and Special Beat Service before breaking up in 1983.

After The Beat, Charlery would form the Two Tone supergroup General Public with fellow The Beat member Dave Wakeling alongside The Specials’ Horace Panter, Dexys Midnight Runners’ Stoker and Mickey Billingham and The Clash’s Mick Jones.

Ranking Junior and Ranking Roger photographed in Birmingham, 2016. Image: Lyle Bignon

Jez Collins goes on to explain the impact of Roger’s work in the 21st century, saying, “Latterly, Roger had been recording and touring as The Beat featuring Ranking Roger and had just released the brilliant new album Public Confidential. As important and vibrant as his earlier music Roger was looking forward to touring it with his son, Murphy. “

“Although we will remember Roger for his contribution to Birmingham and indeed global music culture, he was also an incredible beautiful, genuine and warm human being.”

“Always happy to stop and talk to people, about music and politics, in particular, Roger will be greatly missed”.

Cherry Pickles Prepare To Harden Your Nipples

Cherry Pickles

Formed just a year ago, Birmingham’s Cherry Pickles feature Brazilian guitarist/ singer/ illustrator Priscila B and two-drum Kings Heath percussionist Mimi B.

Signed to Swedish label PNKSLM (also home to Brum heroes Black Mekon and Swampmeat Family), the 1960s garage band influenced duo release their debut album – Cherry Pickles Will Harden Your Nipples – on Friday 5 April 2019, and officially launch the record at the Hare and Hounds on Wednesday 3 April (with Bob Log III and guests).

Just back from SXSW in Texas, Pris and Mimi give BrumNotes a track-by-track guide to the album …

Elvis Exorcist

Opening track and a recent single (released back in January).

(Pris) This is not a ghost story, this is about not being able to shake the ‘Elvis impersonator syndrome’. I want to be original but you’re pimping me out like Presley! But I love him too much to perform an exorcism. When my lip curls and my pelvis starts to shake, you know what’s happening.

Fantasma

(Pris) This one IS a ghost story! You’re only allowed to use a vibraslap once in your whole musical output, we pressed the launch button on that very quickly.

(Mimi) we definitely wanted maracas in this one to play on the Latin sound and we just started hitting the drums with the maracas & loved the deep sound you get with them. It’s a favourite to play live and we usually start our shows with this theatrical one.

Jimmy The Werewolf

Flip-side to debut single Burnt Orange Peel, first released back in March 2018. Also the album’s longest cut, at three minutes …

(Pris)  I used to have a dream when I was a kid that about a lovesick alien following me everywhere. When I wanted to make my guitar sound like a warped record (because who doesn’t?) my friend Stef built me a pedal called the Contorted Cherry and it was just like finding the right soundtrack for that dream. So I made a song based on that… but with a werewolf instead of an alien.

(Mimi) We both feel like this song belongs at the end of an ‘80s teen flick, where the girl is at prom and doesn’t know if the boy she fancies will be there but then he turns up & they dance … but he also happens to be a werewolf.

Let’s Be Bad

(Pris) When someone at a party once suggested Mimi’s outfit looked like a costume she replied “every party is a costume party”. That line and the rest of the tequila-filled evening inspired the whole song.

(Mimi) I do love dressing up.

Mais Rapido

(Pris) You know when something is such nonsense that it makes complete sense? I had Tom Zé and Miss Alex White’s songs in my head while I quickly put this song together. It’s about contradiction, it’s about doing it faster to go slower, about closing your eyes to be able to see better, about explaining something to confuse yourself, you get it? It’s musical five finger fillet. Plus, time to bust out the theremin for that extra feeling of vertigo.

We Are The Cherry Pickles

(Pris) I realised we will probably need to introduce ourselves at AA or in court at some point in the near future so I wanted us to have a theme we could play in the room. In Portuguese and English for international travesty.

I Still Miss Lux

Ode to The Cramps’ legendary Lux Interior, who passed away in 2009.

(Pris) Don’t you? I’m over all the other dead musicians but I still pine to hear the howl of Lux Interior. We had years of The Cramps and for a lot of those years I took it for granted. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone I suppose. I still think he might rise from the grave, if anyone can do it Lux can. This song is also the debut of my saucepan playing which is pretty special, if I do say so myself.

It Will All End In Tears

Released online for Valentine’s Day.

(Pris) Everyone needs a friendly hand, a calming hug and a pop song to sing along to drunk on Friday night at a shit pub. Love it and then hate it after six plays.

(Mimi) This has sort of become our unofficial anthem. When we play this live, people sing along which is an insane feeling, even across the pond in Texas (though the crowd at SXSW did involve a bunch of our friends)!

A Bruxa (She’s A Witch)

(Pris) This one is not what you think it is.

Latin Discotheque

(Pris) Sometimes I can trace the birth of a song and sometimes they are stream of consciousness. Sometimes they are sweet stories about a guy who is tired of the disco scene and just wants a cigarette and a cup of tea and I have no idea where that comes from at all.

Lily is a Spy

(Pris) Just take this one literally, it’s about a spy called Lily who eats flies and has an admirer called Chad (or Jack). It’s definitely not nonsense.

*Cherry Pickles: Cherry Pickles Will Harden Your Nipples is released on PNKSLM on Friday 5 April 2019.

For more information, see:

www.pnkslm.com/cherry-pickles

Bandcamp: Cherry Pickles

Cherry Pickles will harden your nipples
Cherry Pickles’ debut album: Cherry Pickles Will Harden Your Nipples.

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

 

NEW RELEASES

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an oiver-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (15)

Hailing from Sale in Cheshire, not far from Timperley, as frontman with late 70s pop outfit The Freshies, Chris Sievey had a minor hit with I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk (it would have been bigger had BBC crews not gone on strike the week it was due on Top of the Pops) and cult success with I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies by the Teardrop Explodes, but by far his biggest success came when he donned a papier mache head and created the character of Frank Sidebottom, becoming Manchester’s court jester for over 25 years until his death in 2010. The character even inspired Frank, a film starring Michael Fassbender inspired by his alter ego.

He’s also now the subject of this affectionate and illuminating bittersweet documentary by Steve Sullivan that documents his life from childhood, where even at an early age he clearly sought both the limelight and complete control, through his teenage years and Beatles obsession  (he and his brother went to Apple looking for a record deal and briefly met Ringo) and his formative bands, such as the deliberately bad but compelling Oh Blimey Big Band, before hitting on the concept of the Frank Sidebottom (originally called John Smith and created for a fancy dress party), a  stalker-like Freshies fan,  who, despite his odd and frankly somewhat creepy nature (he had his own cardboard puppet, Little Frank), became a hit on children’s TV shows, improvising as he went, and secured his own Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.

With a  day job working as an animator on the likes of Bob The Builder, the success of his character overwhelmed the man behind the mask who became lost, turning to drink and cocaine to numb the alienation he felt from himself.  Decline was inevitable,  Frank ending up playing Manchester clubs leading  karaoke version of Love Will Tear Us Apart and, when he dies, he would have had a pauper’s funeral had not his manager raised £21,000 from fans.

Clearly an eccentric on uncertain mental stability, Sievey was also an innovator, at one point devising a vinyl single that, on the B-side, had digital code to enable you to play a video game on a computer, while, ex-wife Paula reveals that his chat up approach was to push her into the canal.

As well as access to Sievey’s nitebooks, videos and recordings, the documentary also features interviews with friends and family, such as his former keyboard player Jon Ronson (who scripted Frank), comedians Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas, his three children (tragically the youngest, Harry, was killed in a motorbike accident not long after filming his contributions), revealing a brilliant but tormented creative genius who could have built himself a career as a visual artist had he not been so obsessed with finding music business success. In many ways a parallel story to John Otway, who made a success out of being a failure, this doesn’t always dig as deeply as it might, but, for those who never knew about the band inside the head (and Sievey was fanatical about not being photographed without it), it’s a welcome insiught into one of the great British eccentrics of our time who, may not have become a pop star but does have a bronze statue of  Frank erected in Timperely in tribute. (Sun: MAC + director Q&A)

 

Five Feet Apart (12A) 

The latest addition to the fatally ill star-crossed lovers teenage romance subgenre, this stars  Haley Lu Richardson from the little seen Columbus and Cole Sprouse as two hospital patients with cystic fibrosis, which, as per the title  means they cannot come into close contact lest the one exacerbate the other’s illness. Stella (Richardson) is in hospital awaiting a lung transplant when. She meets the irreverent, cavalier cartoonist new arrival Will (Sprouse), who, enrolled in a clinical trial, carries a bacteria that would be dangerous to her and they’re told by the maternal head nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to stay six feet apart, the distance a germ can travel through the air. She suggests they make it five.

Initially mismatched, naturally love blooms and along with it all the inevitable obstacles, not to mention an obligatory fellow longtime patient gay best friend (Moises Arias) and survivor guilt about a dead sibling. But, naturally, very little by way of parental presence. Initially promising to offer insights into living with CF, it soon hurtles headlong into romantic melodrama clichés as we wait to see if they will risk death for a moment of life. Richardson reinforces the promise shown in previous films, but, paired with an actor of limited range and a script creaking under the weight of hackneyed dialogue. The Fault In Our Stars and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl showed just how high this sort of material can be elevated. This simply shows how far it can sink. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

ALSO RELEASED

 

Sauvage (18)

In poor health and homeless, 22-year-old sex worker Leo (Félix Maritaud) yearns for affection, seeking it fleetingly through the men he meets in his work. But then he falls for Ahd, a fellow hustler, only to have his feeling brutally rebuffed, leading him to  question if he’ll ever find the love he craves. The directorial debut of Camille Vidal-Naquet and featuring a raw, unvarnished performance from Félix Maritaud, it’s violent and explicit, but also compassionate and movingly introspective.  (Sun: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of  Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova, which, alongside all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up, clearly anticipates a sequel; hopefully, the box office will justify one. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ben Is Back (15)

While exploring the same parent and drug addict son territory as the overrated and mannered Beautiful Boy, but with Julia Roberts’ mother rather than Steve Carrell’s dad trying to keep their offspring on the straight and narrow, director Peter Hedges’ film is vastly superior in every way.  It’s Christmas and Holly Burns (Roberts) returns home from Nativity play rehearsal with her teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and her two young kids (Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser) from her second marriage to find her estranged, opiate-junkie son Ben (Hedges’ son Lucas) waiting outside the house, back from rehab.  While a hostile, disapproving Ivy sends a warning text to her stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), Holly warmly embraces him. Ben declares he’s clean and his sponsor has suggested it would be good to come home and mom wants to believe him, but the fact that her first act is to go round the house hiding any drugs and jewellery underlines how you can never really be sure (indeed, he himself says not to believe anything he says), as well as hinting at what Ben may have done to feed his addiction.

Tough-love Neal wants him to leave, but Holly insists he stays for Christmas, on condition he’s never out of her sight. Thigs seem to be going well, Ben bonds with his half-singling, Ivy warms slightly and he and his mom even get to go Christmas shopping at the mall to buy presents, where, in an unexpected display of anger from Holly, an encounter with Ben’s former doctor, now suffering dementia, points to where the problems began.

But Ben’s past, which includes the death of a girlfriend he got hooked, isn’t as forgiving or as understanding as his mother and the film suddenly takes off into thriller territory when the family dog is abducted and Ben and Holly go out into the night in search, a quest that opens Holly’s eyes to the town’s underworld and which leads him to one of his former associates.

Part concerned, caring suburban mom, part avenger with language to match her temper, Roberts is superb while, as someone at war with himself, Hedges, far less showy than Timothee Chalamet, again shows the intensity and soulfulness he brought to Manchester By The Sea, the scenes between them (especially when she take shim to the cemetery to ask where he wants to be buried) electric with emotion and tension as the film’s sense of unease inexorably ratchets up, Holly fearing that addiction might still yet claim her son’s life.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Showcase Walsall)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Border (15)

Adapted from a story by Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who co-wrote the screenplay, this is a Nordic noir with a social commentary subtext and a bizarre twist that sends the narrative off into dark supernatural folklore territory. Scarred by a lightning strike, sporting a scar on her tailbone and with troglodyte features, Tina (Eva Melander under heavy make-up), who has more affinity with wild animals than humans, lives with her good-for-nothing Rottweiler owning boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson), who’s fonder of his dogs (who don’t get on with Tina) than her, and makes regular visits to her dementia sufferer father. She also works at a Swedish portside border crossing, quite literally sniffing out those with something to hide. It seems she has the sixth sense ability to smell feelings like fear or guilt (not to mention knowing when deer are about to cross the road). It’s a gift that exposes a child pornography ring, a subplot in which she helps police track down the paedophile ring, that proves to have significant bearing on the main narrative. One day she sniffs out Vole (Eero Milonoff) who shares similar features, grunts and says he collects (and eats) live insects. On examination, it’s found he also has female rather than make genitals.

There’s a chemistry between them and Tina invites him to move into their guest cabin. It’s around this point, as they draw closer, that the film introduces its jaw-dropping twist in a truly weird sex scene, about which I can say nothing without spoiling what follows, but suffice to say neither Vole nor Tina are what they seem and that the revelation about Vole ties into the child porn strand, compounded by the fact that Tina’s neighbours have just given birth.

Subverting genres, Iran-born director Ali Abbasi takes his time in teasing out the mystery, building the tension and dropping clues, among which are a naked swim and Tina’s introduction to eating bugs, as she comes to learn more about who she truly is. As unexpectedly touching as it is unsettling, you’re unlikely to seen anything else quite like this year.  (Tue: Electric) 

 

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Cold Pursuit (15)

A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and  (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose.  Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when  a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss  with a  Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.

In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal  and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the  young boy with whom Viking shares custody  with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a  neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.

As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a  snowball fight before  the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.

There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde, mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring  Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this has proven an art house break-out success, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Actress.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed, the goth-like Saraya stands out like sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shell We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Green Book (12A)

This inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship  is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park;; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Mon-Thu: Everyman)

The Hole In The Ground (15)

Making his feature debut, Irish writer-director Lee Cronin draws on familiar horror tropes and themes of maternal guilt for this often tense and unsettling nightmare in which, recently separated from an abusive husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) seeks to build a new life for herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey)  in a backwood rural Ireland, renovating a house on the edge of the forest.

The opening scene of the pair looking at their distorted reflections in a  hall of mirrors lays the thematic ground while a scene of them playing their favourite make a face game proves crucial as things gather to a  head.

One night, Chris goes off into the woods and, searching for him, Sarah discovers a massive sinkhole. This is followed by a terrifying encounter with an aged dotty neighbour (Kati Outinen) who screams that Chris is not her boy, Sarah later discovering, from the woman’s husband (James Cosmo) that she had claimed the same about her own young son, killed in a supposed car accident. Initially dismissing it as the raving of a disturbed woman, small incidents begin to persuade Sarah that something isn’t quite right, the Chris is somehow different. And that the sinkhole is connected. Or, given she’s been put on medication, is it all in her mind? And, as her friend says, don’t kids always turn into little monsters!

Inevitably, once the suspicions give way to proof, in abandoning ambiguity the film loses much of the tension, resorting instead to generic shock moments and Sarah’s desperate struggle to save her child, the climax leaving much unanswered.  Cronin is well aware of the clichés and plays to them accordingly, playfully nodding to the likes of The Shining, The Blair Witch Project and Goodnight Mommy, the film building a  genuinely edgy atmosphere and featuring a creepy shot involving a spider. It’s B-movie horror funride rather than in the Get Out class, but it does what it does to enjoyable effect. (Until Sun: Mockingbird)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways lihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders  (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird,  gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

On The Basis of Sex (15)

While she’s far better known in America, where (the subject of the RGB documentary) she’s something of a cultural icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is unquestionably one of the greatest living legal legends of our time. Taking, in 1970 and as a courtroom novice, a tax case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that it discriminated against her client, Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), who had been refused tax relief for caring for his aged mother because he wasn’t a woman, she reversed 100 years of legal precedent and set in motion the movement to remove gender discrimination in hundreds of laws, changing forever the lives of generations of women.

Somewhat thematically echoing The Post, in which Meryl Streep had to prove herself a newspaper boss, directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, it opens in 1956 with the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) becoming one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, her husband, Marty (an all charm Armie Hammer) in the year above her.  While compressing time periods and omitting some steps along the way, it mostly faithfully proceeds to chart the next 15 years and the difficulties and barriers she had to overcome, starting with taking Marty’s classes as well as his own to help him study while recovering from testicular cancer, moving to New York and Columbia to complete her degree,  raising first one and then two kids, and her attempt to practice law constantly coming up against the profession’s deeply ingrained sexism.

The latter’s primarily embodied in the priggish Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), who, at a welcome dinner, asks the  nine women to justify why they had a place that could have gone to a man,  and the chauvinistic Harvard professor Ed Brown (Stephen Root) who wound up as opposing counsel in the 1970 case. Ultimately, she ended up  teaching law as a professor  at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As such there’s numerous scenes involving sitting in rooms poring over books, typing up papers or arguing the finer points of law, but this is far from the dry film that would suggest. Aside from following a  familiar underdog arc, the film also spends a considerable time inside Ginsburg’s home, showing her as  a wife and a mother, at times at loggerheads with daughter Jane (an excellent Cailee Spaney in her teenage years), a rebel, social activist and every bit as stubborn and determined as her mother, but coming at things from a different generation. It’s a pity then that, while they operate on an equal footing and he was her co-counsel in the Moritz case (a tax lawyer, he suggested it to her as a means of tackling sex discrimination), the marriage between Ruth and Marty never quite sparks as it should, that more provided by her sometimes combative friendship and professional relationship with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the colourful legal director of the ACLU.

Another criticism is that, just as Marty’s cancer is never again mentioned after he recovers, the film only fleetingly touches on the issue of anti-Semitism he and, more especially, Ruth would have faced. Nonetheless, with a brief but memorable cameo from Kathy Bates as activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and, while they look nothing alike other than being short, a focused and commanding performance, part steely determination, part self-uncertainty, by Birmingham-born Jones, this could well be the best sex you have this year.   (MAC)

The Prodigy (15)

The latest contribution to the bad seed horror genre about creepy kids, this lays out its  narrative from the start when the cops gun down a Hungarian serial killer pervert (Paul Fauteux) in Ohio, who dies clutching the severed hand of the woman who just escaped him, and at the same moment, over in Pennsylvania, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to Miles, the child for which she and husband John  (Peter Mooney) have been trying for years. The baby’s chest has blood marks that correspond exactly to the bullet hole son the killer’s corpse.

As Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) grows, he proves, as the title suggests, to be a wunderkind, with an IQ that’s off the scale that sees him enrolled in a special school for gifted children. However, his eyes of different colours, he also begins to show disturbing and sometimes violent behaviour, such as taking a  monkey wrench to a classmate who wouldn’t share. He also speaks a strange language in his sleep which Sarah tapes and give to his shrink, who, in turn, calls in a behaviour specialist (Colm Feore), who tells her Miles is speaking  a rare Hungarian dialect and that he believes him to be inhabited by a reincarnated soul that has returned to complete unfinished business. Naturally neither she nor her husband take this seriously, until that is…

You can pretty much see where all this is heading, but while it does so in predictable  and inevitably often illogical fashion, it also crafts some satisfying scares and dread anticipation (did I mention the family dog?) as the third act throws in a  twist that builds to a shockingly unexpected payoff. The performances from the adult cast are pretty run of the mill, but Scott, who starred as an equally possessed child in It, is terrific in his nuanced shifting, both facially and in his physical performance, between Miles’ innocent and evil aspects (one telling Halloween scene has him sporting half skeleton face, half normal), perfectly complementing the film’s largely less is more approach to building the suspense. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

Ray & Liz (15)

Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham makes his directorial debut with this grim and relentlessly depressing 16mm portrait of dysfunctional family life inspired by his own parents and upbringing, something he’d previously documented in his mid-1990s photos of his shiftless, spineless, alcoholic dad, Ray, obese, heavily tattooed chain-smoking, jigsaw puzzle obsessive mom, Liz, and younger brother, Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11, collected together for the book Ray’s a Laugh and featured in the same Sensation exhibition that included Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.

As you might imagine, there’s not a particularly upbeat vibe to the film, although there is rather more dark humour than you might expect, not least in how, left alone to care for  two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) while Ray (Justin Salinger), Liz (Ella Smith) and Richard (Jacob Tuton) go shoe-shopping, feeble- minded  Uncle Lol (Tony Way) is persuaded by Will (Sam Gittins), the family’s psychopathic tenant, to drink the hidden stash of booze, Ray and Liz returning home to find him senseless, drooling vomit and Jason playing with a kitchen knife.

Mostly though this is an unrelentingly grim working class portrait of appalling alcoholism, child neglect and poor hygiene, but one that observes rather than seeks to apportion blame and which often betrays a sneaky bittersweet affection for its horrendous subjects, even at their most grotesque.

Structurally it’s comprised of three shorts, one of which was released to attract crowdfunding, and with intense close-ups and sustained shots, the third section showing the now nine-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) and teenage Richard (Sam Plant) fending for themselves on bread and pickled cabbage in their cramped tower-block with their parents comatose in bed before social services finally intervene.

It also interlaces scenes of the now much older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose daily routine consists of waking up, staring out the window and drinking the homemade beer supplied by neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton), at one point visited by his now estranged wife (here played by Deirdre ‘White Dee’ Kelly). Strikingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Ladin with minute detail provided by production designer Beck Rainford, you’re given the feeling of watching the animal in the cages of a human zoo, horrified but transfixed. (Wed: Electric)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

What They Had (12A)

Drawing on the experiences of her own grandparents, actress Elizabeth Chonko turns writer-director for this finely crafted study of an already dysfunctional family being torn apart by the mother’s encroaching dementia. When Ruth (Blythe Danner), a former care nurse, walks off into the snowy Chicago winter night, her ex-military husband, Burt (Robert Forster) calls their middle-aged son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), who, in turn, calls his slightly younger sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank) who flies in from Los Angeles with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who’s just been thrown out of her college dorm for drinking and, like her uncle, is all attitude.

Ruth’s found safe and sound, but, for Nicky, who’s stressed out running the bar he owns and whose relationship is on the rocks owning to his fear of commitment, it’s the last straw (at one point, his mom obliviously comes on to him) and he’s drawn up plans to put her into a home, with his dad moving into nearby assisted living. Burt, a devout Catholic who firmly believes in the marriage vows of in sickness and in health, and resolute in denial despite all the evidence, will have none of it.

Set over Christmas, the attempt to get Ruth into a home may be the film’s engine, but it’s the family relationships that are the gears, exploring the often thorny dynamics between Burt and his children  and his impact on their self-esteem (he’s never foot inside Nicky’s bar), between the passive Bridget and aggressive Nicky whose banter hides guilt and  resentment (her begrudges being left to shoulder the burdens while Bridget holds power of attorney and never acts) and Bridget and Emma, the former  also feeling adrift from her loveless marriage, which she blames her father for bullying her into.  In the midst of all this, Ruth ebbs in and out of awareness and logic, at times recognising her children and ‘boyfriend’, at others persuaded she’s still a child and her own mother’s waiting for her at home.

Often piercingly moving, it shades the poignancy with laughter, not least in the way the characters speak their minds, subtly understated rather than showy or sentimental in a disease of the week manner and built upon truthful, believable characters and performances it may not come with bells and whistles, trailing awards, but its insight and compassion hit straight to the heart.(MAC)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Movie Round-Up: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 15-Thu Mar 21

NEW RELEASES

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shell We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Ben Is Back (15)

While exploring the same parent and drug addict son territory as the overrated and mannered Beautiful Boy, but with Julia Roberts’ mother rather than Steve Carrell’s dad trying to keep their offspring on the straight and narrow, director Peter Hedges’ film is vastly superior in every way.  It’s Christmas and Holly Burns (Roberts) returns home from Nativity play rehearsal with her teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and her two young kids (Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser) from her second marriage to find her estranged, opiate-junkie son Ben (Hedges’ son Lucas) waiting outside the house, back from rehab.  While a hostile, disapproving Ivy sends a warning text to her stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), Holly warmly embraces him. Ben declares he’s clean and his sponsor has suggested it would be good to come home and mom wants to believe him, but the fact that her first act is to go round the house hiding any drugs and jewellery underlines how you can never really be sure (indeed, he himself says not to believe anything he says), as well as hinting at what Ben may have done to feed his addiction.

Tough-love Neal wants him to leave, but Holly insists he stays for Christmas, on condition he’s never out of her sight. Thigs seem to be going well, Ben bonds with his half-singling, Ivy warms slightly and he and his mom even get to go Christmas shopping at the mall to buy presents, where, in an unexpected display of anger from Holly, an encounter with Ben’s former doctor, now suffering dementia, points to where the problems began.

But Ben’s past, which includes the death of a girlfriend he got hooked, isn’t as forgiving or as understanding as his mother and the film suddenly takes off into thriller territory when the family dog is abducted and Ben and Holly go out into the night in search, a quest that opens Holly’s eyes to the town’s underworld and which leads him to one of his former associates.

Part concerned, caring suburban mom, part avenger with language to match her temper, Roberts is superb while, as someone at war with himself, Hedges, far less showy than Timothee Chalamet, again shows the intensity and soulfulness he brought to Manchester By The Sea, the scenes between them (especially when she take shim to the cemetery to ask where he wants to be buried) electric with emotion and tension as the film’s sense of unease inexorably ratchets up, Holly fearing that addiction might still yet claim her son’s life.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Showcase Walsall)

The Prodigy (15)

The latest contribution to the bad seed horror genre about creepy kids, this lays out its  narrative from the start when the cops gun down a Hungarian serial killer pervert (Paul Fauteux) in Ohio, who dies clutching the severed hand of the woman who just escaped him, and at the same moment, over in Pennsylvania, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to Miles, the child for which she and husband John  (Peter Mooney) have been trying for years. The baby’s chest has blood marks that correspond exactly to the bullet hole son the killer’s corpse.

As Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) grows, he proves, as the title suggests, to be a wunderkind, with an IQ that’s off the scale that sees him enrolled in a special school for gifted children. However, his eyes of different colours, he also begins to show disturbing and sometimes violent behaviour, such as taking a  monkey wrench to a classmate who wouldn’t share. He also speaks a strange language in his sleep which Sarah tapes and give to his shrink, who, in turn, calls in a behaviour specialist (Colm Feore), who tells her Miles is speaking  a rare Hungarian dialect and that he believes him to be inhabited by a reincarnated soul that has returned to complete unfinished business. Naturally neither she nor her husband take this seriously, until that is…

You can pretty much see where all this is heading, but while it does so in predictable  and inevitably often illogical fashion, it also crafts some satisfying scares and dread anticipation (did I mention the family dog?) as the third act throws in a twist that builds to a shockingly unexpected payoff. The performances from the adult cast are pretty run of the mill, but Scott, who starred as an equally possessed child in It, is terrific in his nuanced shifting, both facially and in his physical performance, between Miles’ innocent and evil aspects (one telling Halloween scene has him sporting half skeleton face, half normal), perfectly complementing the film’s largely less is more approach to building the suspense.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Under the Silver Lake  (15)

Painfully overlong, the confusion registered on Andrew Garfield’s face is likely to be reflected on those of the audience  as they try to make sense of this convoluted stoner surreal noir conspiracy thriller. Clearly channelling David Lynch, writer-director David Robert Mitchell explores a paranoia vision of Los Angeles where, down at the local coffee shop, someone’s daubed Beware of the Dog Killer on the window. Garfield is Sam, a laid back slacker who tends to spend his time sitting on his apartment balcony ogling his topless neighbour. Then, one day, he spots Sarah (Riley Keough), who, stepping out of as Hitchcock movie (and there’s plenty of direct and indirect references to Alfred throughout), has moved in downstairs with her cute dog. They briefly hang out and, when she suddenly goes missing, he sets out to find her, embarking Alice-like on a  voyage into a hallucinatory wonderland that variously involves an art rock band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, a pirate in blue jeans, the apparent death of “billionaire daredevil” Jefferson Sevence, a conspiracy  nut fanzine creator (cue animated black and white sequences), a visit to the James Dean bust at Griffith Observatory, subliminal messages, hidden codes, underground tunnels, dead dogs, a religious cult and a  naked moth-masked assassin.

Often self-consciously weird and random, Mitchell clearly looks to explores a mood of post-millennium anxiety, skewering artifice, privileged wealth and much more in a search for meaning, the film suffused with intangible menace amid the mundane. It’s an ambitious undertaking and Garfield and the supporting cast are undeniably game in indulging the knowing pretentiousness, but by the time it gets to its unresolved and abrupt ending, like the lake of the title, it’s all just unfathomable. (Electric)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO RELEASED

H is For Harry (12A)

Documentary about a dedicated teacher, Sophie, and her relationship with Harry, a young boy at Reach Academy in Feltham who is the third generation in his family to be illiterate. Newly qualified, Sophie runs a specialist English group and tries to help Harry catch up so that he can rejoin his friends as the film spotlights how, in an increasingly unequal society,  material and aspirational poverty can impact  a child’s future (Wed: MAC)

 

Spank The Banker (12A)

A powerful documentary that turns the spotlight on the financial, forces and figures behind the 2008 banking crisis and what happened after the banks were bailed out by taxpayers. It follows the stories of six individuals who fought back against a corrupt financial system, exposing a vast corporate criminal conspiracy to defraud them through fraudulent lending, falsified documentation and financial manipulation.  Among the stories it tells are those of Nikki and Paul Turner who did sound and lighting for Live Aid only to have their company stolen by HBOS-Lloyds, which continues to mount a cover-up, widow Juliette Mottram and her five children who were evicted illegally from their family home by Lloyds after corrupt bank officials seized her husband’s company through fraud, Jim McGrory who lost his international hotel business to the Clydesdale Bank through a mis-sold loan and forged documents  and Noel Edmonds, who was pushed to the edge of suicide when his £60m business was stolen by HBOS-Lloyds, which was subsequently found to have withheld key documents from the courts. The screening is followed by a  Q&A  with the director, writer and Edmunds. (Sun: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of  Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova, which, alongside all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up, clearly anticipates a sequel; hopefully, the box office will justify one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Oscar winner Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Border (15)

Adapted from a story by Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who co-wrote the screenplay, this is a Nordic noir with a social commentary subtext and a bizarre twist that sends the narrative off into dark supernatural folklore territory. Scarred by a lightning strike, sporting a scar on her tailbone and with troglodyte features, Tina (Eva Melander under heavy make-up), who has more affinity with wild animals than humans, lives with her good-for-nothing Rottweiler owning boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson), who’s fonder of his dogs (who don’t get on with Tina) than her, and makes regular visits to her dementia sufferer father. She also works at a Swedish portside border crossing, quite literally sniffing out those with something to hide. It seems she has the sixth sense ability to smell feelings like fear or guilt (not to mention knowing when deer are about to cross the road). It’s a gift that exposes a child pornography ring, a subplot in which she helps police track down the paedophile ring, that proves to have significant bearing on the main narrative. One day she sniffs out Vole (Eero Milonoff) who shares similar features, grunts and says he collects (and eats) live insects. On examination, it’s found he also has female rather than make genitals.

There’s a chemistry between them and Tina invites him to move into their guest cabin. It’s around this point, as they draw closer, that the film introduces its jaw-dropping twist in a truly weird sex scene, about which I can say nothing without spoiling what follows, but suffice to say neither Vole nor Tina are what they seem and that the revelation about Vole ties into the child porn strand, compounded by the fact that Tina’s neighbours have just given birth.

Subverting genres, Iran-born director Ali Abbasi takes his time in teasing out the mystery, building the tension and dropping clues, among which are a naked swim and Tina’s introduction to eating bugs, as she comes to learn more about who she truly is. As unexpectedly touching as it is unsettling, you’re unlikely to seen anything else quite like this year.  (Sun/Tue: Electric)

Boy Erased (15)

A gender switch companion piece to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Joel Edgerton’s second film as director, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, also turns its focus on the controversial subject if conversion therapy whereby members of the gay community are subjected to ‘healing’ in the name of God.

Shot in a non-linear fashion that juxtaposes flashbacks with present day events, it follows the ordeals of Jared Eamons (Lukas Hedges) who, having been forcibly outed to his devout Christian parents by the fellow college student (Joe Alwyn) who raped him, Arkansas Baptist pastor and car dealer father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser mother Nancy (the presently ubiquitous Nicole Kidman), is carted off to the Love in Action conversion centre run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton), mom moving into a nearby motel during his 12-day stay.

Here Sykes tells his ‘patients’, that their sexual proclivities are the result of poor parenting rather than genetic and requires them to draw up “moral inventories” of themselves and their families, demanding that what happens in the centre stays within the centre. Alongside Jared, others there to be ‘cured’ include Jon (Xavier Dolan) who is fanatically dedicated to conversion and Troy (Theodore Pellerin), who confides that he’s just playing the part so he can get out, while, the therapy group leaders also include the abusive Brandon (Flea). Things come to a head when one of the attendees, Cameron (Britton Sear) is not only humiliated and intimidated by Sykes but also, at his behest, beaten with bibles by both the therapists and his own family.

The film pulls no punches in showing the harsh treatment meted out and the bigoted nature of those in charge, supposedly doing the Lord’s work, nor does it pull back from its criticism of Jared’s parents, his intransigent father in particular, yet, at the same time, it never suggests that they don’t love their son, but rather that such love is misguided. Equally, there are moments of tenderness amid the abusiveness at the centre, and it’s fairly obvious that Sykes has issues of his own.

Edgerton and Hedges provide the solid foundation on which the film is built, but the performances throughout are strong and truthful, Kidman especially moving as she ultimately breaks away from the patriarchal oppression of her community and heartachingly confesses and apologises to her son for her complicity in his sufferings. On the downside, the pace drags somewhat, the dialogue is often uneven and the emotional ride too marked by peaks and troughs to fully engage as it intends, but, even so, as a parent-child drama, this is vastly superior to the overrated Beautiful Boy. (Until Wed: MAC)

Capernaum (15)

In a world without Roma, Nadine Labaki’s film about Lebanese poverty and a  child surviving on the streets of Beirut would undoubtedly have scooped the Oscar for Best Foreign Language. Translated as ‘Chaos’, but also named for the city cursed by Christ, it follows resourceful, angelic-looking feisty street kid Zain (an astonishing performance by Syrian migrant Zain Al Rafeea) who, roughly 12 and one of several children, none of whom have documentation, runs away from his parents and their squalid flat after, in return for a few chickens,  they marry his younger sister (Cedra Izam) off to their landlord, a  shopkeeper for whom he does odd jobs.

Opening with Zain, handcuffed after being arrested for a stabbing, for which he’s serving five years,  and being taken into court where (Labaki playing his lawyer) he declares wants to sue his parents for being born, the narrative unfolds in flashbacks leading up to this moment. We see Zain hustling on the streets, grinding Tramadol pills into powder to mix with water so his imprisoned older brother can reconstitute it and sell to his fellow inmates, playing with the other kids and generally hustling his way through life.

After running away, he’s befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal immigrant Ethiopian cleaning woman, and agrees to babysit her toddler, Yonas (a remarkable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who she has to hide from the authorities, while she’s at work. But when, one day, Rahil doesn’t return (having been arrested), he finds himself having to look after the infant full time,  improvising a pushchair from a skateboard and a cooking pot to roam the streets looking for his mother and hawking goods, during which he meets up with another survivor, Maysoun (Farah Hasno) and hits on the idea of passing himself off as a Syrian refugee to get to Sweden, all of which involve him with another seedy stallholder, Aspro, who offers to take Yonas off his hands.

Variously evocative of City of God, The Florida Project and Slumdog Millionaire, the restless camera following Zain (almost always at his height) through the streets, markets and slums, the film’s vivid backdrop, taking in a variety of colourful characters (memorably an elderly fairground worker in a tatty Spiderman costume), but also pausing for lingering close-ups of his expressive eyes or tender moments such as a rooftop scene with him and his sister, always balancing the gritty realism with touches of humour and grace.

Angry, indignant and compassionate in equal measure, ending with a plea for justice and a heartwarming freeze frame, this is a modern masterpiece.  (MAC)

 

 

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls  and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Cold Pursuit (15)

A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and  (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose.  Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when  a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss  with a  Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.

In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal  and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the  young boy with whom Viking shares custody  with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a  neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.

As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a  snowball fight before  the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.

There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde, mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring  Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Destroyer (15)

Spending most of the film looking haggard, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes that seem like portals into the abyss, this is Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her, up there with her finest work alongside To Die For and Rabbit Hole. Directed by Karyn Kasuma, working from a  script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, she plays Erin Bell, a burned-out LAPD detective still carrying the emotional and psychological scars from an undercover operation fifteen years earlier that cost the life of her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) and left her with a broken nose, a drink problem and a now 15-year-old toxically estranged wild child daughter ((Jade Pettyjohn) who is in the custody of her father, Ethan (Scoot McNary) and in thrall to a twenty-something deadbeat (Beau Knapp). It opens with the discovery of a bullet-riddled body sporting a signature tattoo on his beck, a wobbling, hungover Bell turning up, much to the annoyance of her fellow cops, and declaring she knows who killed him. Receiving a purple stained $100 bill from a fateful bank robbery, it would seem that the volatile gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has resurfaced, setting Bell on a determined quest for both revenge and atonement, one that involves her going all Dirty Harry and tracking down some of the other former gang members, among them Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’s ex-girlfriend, who may well know his whereabouts.

Framed in a loop that works its way back to the start with an unexpected reveal, the narrative shifts between Bell’s present day search for Silas and flashbacks to her training with Chris and their time in the gang, earning Silas’s trust, culminating in a bank robbery that goes pear-shaped. Steeped in noir atmospherics and themes of warped justice, it’s a riveting piece of work that finds a deeply committed Kidman, sporting black to match her state of mind, gradually revealing more about her morally complex character, climaxing in a wrenching confessional diner scene with her daughter, and what led to that fateful moment that changed her life. A little slow-paced at times, perhaps, but it holds you right to the final redemptive frame and its very limited distribution is unforgivable. (Sat-Wed:MAC)

 

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end.  The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a  scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this has proven an art house break-out success, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Actress.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed, the goth-like Saraya stands out like sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Green Book (12A)

The surprising winner of Best Picture, this inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship  is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the Oscar winning Best Adapted Screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Mon/Tue: Electric;)

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window.  So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns. Here, however,  reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat  to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.

Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate,  Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19  to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks,  Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and  Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it.  Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad  there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow  sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).

To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power  and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.

Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre, recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch.  The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Vue Star City)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders  (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird,  gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Kindergarten Teacher (12A)

Driven by a terrific complex performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director Sara Colangelo’s remake of the Israeli art house hit stays close to the original while adding some extra emotional layers. Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a caring kindergarten teacher in Staten Island who, once a week she takes the ferry to Manhattan for a poetry class run by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), but her writing, about flowers and butterflies, while earnest, lacks spark and finds no enthusiasm from her tutor or, back home, her distracted husband (Michael Chernus) or their two teenage kids (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules), neither of whom, especially the social-media fixated daughter, have time for her.

Then, one day, at school, she catches one of her charges, Jimmy (a wonderfully blank Parker Sevak), a five-year-old from Indian heritage and a broken family, slipping into some kind of trace and reciting a poem he’s composed, one far beyond his age and awareness. Understandably excited, she writes it down, encourages his airheaded former coatcheck girl nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) to do likewise if he does it at home, and takes both it and another to her class, reading it out to hugely positive response from her instructor.

At which point, it would seem that this is shaping up as a story about exploitation, with Lisa piggybacking her way to validation and success (not to mention having sex with Simon) on Jimmy’s poems. By that’s just falsefooting.  While not entirely selfless, as its gives her a sense of purpose and self-worth in a life where she’s very much pushed to the side, the reality is that Lisa genuinely wants to nurture and preserve this rare talent, seeing him as poetry’s answer to Mozart, seeking to persuade his always too busy nightclub owner father (Ajay Naidu) to give him the attention he needs. He’d rather his son entered the business world than something artsy fartsy. As such, she spends an increasingly amount of time with Jimmy, gives him her number so he can call when he has a poem, has Becca removed so she can care for him, taking him to museums, poetry readings and, when the line’s clearly crossed into obsession and inappropriate behaviour, engineering abduction. Posing the ethical dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, the film builds tension while juggling moral ambiguity and slipping in observations on a society that’s become fixated on the instant and ephemeral rather than lasting value. With a lack of clearly explained motivations, the ending and the raises more questions, philosophically, morally and ethically, than provides answers. But in world with increasingly less time for those who “have a poem”, the film has a lingering resonance. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by  his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

Miss Bala (15)

Director Catherine Hardwicke blots her hitherto impressive copybook (Thirteen, Twilight, Red Riding Hood) with a messy remake of a Mexican thriller that was never much good the first time round. Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria Fuentes, a Mexican-American Los Angeles makeup artist who finds herself caught up in the cross-border drug trade when she travels to Tijuana where her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) is entering the titular beauty contest. It turns out to be the wrong place at the wrong time when she witnesses the club being invaded by drugs cartel members looking to assassinate pageant figurehead and corrupt law enforcement official Saucedo (Damián Alcázar).

In the aftermath, Suzu is missing and. Falling victim to a corrupt cop,  Gloria lands in the hands of, first, drugs kingpin Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and then a government agent (Matt Lauria) who, after she’s inadvertently involved in blowing up a D.E.A. safe house,  forces her to work for him in infiltrating the gang, which runs sex trafficking as a side line to the cocaine business, she looking to make Lino, who’s presented as brutal killer but with some lingering humanity, fall for her, so that he’ll come good on his offer to find  Suzu.

Rather than a comment on the muddy waters of moral ambiguity (the charismatic Lino delivers a speech justifying why, given social conditions, he has no choice but to do what he does) with Gloria trapped in an impossible situation, Hardwick turns it into a rote and dubious tale of kick ass female empowerment (cue scene of Gloria in a blood-red gown toting a semi-automatic) that not only brings nothing new to the table, but makes a pig’s ear of the caricatures and clichés too.

It’s indicative of how slapdash it is that Suzu’s young brother is totally forgotten for long stretches even though he’s been left alone at home with no news of his sister.

There’s a couple of frenetic shootouts, but even these feel confused, and the film ends with the second of two cameo scenes by Anthony Mackie as an undercover CIA agent looking to recruit her for a sequel. Neither of them should hold their breath waiting. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

On The Basis of Sex (15)

While she’s far better known in America, where (the subject of the RGB documentary) she’s something of a cultural icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is unquestionably one of the greatest living legal legends of our time. Taking, in 1970 and as a courtroom novice, a tax case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that it discriminated against her client, Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), who had been refused tax relief for caring for his aged mother because he wasn’t a woman, she reversed 100 years of legal precedent and set in motion the movement to remove gender discrimination in hundreds of laws, changing forever the lives of generations of women.

Somewhat thematically echoing The Post, in which Meryl Streep had to prove herself a newspaper boss, directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, it opens in 1956 with the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) becoming one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, her husband, Marty (an all charm Armie Hammer) in the year above her. While compressing time periods and omitting some steps along the way, it mostly faithfully proceeds to chart the next 15 years and the difficulties and barriers she had to overcome, starting with taking Marty’s classes as well as his own to help him study while recovering from testicular cancer, moving to New York and Columbia to complete her degree, raising first one and then two kids, and her attempt to practice law constantly coming up against the profession’s deeply ingrained sexism.

The latter’s primarily embodied in the priggish Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), who, at a welcome dinner, asks the  nine women to justify why they had a place that would have gone to a man,  and the chauvinistic Harvard professor Ed Brown (Stephen Root) who wound up as opposing counsel in the 1970 case. Ultimately, she ended up  teaching law as a professor  at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As such there’s numerous scenes involving sitting in rooms poring over books, typing up papers or arguing the finer points of law, but this is far from the dry film that would suggest. Aside from following a  familiar underdog arc, the film also spends a considerable time inside Ginsburg’s home, showing her as  a wife and a mother, at times at loggerheads with daughter Jane (an excellent Cailee Spaney in her teenage years), a rebel, social activist and every bit as stubborn and determined as her mother, but coming at things from a different generation. It’s a pity then that, while they operate on an equal footing and he was her co-counsel in the Moritz case (a tax lawyer,he suggested it to her as a means of tackling sex discrimination), the marriage between Ruth and Marty never quite sparks as it should, that more provided by her sometimes combative friendship and professional relationship with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the colourful legal director of the ACLU.

Another criticism is that, just as Marty’s cancer is never again mentioned after he recovers, the film only fleetingly touches on the issue of anti-Semitism he and, more especially, Ruth would have faced. Nonetheless, with a brief but memorable cameo from Kathy Bates as activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and, while they look nothing alike other than being short, a focused and commanding performance, part steely determination, part self-uncertainty, by Birmingham-born Jones, this could well be the best sex you have this year.   (Mockingbird)

Ray & Liz (15)

Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham makes his directorial debut with this grim and relentlessly depressing 16mm portrait of dysfunctional family life inspired by his own parents and upbringing, something he’d previously documented in his mid-1990s photos of his shiftless, spineless, alcoholic dad, Ray, obese, heavily tattooed chain-smoking, jigsaw puzzle obsessive mom, Liz, and younger brother, Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11, collected together for the book Ray’s a Laugh and featured in the same Sensation exhibition that included Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.

As you might imagine, there’s not a particularly upbeat vibe to the film, although there is rather more dark humour than you might expect, not least in how, left alone to care for  two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) while Ray (Justin Salinger), Liz (Ella Smith) and Richard (Jacob Tuton) go shoe-shopping, feeble- minded  Uncle Lol (Tony Way) is persuaded by Will (Sam Gittins), the family’s psychopathic tenant, to drink the hidden stash of booze, Ray and Liz returning home to find him senseless, drooling vomit and Jason playing with a kitchen knife.

Mostly though this is an unrelentingly grim working class portrait of appalling alcoholism, child neglect and poor hygiene, but one that observes rather than seeks to apportion blame and which often betrays a sneaky bittersweet affection for its horrendous subjects, even at their most grotesque.

Structurally it’s comprised of three shorts, one of which was released to attract crowdfunding, and with intense close-ups and sustained shots, the third section showing the now nine-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) and teenage Richard (Sam Plant) fending for themselves on bread and pickled cabbage in their cramped tower-block with their parents comatose in bed before social services finally intervene.

It also interlaces scenes of the now much older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose daily routine consists of waking up, staring out the window and drinking the homemade beer supplied by neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton), at one point visited by his now estranged wife (here played by Deirdre ‘White Dee’ Kelly). Strikingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Ladin with minute detail provided by production designer Beck Rainford, you’re given the feeling of watching the animal in the cages of a human zoo, horrified but transfixed. (Sun, Wed/Thu: Electric; Tue-Thu: Mockingbird)

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod),  the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief)  and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Walsall Showcase)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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

NEW RELEASES

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Border (15)

Adapted from a story by Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who co-wrote the screenplay, this is a Nordic noir with a social commentary subtext and a bizarre twist that sends the narrative off into dark supernatural folklore territory. Scarred by a lightning strike, sporting a scar on her tailbone and with troglodyte features, Tina (Eva Melander under heavy make-up), who has more affinity with wild animals than humans, lives with her good-for-nothing Rottweiler owning boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson), who’s fonder of his dogs (who don’t get on with Tina) than her, and makes regular visits to her dementia sufferer father. She also works at a Swedish portside border crossing, quite literally sniffing out those with something to hide. It seems she has the sixth sense ability to smell feelings like fear or guilt (not to mention knowing when deer are about to cross the road). It’s a gift that exposes a child pornography ring, a subplot in which she helps police track down the paedophile ring, that proves to have significant bearing on the main narrative. One day she sniffs out Vole (Eero Milonoff) who shares similar features, grunts and says he collects (and eats) live insects. On examination, it’s found he also has female rather than make genitals.

There’s a chemistry between them and Tina invites him to move into their guest cabin. It’s around this point, as they draw closer, that the film introduces its jaw-dropping twist in a truly weird sex scene, about which I can say nothing without spoiling what follows, but suffice to say neither Vole nor Tina are what they seem and that the revelation about Vole ties into the child porn strand, compounded by the fact that Tina’s neighbours have just given birth.

Subverting genres, Iran-born director Ali Abbasi takes his time in teasing out the mystery, building the tension and dropping clues, among which are a naked swim and Tina’s introduction to eating bugs, as she comes to learn more about who she truly is. As unexpectedly touching as it is unsettling, you’re unlikely to seen anything else quite like this year.  (Electric)

 

The Kindergarten Teacher (12A)

Driven by a terrific complex performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director Sara Colangelo’s remake of the Israeli art house hit stays close to the original while adding some extra emotional layers. Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a caring kindergarten teacher in Staten Island who, once a week she takes the ferry to Manhattan for a poetry class run by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), but her writing, about flowers and butterflies, while earnest, lacks spark and finds no enthusiasm from her tutor or, back home, her distracted husband (Michael Chernus) or their two teenage kids (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules), neither of whom, especially the social-media fixated daughter, have time for her.

Then, one day, at school, she catches one of her charges, Jimmy (a wonderfully blank Parker Sevak), a five-year-old from Indian heritage and a broken family, slipping into some kind of trace and reciting a poem he’s composed, one far beyond his age and awareness. Understandably excited, she writes it down, encourages his airheaded former coatcheck girl nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) to do likewise if he does it at home, and takes both it and another to her class, reading it out to hugely positive response from her instructor.

At which point, it would seem that this is shaping up as a story about exploitation, with Lisa piggybacking her way to validation and success (not to mention having sex with Simon) on Jimmy’s poems. By that’s just falsefooting. While not entirely selfless, as its gives her a sense of purpose and self-worth in a life where she’s very much pushed to the side, the reality is that Lisa genuinely wants to nurture and preserve this rare talent, seeing him as poetry’s answer to Mozart, seeking to persuade his always too busy nightclub owner father (Ajay Naidu) to give him the attention he needs. He’d rather his son entered the business world than something artsy fartsy. As such, she spends an increasingly amount of time with Jimmy, gives him her number so he can call when he has a poem, has Becca removed so she can care for him, taking him to museums, poetry readings and, when the line’s clearly crossed into obsession and inappropriate behaviour, engineering abduction. Posing the ethical dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, the film builds tension while juggling moral ambiguity and slipping in observations on a society that’s become fixated on the instant and ephemeral rather than lasting value. With a lack of clearly explained motivations, the ending and the raises more questions, philosophically, morally and ethically, than provides answers. But in world with increasingly less time for those who “have a poem”, the film has a lingering resonance. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Miss Bala (15)

Director Catherine Hardwicke blots her hitherto impressive copybook (Thirteen, Twilight, Red Riding Hood) with a messy remake of a Mexican thriller that was never much good the first time round. Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria Fuentes, a Mexican-American Los Angeles makeup artist who finds herself caught up in the cross-border drug trade when she travels to Tijuana where her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) is entering the titular beauty contest. It turns out to be the wrong place at the wrong time when she witnesses the club being invaded by drugs cartel members looking to assassinate pageant figurehead and corrupt law enforcement official Saucedo (Damián Alcázar).

In the aftermath, Suzu is missing and. Falling victim to a corrupt cop,  Gloria lands in the hands of, first, drugs kingpin Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and then a government agent (Matt Lauria) who, after she’s inadvertently involved in blowing up a D.E.A. safe house,  forces her to work for him in infiltrating the gang, which runs sex trafficking as a side line to the cocaine business, she looking to make Lino, who’s presented as brutal killer but with some lingering humanity, fall for her, so that he’ll come good on his offer to find  Suzu.

Rather than a comment on the muddy waters of moral ambiguity (the charismatic Lino delivers a speech justifying why, given social conditions, he has no choice but to do what he does) with Gloria trapped in an impossible situation, Hardwick turns it into a rote and dubious tale of kick ass female empowerment (cue scene of Gloria in a blood-red gown toting a semi-automatic) that not only brings nothing new to the table, but makes a pig’s ear of the caricatures and clichés too.

It’s indicative of how slapdash it is that Suzu’s young brother is totally forgotten for long stretches even though he’s been left alone at home with no news of his sister.

There’s a couple of frenetic shootouts, but even these feel confused, and the film ends with the second of two cameo scenes by Anthony Mackie as an undercover CIA agent looking to recruit her for a sequel. Neither of them should hold their breath waiting. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Ray & Liz (15)

Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham makes his directorial debut with this grim and relentlessly depressing 16mm portrait of dysfunctional family life inspired by his own parents and upbringing, something he’d previously documented in his mid-1990s photos of his shiftless, spineless, alcoholic dad, Ray, obese, heavily tattooed chain-smoking, jigsaw puzzle obsessive mom, Liz, and younger brother, Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11, collected together for the book Ray’s a Laugh and featured in the same Sensation exhibition that included Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.

As you might imagine, there’s not a particularly upbeat vibe to the film, although there is rather more dark humour than you might expect, not least in how, left alone to care for  two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) while Ray (Justin Salinger), Liz (Ella Smith) and Richard (Jacob Tuton) go shoe-shopping, feeble- minded  Uncle Lol (Tony Way) is persuaded by Will (Sam Gittins), the family’s psychopathic tenant, to drink the hidden stash of booze, Ray and Liz returning home to find him senseless, drooling vomit and Jason playing with a kitchen knife.

Mostly though this is an unrelentingly grim working class portrait of appalling alcoholism, child neglect and poor hygiene, but one that observes rather than seeks to apportion blame and which often betrays a sneaky bittersweet affection for its horrendous subjects, even at their most grotesque.

Structurally it’s comprised of three shorts, one of which was released to attract crowdfunding, and with intense close-ups and sustained shots, the third section showing the now nine-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) and teenage Richard (Sam Plant) fending for themselves on bread and pickled cabbage in their cramped tower-block with their parents comatose in bed before social services finally intervene.

It also interlaces scenes of the now much older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose daily routine consists of waking up, staring out the window and drinking the homemade beer supplied by neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton), at one point visited by his now estranged wife (here played by Deirdre ‘White Dee’ Kelly). Strikingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Ladin with minute detail provided by production designer Beck Rainford, you’re given the feeling of watching the animal in the cages of a human zoo, horrified but transfixed. (Electric)

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The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than  an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova, which, alongside all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up, clearly anticipates a sequel; hopefully, the box office will justify one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

All Is True (12A)

Having taken a comedic approach to Will Shakespeare’s pre-fame days  in the TV sitcom Upstart Crow, Ben Elton  now offers a dramatic look at his little-known last three years when, having co-penned Henry VIII, originally known as All is True, he quit writing in 1613 after The Globe Theatre burned down during an early performance and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and his family. Here directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we find him experiencing delayed mourning his young son, Hamnet, who died from plague 17 years earlier and who had been buried by the time he got home from London. And it’s around the circumstances surrounding boy’s death and the poem’s he written that his father cherished, that the plays event unfold, taking in the uneasy dynamic in the Shakespeare household: his wife, Anne (Judy Dench), resentful at being left alone for so many years, consigning him to the guest bedroom, embittered unmarried daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) who’s consumed by survivor guilt and accuses her father of thinking the wrong twin died, and her elder, literate sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson), trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan clergyman John Hall (Hadley Fraser). At one point the latter’s accused of having an adulterous affair, the trial subsequently amusingly defused by her dad’s striking description of a scene and an actor in Titus Andronicus to her accuser. Will, meanwhile, just wants to tend to the garden he’s trying to cultivate in his son’s memory. “I can’t finish your story”, he tells a young lad at the start of the play, though, of course, that turns out to be exactly what the film does.

A perfectly respectable heritage drama, it’s a touch lifeless in the early going and only really begins to spark when hidden family secrets come to the surface, forcing Shakespeare to re-examine what he’s always assumed to be the facts about Hamnet as well as his relationship with the women in the family. There’s also a sense of Elton parading historical facts and speculations about Stratford’s most famous son, such as why his will bequeathed Anne his second best bed and, in a contrived visit by the Earl of Southampton (a scene stealing Ian McKellen in blonde heavy metal wig), his patron and long assumed to be the mysterious amorous subject of many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His arrival has him dismissing the creeping flattery of the oily Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) while his and Will’s intimate fireside chat, in which the former accuses the latter of leading a life far too ordinary for someone of his genius and concludes with them both reciting Sonnet 29, is unquestionably the film’s strongest sequence, but it also throws into relief the dullness of much that surrounds it.

The performances are, as you would expect, high quality, Dench registering profound emotions in just a facial expression, Branagh, with his trademark conversational delivery, portraying a man ruefully aware of his gifts as a playwright but also his failings as a husband and a father. However, the psychological depth is all on the surface and too often spelled out by Elton’s expository dialogue (Anne reminds him that when Hamnet died, he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor), a screenplay the Bard would surely have given a serious overhaul. (MAC)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Oscar winner Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Fri-Mon/Thu: Everyman)

Can You Ever Forgive Me (15)

Back in 1991, 51-year-old Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was a former celebrated journalist turned down on her luck New York biographer, unable to get her book about 30s stage and screen star Fanny Brice (as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) off the ground and with an agent (Jane Curtin) who never returned her phone calls. She’s confronted with her faded star when, trying to sell some books to pay the rent and the vet bill for her sick cat, the store owner humiliatingly points out the huge mark-down on her latest work.

However, while researching Brice at the library she comes across some letters concealed inside one of the books and, discovering that there’s money to be made from signed letters, typed or handwritten, by dead celebrities, she hits upon the idea of forging them and passing them off as artefacts found among her cousin’s possessions. Some 400 to be exact, purportedly from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, perfectly capturing the tone and style of her subjects, enlisting gadfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and fellow gay alcoholic as her partner-in-crime, their gullible book dealer dupes including a store owner and would be writer (Dolly Wells) who, for a moment, offers the potential for companionship (a  late brief appearance by Israel’s former lover adds resonance) and opportunist blackmailer  (Ben Falcone) upon whom they turn the tables. Meanwhile, the FBI are showing an interest.

Directed by Marielle Heller and scripted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s best-selling memoir, it’s slow to unfold and suffused in a bitter-sweet melancholic ambience as it touches on themes of loneliness, self-loathing, failure and isolation as well as the contemporary desire for celebrity contact by association, while also being frequently wickedly funny.

Playing dowdy, combative, self-destructive and often unlikeable, McCarthy delivers an outstanding and deservedly Oscar nominated performance that eclipses her past comedic work and banishes memory of the atrocity that was  The Happytime Murders as she struggles to keep her world together and is superbly matched and at time outshone – by the equally dominated Grant, clearly channelling large elements of his Withnail character into Hock. It’s slow in places, but there’s more than enough emotional rewards to carry it through such patches to the end credit titles that add even more to Israel’s story.(MAC; Tue-Thu: Mockingbird)

Cold Pursuit (15)

A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and  (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose.  Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when  a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss  with a  Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.

In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal  and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the  young boy with whom Viking shares custody  with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a  neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.

As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a snowball fight before  the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.

There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde,  mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring  Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Destroyer (15)

Spending most of the film looking haggard, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes that seem like portals into the abyss, this is Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her, up there with her finest work alongside To Die For and Rabbit Hole. Directed by Karyn Kasuma, working from a  script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, she plays Erin Bell, a burned-out LAPD detective still carrying the emotional and psychological scars from an undercover operation fifteen years earlier that cost the life of her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) and left her with a broken nose, a drink problem and a now 15-year-old toxically estranged wild child daughter ((Jade Pettyjohn) who is in the custody of her father, Ethan (Scoot McNary) and in thrall to a twenty-something deadbeat (Beau Knapp). It opens with the discovery of a bullet-riddled body sporting a signature tattoo on his beck, a wobbling, hungover Bell turning up, much to the annoyance of her fellow cops, and declaring she knows who killed him. Receiving a purple stained $100 bill from a fateful bank robbery, it would seem that the volatile gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has resurfaced, setting Bell on a determined quest for both revenge and atonement, one that involves her going all Dirty Harry and tracking down some of the other former gang members, among them Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’s ex-girlfriend, who may well know his whereabouts.

Framed in a loop that works its way back to the start with an unexpected reveal, the narrative shifts between Bell’s present day search for Silas and flashbacks to her training with Chris and their time in the gang, earning Silas’s trust, culminating in a bank robbery that goes pear-shaped. Steeped in noir atmospherics and themes of warped justice, it’s a riveting piece of work that finds a deeply committed Kidman, sporting black to match her state of mind, gradually revealing more about her morally complex character, climaxing in a wrenching confessional diner scene with her daughter, and what led to that fateful moment that changed her life. A little slow-paced at times, perhaps, but it holds you right to the final redemptive frame and its very limited distribution is unforgivable. (Sat-Wed:MAC)

 

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a  room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end. The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an  inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one.(Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this has proven an art house break-out success, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Actress.  (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City; Wed/Thu:Electric)

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, HutchMorgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed,  the goth-like Saraya stands out like  sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Free Solo (12A)

Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Oscar winning documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Tue: Everyman; Wed: MAC)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

The surprising winner of Best Picture, this inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship  is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the Oscar winning Best Adapted Screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;   Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university studentTree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommateLori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window. So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns. Here, however,  reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat  to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.

Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate,  Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19  to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks,  Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and  Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it.  Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad  there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow  sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).

To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power  and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.

Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre,  recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch.  The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Hole In The Ground (15)

Making his feature debut, Irish writer-director Lee Cronin draws on familiar horror tropes and themes of maternal guilt for this often tense and unsettling nightmare in which, recently separated from an abusive husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) seeks to build a new life for herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey)  in a backwood rural Ireland, renovating a house on the edge of the forest.

The opening scene of the pair looking at their distorted reflections in a  hall of mirrors lays the thematic ground while a scene of them playing their favourite make a face game proves crucial as things gather to a  head.

One night, Chris goes off into the woods and, searching for him, Sarah discovers a massive sinkhole. This is followed by a terrifying encounter with an aged dotty neighbour (Kati Outinen) who screams that Chris is not her boy, Sarah later discovering, from the woman’s husband (James Cosmo) that she had claimed the same about her own young son, killed in a supposed car accident. Initially dismissing it as the raving of a disturbed woman, small incidents begin to persuade Sarah that something isn’t quite right, the Chris is somehow different. And that the sinkhole is connected. Or, given she’s been put on medication, is it all in her mind? And, as her friend says, don’t kids always turn into little monsters!

Inevitably, once the suspicions give way to proof, in abandoning ambiguity the film loses much of the tension, resorting instead to generic shock moments and Sarah’s desperate struggle to save her child, the climax leaving much unanswered.  Cronin is well aware of the clichés and plays to them accordingly, playfully nodding to the likes of The Shining, The Blair Witch Project and Goodnight Mommy, the film building a  genuinely edgy atmosphere and featuring a creepy shot involving a spider. It’s B-movie horror funride rather than in the Get Out class, but it does what it does to enjoyable effect.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett),  bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a  jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents. Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird, gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a  drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by  his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

On The Basis of Sex (15)

While she’s far better known in America, where (the subject of the Oscar nominated RGB documentary) she’s something of a cultural icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is unquestionably one of the greatest living legal legends of our time. Taking, in 1970 and as a courtroom novice, a tax case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that it discriminated against her client, Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), who had been refused tax relief for caring for his aged mother because he wasn’t a woman, she reversed 100 years of legal precedent and set in motion the movement to remove gender discrimination in hundreds of laws, changing forever the lives of generations of women.

Somewhat thematically echoing The Post, in which Meryl Streep had to prove herself a newspaper boss, directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, it opens in 1956 with the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) becoming one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, her husband, Marty (an all charm Armie Hammer) in the year above her.  While compressing time periods and omitting some steps along the way, it mostly faithfully proceeds to chart the next 15 years and the difficulties and barriers she had to overcome, starting with taking Marty’s classes as well as his own to help him study while recovering from testicular cancer, moving to New York and Columbia to complete her degree,  raising first one and then two kids, and her attempt to practice law constantly coming up against the profession’s deeply ingrained sexism.

The latter’s primarily embodied in the priggish Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), who at a welcome dinner asks the  nine women to justify why they had a place that would have gone to a man,  and the chauvinistic Harvard professor Ed Brown (Stephen Root) who wound up as opposing counsel in the 1970 case. Ultimately, she ended up  teaching law as a professor  at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As such there’s numerous scenes involving sitting in rooms poring over books, typing up papers or arguing the finer points of law, but this is far from the dry film that would suggest. Aside from following a  familiar underdog arc, the film also spends a considerable time inside Ginsburg’s home, showing her as  a wife and a mother, at times at loggerheads with daughter Jane (an excellent Cailee Spaney in her teenage years), a rebel, social activist and every bit as stubborn and determined as her mother, but coming at things from a different generation. It’s a pity then that, while they operate on an equal footing and he was her co-counsel in the Moritz case (a tax lawyer,he suggested it to her as a means of tackling sex discrimination), the marriage between Ruth and Marty never quite sparks as it should, that more provided by her sometimes combative friendship and professional relationship with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the colourful legal director of the ACLU.

Another criticism is that, just as Marty’s cancer is never again mentioned after he recovers, the film only fleetingly touches on the issue of anti-Semitism he and, more especially, Ruth would have faced. Nonetheless, with a brief but memorable cameo from Kathy Bates as activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and, while they look nothing alike other than being short, a focused and commanding performance, part steely determination, part self-uncertainty, by Birmingham-born Jones, this could well be the best sex you have this year.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham).

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod),  the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief)  and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Walsall Showcase)

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Movie Round-Up: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Mar 1-Thu Mar 7

 

NEW RELEASES

Capernaum (15)

In a world without Roma, Nadine Labaki’s film about Lebanese poverty and a  child surviving on the streets of Beirut would undoubtedly have scooped the Oscar for Best Foreign Language. Translated as ‘Chaos’, but also named for the city cursed by Christ, it follows resourceful, angelic-looking feisty street kid Zain (an astonishing performance by Syrian migrant Zain Al Rafeea) who, roughly 12 and one of several children, none of whom have documentation, runs away from his parents and their squalid flat after, in return for a few chickens,  they marry his younger sister (Cedra Izam) off to their landlord, a  shopkeeper for whom he does odd jobs.

Opening with Zain, handcuffed after being arrested for a stabbing, for which he’s serving five years,  and being taken into court where (Labaki playing his lawyer) he declares wants to sue his parents for being born, the narrative unfolds in flashbacks leading up to this moment. We see Zain hustling on the streets, grinding Tramadol pills into powder to mix with water so his imprisoned older brother can reconstitute it and sell to his fellow inmates, playing with the other kids and generally hustling his way through life.

After running away, he’s befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal immigrant Ethiopian cleaning woman, and agrees to babysit her toddler, Yonas (a remarkable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who she has to hide from the authorities, while she’s at work. But when, one day, Rahil doesn’t return (having been arrested), he finds himself having to look after the infant full time,  improvising a pushchair from a skateboard and a cooking pot to roam the streets looking for his mother and hawking goods, during which he meets up with another survivor, Maysoun (Farah Hasno) and hits on the idea of passing himself off as a Syrian refugee to get to Sweden, all of which involve him with another seedy stallholder, Aspro, who offers to take Yonas off his hands.

Variously evocative of City of God, The Florida Project and Slumdog Millionaire, the restless camera following Zain (almost always at his height) through the streets, markets and slums, the film’s vivid backdrop, taking in a variety of colourful characters (memorably an elderly fairground worker in a tatty Spiderman costume), but also pausing for lingering close-ups of his expressive eyes or tender moments such as a rooftop scene with him and his sister, always balancing the gritty realism with touches of humour and grace.

Angry, indignant and compassionate in equal measure, ending with a plea for justice and a heartwarming freeze frame, this is a modern masterpiece. (Electric)

The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  Captain Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to   Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than  an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Hole In The Ground (15)

Making his feature debut, Irish writer-director Lee Cronin draws on familiar horror tropes and themes of maternal guilt for this often tense and unsettling nightmare in which, recently separated from an abusive husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) seeks to build a new life for herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey)  in a backwood rural Ireland, renovating a house on the edge of the forest.

The opening scene of the pair looking at their distorted reflections in a  hall of mirrors lays the thematic ground while a scene of them playing their favourite make a face game proves crucial as things gather to a  head.

One night, Chris goes off into the woods and, searching for him, Sarah discovers a massive sinkhole. This is followed by a terrifying encounter with an aged dotty neighbour (Kati Outinen) who screams that Chris is not her boy, Sarah later discovering, from the woman’s husband (James Cosmo) that she had claimed the same about her own young son, killed in a supposed car accident. Initially dismissing it as the raving of a disturbed woman, small incidents begin to persuade Sarah that something isn’t quite right, the Chris is somehow different. And that the sinkhole is connected. Or, given she’s been put on medication, is it all in her mind? And, as her friend says, don’t kids always turn into little monsters!

Inevitably, once the suspicions give way to proof, in abandoning ambiguity the film loses much of the tension, resorting instead to generic shock moments and Sarah’s desperate struggle to save her child, the climax leaving much unanswered.  Cronin is well aware of the clichés and plays to them accordingly, playfully nodding to the likes of The Shining, The Blair Witch Project and Goodnight Mommy, the film building a  genuinely edgy atmosphere and featuring a creepy shot involving a spider. It’s B-movie horror funride rather than in the Get Out class, but it does what it does to enjoyable effect.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Serenity (12A)

Playing on a single screen (quite possibly as a gesture to Birmingham writer-director Steven Knight), this preposterous thriller hinges on the audacious twist revealed in the final moments that underpins the film’s question of reality and, supposedly, provides the emotional heft. Getting there, however, is a laborious slog.

Reversing the return to form that began with Mud, Matthew McConaughey is all moody sweat and stubble as Iraq war veteran Baker Dill, who, along with his assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou)  operates a struggling fishing boat hire in some secluded coastal town called Plymouth where everyone knows everything about everybody. Here, Baker divides his time between drinking at the only bar, screwing the local well-to-do (Diane Lane), who often bankrolls him, and obsessing, Moby Dick style, about catching some giant tuna dubbed Justice. Initially, you’re led to think this might be because the fish caused the death of his son, but that’s soon blown out of the water when we see the now pre-teen Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) playing on his computer games.

He lives with his mom, Karen (a blank Anne Hathaway), his high-school sweetheart ex, who’s now married to wealthy bully boy and mobster Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). He’s an abusive brute which is why Karen, in femme fatale mode, turns up at Baker’s boat, saying she’s booked a holiday for Frank and offering to give him $10million for her husband to die in an ‘accident’ while out fishing.

Baker refuses, until Frank turns up and it becomes clear his brutality also extends to Patrick, with whom Baker seems to share some kind of psychic link, and, despite Duke’s attempt to prevent him, agrees to Karen’s plan. At which point, the film pulls open the curtain and reveals what’s really been going on, although there’s more than enough clues along the way, especially some mysterious nerdy pencil pusher (Jeremy Strong) who’s constantly trying to get to meet with Baker to present him the contents of his briefcase and talk about ‘the rules’.

A playful spin on noir conventions and existential thrillers in which the clichés prove pointedly self-aware, it has the look and the atmosphere, but it’s also so clunkily mishandled that, when the gimmicky twist is finally revealed, you’re more likely to gasp in incredulity than surprise. Serenity is a piece that passeth all understanding. (Everyman)

 

What They Had (12A)

Drawing on the experiences of her own grandparents, actress Elizabeth Chonko turns writer-director for this finely crafted study of an already dysfunctional family being torn apart by the mother’s encroaching dementia. When Ruth (Blythe Danner), a former care nurse, walks off into the snowy Chicago winter night, her ex-military husband, Burt (Robert Forster) calls their middle-aged son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), who, in turn, calls his slightly younger sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank) who flies in from Los Angeles with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who’s just been thrown out of her college dorm for drinking and, like her uncle, is all attitude.

Ruth’s found safe and sound, but, for Nicky, who’s stressed out running the bar he owns and whose relationship is on the rocks owning to his fear of commitment, it’s the last straw (at one point, his mom obliviously comes on to him) and he’s drawn up plans to put her into a home, with his dad moving into nearby assisted living. Burt, a devout Catholic who firmly believes in the marriage vows of in sickness and in health, and resolute in denial despite all the evidence, will have none of it.

Set over Christmas, the attempt to get Ruth into a home may be the film’s engine, but it’s the family relationships that are the gears, exploring the often thorny dynamics between Burt and his children  and his impact on their self-esteem (he’s never foot inside Nicky’s bar), between the passive Bridget and aggressive Nicky whose banter hides guilt and  resentment (her begrudges being left to shoulder the burdens while Bridget holds power of attorney and never acts) and Bridget and Emma, the former  also feeling adrift from her loveless marriage, which she blames her father for bullying her into.  In the midst of all this, Ruth ebbs in and out of awareness and logic, at times recognising her children and ‘boyfriend’, at others persuaded she’s still a child and her own mother’s waiting for her at home.

Often piercingly moving, it shades the poignancy with laughter, not least in the way the characters speak their minds, subtly understated rather than showy or sentimental in a disease of the week manner and built upon truthful, believable characters and performances it may not come with bells and whistles, trailing awards, but its insight and compassion hit straight to the heart. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of  Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova, which, alongside all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up, clearly anticipates a sequel; hopefully, the box office will justify one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

BlacKkKlansman (15)

Spike Lee’s biggest hit in 12 years and his first Oscar (for Adapted Screenplay), this is based on the unlikely true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs detective, the first African-American police officer in the department,  who, in the late 1970s, acting undercover, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, albeit, being Black, only over the phone, with a fellow white officer, here Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the fictionalised conflicted Jewish version of his never identified partner, as his in-person stand-in. Based on Stallworth’s memoirs, it’s unclear just how much of what’s on screen actually happened and how much is Lee playing to the crowd, but what is true is that, an enthusiastic rookie, his first undercover assignment was to visit a nightclub where gor Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael was speaking, that he responded to a  Ku Klux Klan recruiting ad in a  local newspaper posing as a white racist, became part of the local chapter  and not only had phone conversations with Klan head David Duke (Topher Grace) but also got him to personally process his membership.

The surrounding characters, among them Black Student Union leader activist and Angela Davis-like romantic interest Patrice (Laura Harrier) and Zimmerman’s fellow narcotics agent Jimmy Creek (Steve Buscemi’s brother Michael), are pretty much all fictional as is, one would suspect, the hilarious set-up of Stalworth being put in charge of Duke’s security when he arrives in Colorado Springs for a Klan meeting and to initiate ‘Ron’ into the Organisation.

Opening with Gone With The Wind footage as a  backdrop to Alex Baldwin’s white power extremist rehearsing a hate speech and featuring clips from Birth of A Nation,   it stars  John David Washington, son of Denzel, who, sporting  70s Afro, plays Stallworth to comic timing perfection, his  phone interactions with assorted Klan members priceless moments, as is a selfie opportunity with Duke, while never undermining the drama. Indeed, the whole film consistently hits the mark when it comes to laughs. Unfortunately, never understated in putting over his message, Lee makes frequent overly self-conscious references to 70s Blaxploitation films like Superfly and Shaft and, given the film’s nature as abroad satirical comedy,  also oversimplifies things,  the Klan all shown as dumb rednecks, making them seen less insidiously dangerous than they are.

However, rather than letting audiences join the dots between the racial tensions of the 70s and the Black Lives Matter movement of Trump America (at one point Duke actually talks about making America great again) and  the reports of white cops shooting black ‘suspects’, he frequently has to preach from the soapbox.

On the other hand, paralleled scenes of an aged activist (Harry Belafonte) recounting the brutal murder of  retarded black youth Jesse Washington in 1916 Waco, who, accused of raping a white woman, was lynched, castrated, mutilated and burned alive is a blood chilling powerful moment,  and footage of the 2017 Charlottesville white-supremacist rally protests when a car ploughed into  activists killing Heather Heyer, a  white woman, powerfully bring home how racism has become everyone’s battle. Maybe that’s why, save for one token racist cop who gets his crowd pleasing comeuppance, he’s shown as pretty much the exception and all the senior officers are enlightened and unprejudiced.

Even so, for all its flaws and sometimes heavy-handedness, while this may lean more to the box office friendly nature of Inside Man than the polemics of Do The Right Thing, it reminds that Lee still has a potent voice and remains unafraid of using it. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Oscar winner Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Fri-Mon/Thu: Everyman)

Burning (15)

The first film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong in eight years, inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, sharing its Barn Burning titled with one by William Faulkner. Lee, this is slowly gathering psychological drama built around a romantic triangle infused with envy, jealousy, lies, longing and alienation.

Set in contemporary Seoul, Jongsoo is a working class aspiring writer (Faulkner is his favourite author) living on a run down one-cow farm near the North Korea border with an absent  father whose anger regularly seems him up in court and in jail for assault. In town, he meets Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who’s doing a store raffle promotion, who reminds him that they knew each other back in school and that he once rescued her from a  dry well and asks if he can look after her cat while she’s away volunteering in Kenya. Going back to her flat, there’s no sign of the cat but, reminding him he once called her ugly (she’s had plastic surgery since), she seduces him.

He dutifully visits the flat to feed the never seen cat and, while there, regularly masturbates while staring out of her window. Picking up from the airport on her return, he finds she’s hooked up with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy bored yuppie who lives in a  plush apartment, drives a Porsche and confesses to Jongsoo that he regularly burns down the abandoned greenhouses littering the countryside, and intends the next to be one near the farm. Although there’s no indication that’s true, while Jongsoo himself is drawn to do the same. Throwing in another literary reference Ben’s likened to The Great Gatsby, reinforcing the film’s themes of class, economic and romantic conflict.

The three of them hang out and get high, Jongsoo increasingly feeling like , but then Haemi disappears from the scene and, thinking Ben is involved, he starts following him, building to the film’s titular cathartic but shocking climax.  Heavy with never explained mysteries and with scenes that involve a meeting between Jongsoo and the mother who abandoned him and a stoned Haemi dancing topless to the strains of Miles Davis as the sun sets behind the farm, it suggests rather than states as Jongsoo,summed by a sense of inferiority, tries to bring a sense of order and meaning to a life spinning out of control, to distinguish between truth and lies. He never finds answers, and the film never offers viewers any either, but the questions linger long. (Mockingbird)

Cold Pursuit (15)

A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and  (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose.  Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when  a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss  with a  Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.

In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal  and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the  young boy with whom Viking shares custody  with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a  neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.

As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a  snowball fight before  the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.

There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde,  mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring  Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Destroyer (15)

Spending most of the film looking haggard, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes that seem like portals into the abyss, this is Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her, up there with her finest work alongside To Die For and Rabbit Hole. Directed by Karyn Kasuma, working from a  script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, she plays Erin Bell, a burned-out LAPD detective still carrying the emotional and psychological scars from an undercover operation fifteen years earlier that cost the life of her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) and left her with a broken nose, a drink problem and a now 15-year-old toxically estranged wild child daughter ((Jade Pettyjohn) who is in the custody of her father, Ethan (Scoot McNary) and in thrall to a twenty-something deadbeat (Beau Knapp). It opens with the discovery of a bullet-riddled body sporting a signature tattoo on his beck, a wobbling, hungover Bell turning up, much to the annoyance of her fellow cops, and declaring she knows who killed him. Receiving a purple stained $100 bill from a fateful bank robbery, it would seem that the volatile gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has resurfaced, setting Bell on a determined quest for both revenge and atonement, one that involves her going all Dirty Harry and tracking down some of the other former gang members, among them Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’s ex-girlfriend, who may well know his whereabouts.

Framed in a loop that works its way back to the start with an unexpected reveal, the narrative shifts between Bell’s present day search for Silas and flashbacks to her training with Chris and their time in the gang, earning Silas’s trust, culminating in a bank robbery that goes pear-shaped. Steeped in noir atmospherics and themes of warped justice, it’s a riveting piece of work that finds a deeply committed Kidman, sporting black to match her state of mind, gradually revealing more about her morally complex character, climaxing in a wrenching confessional diner scene with her daughter, and what led to that fateful moment that changed her life. A little slow-paced at times, perhaps, but it holds you right to the final redemptive frame and its very limited distribution is unforgivable. (Mockingbird)

 

 

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a  room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end.  The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a  scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an  inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this has proven an art house break-out success, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Actress.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Vue Star City; Fri/Sat, Thu: Electric;)

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed,  the goth-like Saraya stands out like  sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Free Solo (12A)

Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Oscar winning documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Mon/Thu:Electric)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

The surprising winner of Best Picture, this inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship  is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the Oscar winning Best Adapted Screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;   Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City;)

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a  plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window.  So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns. Here, however,  reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat  to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.

Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate,  Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19  to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks,  Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and  Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it.  Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad  there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow  sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).

To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power  and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.

Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre,  recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch.  The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett),  bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

If Beale Street Could Talk (15)

Give he’s acclaimed as one of American’s greatest black authors, with five novels and two plays to his name, this is actually the first of James Baldwin’s works, written in 1974 as a metaphor for any black community, to be adapted for the screen. Director Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, it’s an earnest but uneven exploration of lover, family and racism in which its fragmented storylines often undermine rather than enhance the film’s overall thematic and narrative design (underscored by its voiceover commentary) about the harshness and injustices of African-American life, both then and now.

Set in 70s Harlem, childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her  22-year-old aspirant wood sculptor boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) are planning on getting wed.  But then he’s arrested and charged with raping a Puerto Rican woman. He’s clearly innocent, but there’s no way to prove it, since her evidence is inadmissible and the only other alibi, the three of them being together at the time, is his cynical best friend (Brian Tyree Henry),  who, just out of jail on a trumped up charge (for car theft, even though he can’t drive), is regarded as unreliable testimony.  In addition, the woman identified him in a line up, although she was told to pick him out by the bigoted arresting officer (Ed Skrein) who, it is revealed, wrongly tried to arrest Fonny some days earlier after he defended Tish against some local thug.

On top of which, Tish learns that she’s pregnant and the film variously follows her visits to the jail while he’s awaiting trial and the efforts to track down the alleged victim and persuade her to tell the truth, something which involves both hiring a white lawyer and Tish’s mother (Oscar winner Regina King) travelling to Puerto Rico to plead her and her future son-in-law’s case. By parental contrast, Fonny’s own fundamentalist Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and his two prissy sisters are condemnatory of both him and Tish, who they regard as an unsuitable match, an antagonism that affords one the film’s strongest and hardest-hitting scenes.

Such friction and spark is, however, in distinct contrast to the soft focus and intense close up fuzziness of the burnished romantic scenes between the two lovers (softened and glossed up from the flawed versions in the novel) and Jenkins often seems too wrapped up in textural atmospherics than an involving plot, that and the all too leisurely pace allowing the audience to drift away and then trying to pull them back in.

The two leads give solid, warmly engaging performances, but it’s among the supporting cast where the film shines brightest, most notably King and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s plain-speaking sibling Ernestine whose rousing “Unbow your head, sister” sounds the film’s loudest inspirational note.

It doesn’t wrap up with a fairytale ending where justice prevails, but, refusing to give in to pessimism, it does celebrate the power of true love to help people face and to accept difficult circumstances. It’s just unfortunate that getting to that epiphany feels like an endless journey.  (Empire Great Park; MAC; Mockingbird; Vue Star City; Sat, Tue/Wed: Electric)

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a  jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders  (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird,  gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a  drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine) were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by  his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld Solihull)

On The Basis of Sex (15)

While she’s far better known in America, where (the subject of the Oscar nominated RGB documentary) she’s something of a cultural icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is unquestionably one of the greatest living legal legends of our time. Taking, in 1970 and as a courtroom novice, a tax case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that it discriminated against her client, Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), who had been refused tax relief for caring for his aged mother because he wasn’t a woman, she reversed 100 years of legal precedent and set in motion the movement to remove gender discrimination in hundreds of laws, changing forever the lives of generations of women.

Somewhat thematically echoing The Post, in which Meryl Streep had to prove herself a newspaper boss, directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, it opens in 1956 with the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) becoming one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, her husband, Marty (an all charm Armie Hammer) in the year above her.  While compressing time periods and omitting some steps along the way, it mostly faithfully proceeds to chart the next 15 years and the difficulties and barriers she had to overcome, starting with taking Marty’s classes as well as his own to help him study while recovering from testicular cancer, moving to New York and Columbia to complete her degree,  raising first one and then two kids, and her attempt to practice law constantly coming up against the profession’s deeply ingrained sexism.

The latter’s primarily embodied in the priggish Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), who at a welcome dinner asks the  nine women to justify why they had a place that would have gone to a man,  and the chauvinistic Harvard professor Ed Brown (Stephen Root) who wound up as opposing counsel in the 1970 case. Ultimately, she ended up  teaching law as a professor  at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As such there’s numerous scenes involving sitting in rooms poring over books, typing up papers or arguing the finer points of law, but this is far from the dry film that would suggest. Aside from following a  familiar underdog arc, the film also spends a considerable time inside Ginsburg’s home, showing her as  a wife and a mother, at times at loggerheads with daughter Jane (an excellent Cailee Spaney in her teenage years), a rebel, social activist and every bit as stubborn and determined as her mother, but coming at things from a different generation. It’s a pity then that, while they operate on an equal footing and he was her co-counsel in the Moritz case (a tax lawyer,he suggested it to her as a means of tackling sex discrimination), the marriage between Ruth and Marty never quite sparks as it should, that more provided by her sometimes combative friendship and professional relationship with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the colourful legal director of the ACLU.

Another criticism is that, just as Marty’s cancer is never again mentioned after he recovers, the film only fleetingly touches on the issue of anti-Semitism he and, more especially, Ruth would have faced. Nonetheless, with a brief but memorable cameo from Kathy Bates as activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and, while they look nothing alike other than being short, a focused and commanding performance, part steely determination, part self-uncertainty, by Birmingham-born Jones, this could well be the best sex you have this year.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electic; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City).

A Private War (15)

An award-winning war correspondent for the  Sunday Times, feisty American-born journalist Marie Colvin made her name covering such conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, where she promoted the exhumation of a mass grave of Kuwaiti POWs and Sri Lanka where, embedded with the Tamil Tigers, she lost an eye when fired upon by the military, subsequently sporting  a distinctive pirate-like black patch, before being killed during the bombing of Homs in Syria in 2012.

Directed in the same fashion he brought to his Syrian documentary, City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman and starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin, the film details her crusading, passionate, driven determination to report the truth of what was happening to both her readers back home and the world at large, forcing  them not to look the other way. Opening with the Homs bombing where she exposed how Assad was targeting innocent women and children, it flashes back to Sri Lanka, counting down the ten years running up to her death as she covered some of the most world’s most dangerous conflict zones and even famously secured a face-to-face interview with Gadaffi shortly before his overthrow.

In Iraq, she teams up with freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dorman) who would accompany her on her subsequent assignments, putting the graphic images to her uncompromising words, Pike portraying Colvin as a no-nonsense, stubborn, plain-speaking woman, tormented by a fear of growing old while dreading dying young, more at home under fire than back in the safety and comforts of London life or the awards ceremonies in her honour.  Haunted by the image of a dead girl on her bed, the film seeks to explore how such traumas are processed and the effects it can have on those enduring them, especially when drinking and chainsmoking no longer numb the  pain, Colvin essentially a PTSD addict.

With Tom Hollander as her editor, Sean Ryan, and Stanley Tucci as her wealthy businessman  lover, Tony Shaw, the film is at its best on the various battlefronts, the energy and power dissipating when not under fire, but, at a time when fake news is the watchword, Colvin’s story is raw truth. (Tue-Thu:Everyman)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of  Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20th Century Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945, they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual shtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down  as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his  watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.

Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just  facial expressions, this may adopt a  don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Vice (15)

Everything The Front Runner was not, Adam McKay’s Oscar nominated political satire strikes similar notes to The Thick Of It as it charts the quietly Machiavellian rise to power of Dick Cheney, who, as, the film argues, America’s most influential and dangerous Vice President, became the power behind George W Bush’s throne and the instigator of the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq on the fake grounds of weapons of mass destruction.

Morphing from a thin screw-up 22-year-old Wyoming drunk, shamed into changing his ways by his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and a Yale dropout into a blobby arch strategist assuming control in the wake of 9/11, tearing up the rules of combat and torture in the process, Christian Bale, following in Gary Oldman’s prosthetic footsteps, gives arguably the best performance of his career, delivering a brilliantly acerbic performance as, over the decades, Cheney shrewdly plays his cards and manoeuvres those around him, among them sometimes Nixon associate Donald Rumsfeld (a fine Steve Carell), to secure his own agenda, his quiet (“We have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us”) but sure  rise to power accompanied by that of the equally ambitious Lynne.

Like Armando Iannucci’s series, it addresses serious political issues through razor sharp comedy, adopting a documentary-like flow across the different administrations in which Cheney served, following his various rises (including Chief of Staff to Ford) and falls  as the Presidency changed hands and parties (a position in Congress when Carter took power), his various heart attacks (he had five and a transplant), his move from politics into the private sector as CEO of oil giant Halliburton (cue further controversy involving Iraq’s oil fields)  following Clinton’s victory and his brilliantly engineered return to power under Bush (a terrific Sam Rockwell). Alongside this, the film takes in family matters involving choosing to support and protect his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill), splitting with other Republicans over his liberal attitudes to gay marriage, although when his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), develops political ambitions, this is tacitly withdrawn, opening up a major rift. And, behind all these machinations, it’s Lynne who is Cheney’s co-conspirator (at one point the film fantasises them in bed delivering Shakespearean dialogue) and arguably the power behind his throne.

Along with voiceovers  and to camera moments breaking the fourth wall involving a character (Jesse Plemons) whose purpose is withheld until the third act crucial twist and  metaphorical fly-fishing sequences, McKay pulls another audacious stunt in the Gore/Bush campaign, adopting the premise that the former actually won the election (as many claimed) and playing the end credits midway in complete with captions as to what happened to the central players, before, in the light of the shock result, snapping back to reality.

Featuring support turns and cameos by Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressured into endorsing the WMD claim, an uncredited Naomi Watts as a reporter, Alfred Molina in an inspired a surreal scene  as a maitre’d explaining the dishes of the day to his assembled Bush administration power players, among them Guantanamo Bay and “a fresh war powers interpretation”  as well as archive footage of Blair delivering his Iraq invasion speech, it’s a brilliantly executed and revelatory account of how this, to a large extent, private background figure in the White House corridors, changed the political landscape of America and  the world to the mess it is today. (Vue Star City; Until Wed: MAC)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

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Interview: Fatboy Slim talks to Brum Notes ahead of Birmingham arena date

Fatboy Slim, one of the UK’s most successful DJs and dance music producers is about to embark on one of his most ambitious tours yet.

Aiming to create the UK’s biggest dance floors turning our favourite arenas into unique night club experiences, Fatboy Slim will bring an immersive approach to the arena show using a revolving stage complete with rave ushers.

Brum Notes writer Gareth Griffiths spoke to Fatboy Slim, real name Norman Cook, ahead of his UK arena tour which will see him play Birmingham Arena on Friday 22 February 2019 with support from Birmingham’s own Hannah Wants.

BN: So you’ve just got back from New Years in South America and now you’re off to New Zealand where it’s the height of summer. Do the seasons even exist for an act that tours as much as you?

FS: Very much so yeah. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s pretty bastard cold in the UK right now, which does give me more excuses to go to places like South America and New Zealand. Theoretically, you could just follow the sun and chase the festival circuit around the planet all year but round I don’t wanna work 365 days a year.

BN: You’ve got an incredible support bill for this tour, and obviously you’ve got Brummie Hannah Wants supporting in Birmingham. What does the support bill mean to you?

FS: The criteria was to have some younger acts that are people that I know and I get along with. That goes for the whole arena tour, they’re all friends of mine and people I’ve met along the way, so to speak. Obviously, it’s gotta be an act that complements my show, and can hold their own in a venue like that but without blowing me offstage. Jack Jones, East Everything and Hannah Wants, they’re all friends of mine, we’ve done shows together and we know that we complement each other in every sense of the word.

Hannah Wants

BN: So these shows are in the round and being billed as an ‘immersive experience’. You’ve played in the round before. Surely, as one man stood on a stage surrounded by 20,000 people in an arena, the person who will be the most “immersed” is you?

FS: That’s absolutely right, it’s an immersive experience for me, not the rest of you! For me, it’s fabulous. The way I like to DJ, it’s all about the communication between me and the crowd. If you’re on a big stage, you’re gonna be 30ft from the nearest person, and half a mile from the people at the back.

If you’re in a band you can kind of project to the back and run around doing guitar solos but as a DJ it’s quite difficult. On the whole, for me, that rules out the bigger venues because you can’t get that intimacy, but then we worked out that doing it in the round halves the distance between you and the crowd – you can pretty much see everyone in the room. You can really feel it. I thrive on being surrounded by the crowd because the crowd is part of the show for me.

Image: Bernard Bodo / EXIT Festival 2013

BN: Having seen you at Glastonbury, your desire to connect with audience really does come across.

FS: Yeah, and I’ve found that immersing myself in the middle of the crowd is the best way to do it, even just from a geographical point of view. I’m nearer to them. It’s much better communication and easier to achieve what I aim for. We’ve cracked it, the magic of hydraulic revolving stages and LED screens hung from the ceiling is all we needed to put on a great show and still achieve that collective euphoria; when you fill a room with like-minded people who are all looking to reach a certain state of abandon.

BN: Do you see the role of the gig as something to connect strangers who are standing next to each other as much as it is to connect an audience with a performer?

FS: Yeah. In essence, it’s about creating a party atmosphere, as if everyone’s gone to a really big house party where you can just talk to anyone and I’m just sort of acting as a conduit for it, rather than having everyone sitting there watching me. I’m the ringmaster in the middle, conducting it all.

BN: It’s a very interesting time in the UK, without getting into any specifics. Do you think a show like yours has something specific to offer an audience in a time like this? What’s the current role of ‘the ringleader’?

FS: Interesting question. I would say that my role in all of this is to make people forget about some of the other bollocks that’s going on in the world. Dance music’s never been there to shout and change the world, in the way that rock music can be quite political. Instead, it’s always been there to provide the option of opting out, and just saying “Y’know what, screw changing the world just give me a couple of hours off, where I can just lose myself and forget about the ways of the world”. So it’s always been about that escapism and leading people down a different direction but I suppose that the more the country is divided and appalled and bored by Brexit, the more they want to escape it for two hours.

BN: Do you think that’s one of the reasons why guitar music is in a bit of a lull, because what we need is that escapism?

FS: It’s not what we need necessarily, it’s not gonna change anything. Everything will still be there the next morning but dance music and dancing has always been about escaping into a fantasy world. The slaves used to dance to forget about the enslavement and it didn’t grant them freedom but it offered an escapism.

BN: ’You’ve Come Along Way, Baby’ turned 20 last year, this year it’ll be old enough to drink in the States. What’s it like to own something that’s so embedded in popular music canon?

FS: When I think about something like that, I always remember the interviews I did around the album’s release and how I believed that I’d finally made an album that was an album rather than a collection of singles, it was like a proper rock album. At the same time, it was just there to get people to dance, not change the world. I remember saying that I didn’t expect people to be listening to it in 20 years’ time. When I think about that time, it was never meant to last, there wasn’t meant to be any dwelling on it, but I’m very proud and satisfied that it’s still ‘relevant’. If I hear a football team walk out to ‘Right Here, Right Now’, it still gives me goosebumps.

BN: I’m pretty sure ‘Fucking in Heaven’ was the first track I heard with swearing on, and there’s quite a lot of fucks in that. Many tracks on that album seem so timeless, do you have any inkling as to why that is?

FS: Oh, I popped your cherry did? Ha! Well, some things like dancing and fucking are pretty ‘timeless’ concepts. They don’t really change over generations.

To be honest, for me what’s amazing when I do bigger shows, is the cross-section of the audience. When I do club shows I’m pretty much playing to 18 year olds, and every new “batch” that comes along sees me DJ-ing. But on the bigger shows, I can see the older generation of fans who maybe don’t go to clubs much anymore, at the back of the venue, reliving their rave days and downing the prosecco and then down the front it’s that new generation of kids who come up to me and say that their parents had played my albums. It’s crazy to me to think that the 20-year-olds out there were born when ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’ came out, those poor souls have had to grow up with that record.

It’s nice to appeal to different generations for different reasons and being able to summon them all together in a big arena and have them party as one. It’s a powerful thing.

Fatboy Slim will play at Arena Birmingham on Friday 22nd February, for tickets visit the venue’s official website

Words: Gareth Griffiths

Preview: Nils Frahm, O2 Academy Birmingham

Piano virtuoso and electronic experimentalist Nils Frahm plays Birmingham’s 02 Academy on Wednesday 20th February as part of his Worldwide ‘All Melody’ tour, with the help of city promoters Leftfoot & This Is Tmrw.

The show will see Nils, a maverick of the modern classical world whose unconventional style has amassed an unlikely global demographic, bring his contemplative and intimate playing style to a West Midlands audience for the very first time.

Alongside collaborations with respected contemporaries Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds, and Anne Müller, Frahm’s experimentation with both organic and electronic sounds has made him one of the most accessible contemporary composers of our time. 

Outside of the usual circles Frahm has performed live on Boiler Room, perhaps the most significant platforms in underground dance music streaming. 

In wake of his latest EP release ‘Encores 2’ – the spiritual side project to ‘All Melody’ – the performance promises an atmospheric fusion of neo-classical, jazz, ambient and IDM movements.

To look over the total work of Nils Frahm is to truly come to terms with the breadth of his artistry. From lonely harmonium melodies and creeping ambient soundscapes, to staggering orchestral verses and layered synthesisers, all thread seamlessly into his conceptual oeuvre.   

Other key releases include ‘Wintermusik’, ‘Spaces’, and last year’s ‘Encores 1’. In 2015 he curated his own ‘Late Night Tales’ compilation and soundtracked film-short ‘Ellis’ in the following year. 

Tickets for Nils Frahm at Birmingham O2 Academy on Wednesday 29th February 2019 are available to buy online here.

Words: Kristian Birch-Hirst

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