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The second box-set celebrating the career of seminal Brum band Felt is out now.

Felt released ten albums during the 1980s – five for Cherry Red Records, and then recorded a further five with Alan McGee’s legendary Creation.

An earlier box-set, released this year (also titled A Decade In Music), surveyed the first run (Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, The Splendour Of Fear, The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Short Stories, Ignite The Seven Cannons, and The Seventeenth Century).

Now A Decade In Music Part II highlights the Creation period with Forever Breathes The Lonely Word, Poem Of The River, The Pictorial Jackson Review, Train Above The City, and
Me And A Monkey On The Moon.

These vinyl records, unavailable for many years, have been remastered and revisited by Felt’s Lawrence, and are available in a deluxe gate-fold sleeve. The CD version comes in a bespoke 7” box, complete with various ephemera consisting of: the original album in a special gate-fold sleeve; long deleted 7” vinyl single pertaining to the relevant year of release; reproduction gig flyers; double sided wall poster; and four button lapel badges.

Forever Breathes The Lonely Word (1986) sees the arrival of future Primal Scream man Martin Duffy on keyboards, and comes with the additional single, Primitive Painters / Cathedral.

Poem Of The River (1987) rejects the Robin (Cocteau Twins) Guthrie mixes in favour of the rediscovered Mayo Thompson versions.

Inspired by Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Friends by The Beach Boys, Lawrence envisaged The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988) as being a collection of short melodic songs. But last minute changes resulted in tracklisting changes and instrumentals being added. The new edition returns to the original vision, dropping Duffy’s Sending Lady Load and Darkest Ending, and reinstating the previously missing Tuesday’s Secret and Jewels Are Set In Crowns.

1988’s Train Above The City was rumoured to have not featured Lawrence – a myth that persists online – though today, the instrumental album is pitched as very much a band album, with Lawrence’s input stressed as key, from concept, to sound, to artwork.

Produced by The Sound’s Adrian Borland, 1989’s Me And A Monkey On The Moon was recorded for Creation, but released by ‘el’ to fulfil Felt’s plan to release 10 albums in 10 years. Primal Scream’s Robert Young contributes bass. Accompanying single, the strange bubbling Space Blues, shows how fan the band had travelled since their jangling ‘indie’ guitar roots.

And that concludes Felt’s album career. Compilation albums followed, while Lawrence went onto to cult acclaim with Denim and Mozart Go-Kart.

The 2018 variations of Felt’s ten albums represent their definitive versions. But with the vaults raided, here’s hoping that they’ve also dug up a few more off-cuts, outtakes, and rarities for a complementary footnote compilation …

Felt: A Decade In Music (pt2) is out now via Cherry Red. For more details, see: www.cherryred.co.uk/artist/felt/

Also see Felt: A Decade In Music Part 1 preview.

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 28-Thu Oct 4

NEW RELEASES

The Wife (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Black 47 (15)

Set in Connemara, Lance Daly’s stark revenge drama plays out against the backdrop of the devastating Great Famine of  19th century Ireland when the potato crop failed and, unable to pay the rents,  tenant farmers were evicted into poverty and, frequently, death in the harsh, freezing conditions.

An Irish Ranger deserter from the English army,  Feeney (James Frecheville) returns from the Afghanistan wars in to find his mother dead after refusing to take the ‘soup’ (basically renouncing Catholicism in order to get food), his brother hanged for stabbing a bailiff and his sister-and-law and her children starving in the only house on the estate of Lord Kilmichael (a suitably hateful Jim Broadbent) not to have been tumbled, or rendered uninhabitable. When they’re  turfed out, her son shot and she and her daughter freeze to death, Feeney sets out to seek revenge on those responsible, slaughtering several of the local constabulary for starters. Enlisted to catch him are arrogant young blonde British officer Captain Pope (Freddie Fox) and, in return for not being tried for murdering prisoner, embittered, world-weary ex-policeman Hannah (Hugo Weaving), who served with Feeney in Afghanistan, along with the callow Private Hobson (Barry Keoghan) as yet unaware of the privations and, inveigling himself a job as translator (much is in subtitled Gaelic) and guide, the pragmatic  Conneely (Stephen Rea).

Moving inexorably from one bloody killing to the next (including a decapitation with a pig’s head place on the body), the net gradually closes in with the climax coming as Feeney finally (and with an ease that would shame Rambo) gets to confront the smirkingly obnoxious  Kilmichae who declares that he looks forward to the day when “a Celtic Irishman in Ireland will be as rare a sight as a Red Indian in Manhattan.”

Drawing deliberate comparisons to the widescreen Western genre (the film often feels like a Gaelic Outlaw Josey Wales), it’s touch slow in places, but, relentlessly grim with its skeletal extras and pared down narrative and performances, it grips you from the start to end credits. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

 

C’est La Vie (12A)

A grouchy wedding planner secretly looking to offload the business and retire,  Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has one last big wedding reception at a sprawling chateau to cater. It’s bad enough that the client, Pierre, (Benjamin Lavernhe) is an insufferable preening egotist who wants to be the centre of attention, but Max’s affair with team member Josiane (Suzanne Clément) has hit a rough patch and now she’s flirting with a moonlighting policeman because he won’t leave his wife. On top of which, his second-in-command,  Adèle (Eye Haidara) is at constant loggerheads with the band’s singer DJ James (comic highlight Gilles Lellouche), himself a last minute replacement for the groom’s choice, and, thanks to one of Max’s regular autocorrect texts, has dismissed one of the waiters and brought in an inexperienced friend who doesn’t know a bass is a fish and confuses champagne flutes with musical instruments.

And if that wasn’t bad enough,  the team aren’t happy at having to wear period dress and wigs,  the lamb main course has gone off, otherwise unemployable photographer Guy (Jean-Paul Rouve) is making a nuisance of himself and, having been given a  dating app by his student shadow (Gabriel Naccache), gets involved with one of the wedding party and Max’s slacker brother-in-law (Vincent Macaigne), who’s working as a waiter, turns out to be an old flame of the bride (Judith Chemla) and is still besotted with her. All this, and it’s Max’s birthday too.

As you might surmise, whatever can go wrong, does, but somehow, while amusing, the film, overlong at two hours,  fails to develop into the farce it might have been and only serves to summon comparison with the classic Fawlty Towers Gourmet night episode. It rises to the occasion in the last act involving an aerial ballet and escaped helium balloon and an impromptu musical entertainment involving two Tamil waiters, but like the fireworks, the film never quite goes off as expected. (Fri-Sun: MAC)

 

Night School (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Skate Kitchen (15)

Inspired by an Instgram feed, documentary film-maker Crystal Moselle makes her feature debut with a free-flowing, unhurriedly paced coming of age/ identity portrait of a posse of teenage female skateboarders from Long Island going by the name of Skate Kitchen who hang out at East Park. Having met them on a train and used for a Miu-Miu commercial, here she works with the actual Skate Kitchen girls, each given a fictional around which to hang he seemingly improvisational the dialogue, it follows  Latino founding member Rachelle Vinberg as Camille who, having fallen out with her mother (Orange is The New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez), who demands she gives up skateboarding after a gynaecological accident, starts hanging out with the other, much sassier girls down the park, among them brash lesbian Kurt (Nina Moran) and Janay (Dede Lovelace) whom she moves in when her mother throws her out.

They hang out, the banter about tampons and other such things teenage girls banter about, confront the boy skaters who think they own the park and generally enjoy the freedom of being who they are. But then Camille gets involved with Devon (Jaden Smith, the film’s only other professional actor), a  fellow skater and amateur photographer who works at the store where she gets a job, inevitably precipitating a fallout among the sisterhood. In a film built on a natural documentary-like flow, it’s the film least convincing and most contrived element, one ultimately resolved far too summarily with a simple sorry text. That’s said, while observing how women are often subsumed into male cultures and  reflecting on “the loneliness you have even in a crowded room”,  it wisely refrains from running any life lesson morals or messages about self-assertion or sisterhood up the flagpole, but, in allowing the characters and the cast to breathe in their own environment as they deal with boys, parents and their own relationships, Moselle has made a film you’ll be pleased you took time to hang out with. (Cineworld NEC; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

A Simple Favour (15)

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

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

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

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

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

BlacKkKlansman (15)

Spike Lee’s biggest hit in 12 years, 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; Vue Star City)

 

Crazy Rich Asians (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christopher Robin (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Equalizer 2 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Incredibles 2  (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

King Of Thieves (15)

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

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

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

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Little Stranger (12A)

Based on the Sarah Walters novel and set in late 40s Warwickshire, director Lenny Abrahamson’s period Gothic horror follow-up to Room teases a ghost story but is actually about possession of a different nature.

It’s grandeur fading, Hundreds Hall is a stately pile belonging to the Ayres famil, matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), her former RAF pilot son Roderick (Will Pouter), badly burned and scarred, physically and mentally,  in the war, and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who’s returned home to care or her brother.  Called to treat the maid, Betty (Liv Hill), Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleason), recently back from London to become a partner at the local surgery,  offers to apply a new procedure he’s developed to ease the pain in Roderick’s leg. It also transpires that he became enthralled with the place when he visited with his mother herself a former maid there, for a garden party back in 1919 where he took part in a group photo, only to be obscured by Suki, the young Ayres daughter who died of diphtheria shortly after. As revealed later, he also took a memento.

As he continues to treat Roderick, Faraday grows closer to Caroline. All the more so when, following an incident her brother is removed to a psychiatric hospital. He, like Betty, is of the belief that there’s something malevolent in the house but it’s not until late in the film, as a little girl is injured, servants’ bells start to ring of their own accord and markings are found in the nursery, that  that the film raises  suggestions of a poltergeist nature, possibly to do with the dead girl. Faraday meanwhile seeks to try and further cement his relationship with Caroline while yet another tragedy befalls the family.

Affecting the clipped speech of those vintage classic stiff-upper lip drawing room British melodramas, a poker-faced Gleeson is terrific, hinting at perhaps ambiguous motives in insinuating himself into the family while Wilson soars as the emotionally wounded Caroline, crushed by disappointment and suffocating under the burden of the house, her family and the past.

Dropping in references to the advent of the NHS and the lands sales under the new Labour government and the parallel decline of the old ruling class, it subtly addressing matters of social class, envy and aspirations with village-stock Faraday serving as the not necessarily reliable narrator with his buttoned-up demeanour, but occasional private displays of intense rage. Complemented by an eerie score and the muted brown tones, much unfolding at night or in shadows, never resorting to the cheap scares of something like The Conjuring, the gathering dread and notion of a psychological-manifestation haunting build to the final shot revelation that will either leave you chilled or baffled. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman)

 

Lucky (15)

The penultimate film before his passing (Frank and Ava remains to be released), drawing on the then 89-year-old actor’s own life John Carroll Lynch’s directorial  feature affords Harry Dean Stanton a career high starring role and fearless performance as the titular Lucky. He’s  a small desert town curmudgeonly, chain-smoking  atheist loner whose life  follows a repetitive routine (get up, exercise, go for a coffee, do crossword puzzles, watch game shows, drop by the bar for a Bloody Mary, go to bed), but who, having blacked out and suffered a fall, is increasingly troubled by the prospect of impending mortality and his belief that there’s nothing beyond. It’s no accident the film opens with Johnny Cash singing I See A Darkness.

Not a lot happens in what is essentially a series of vignettes on the path to enlightenment that variously involve Lucky with his doc (Ed Begley, Jr.), the café owner (Barry Shabaka Henley), the kindly and concerned  waitress (Yvonne Huff)  with whom he shares a joint, a prickly conversation with an insurance salesman (Ron Livingstone), the bartender (Hugo Armstrong) who tries to turn him on to Deal Or No Deal, bar owner Elaine (Beth Grant), her reformed ne’er do well lover Paulie (James Darren) and, making a memorable cameo, David Lynch as Howard, who’s bereft after his best friend, President Roosevelt, the tortoise seen ambling across the desert in the opening scene, ‘ran’ away.

Two particular highlights, however, come with Lucky, invited by the Mexican grocery store owner (Bertila Damas) to her son’s birthday party, singing an impromptu a cappella Volver Volver, showing a warmth that’s otherwise buried in his surliness, and when he listens to a retired marine (Tom Skerritt) remembering a woman from WWII, a monologue that recalls Stanton’s own classic in Paris, Texas, a film this  pointedly evokes in both its setting and its core character.

With Stanton’s harmonica rendition of Red River Valley providing a running musical motif, this may ultimately go gently into that good night rather than rage at the dying of the light, but it does so with a serene epiphany and a smile.  (Mon-Thu;MAC)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

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

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

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

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

The Meg (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 22  (18)

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

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

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

Mercifully short at just 85 minutes, it does deliver a clever and unexpected twist that turns everything on its head, but then ends by teasing audiences about what happened to one of the main characters in the vain hope of setting up a sequel.  “You’re making a mistake,” someone says to Wahlberg. “I’ve made a lot of them”, he replies. This is one of the biggest.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globetrotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmir, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Vue Star City)

 

The Nun (15)

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

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

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

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

The Predator (15)

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

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

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

 

Searching (12A)

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

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

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

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

Yardie (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

Review: Jurassic Park in Concert

Jurassic Park in Concert at Symphony Hall Birmingham credit Gareth Griffiths

A Guide to the Roarchestra

Sunday saw the Czech National Symphony Orchestra perform ‘Jurassic Park in Concert’ at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

It’s evident that there is a wider mix within the audience that Symphony Hall typically sees for an orchestral performance and that’s a good thing. Orchestras are cool, after all.

The concert saw the film shown on a large screen above the stage with John William’s classic score performed live by the orchestra.

These concerts serve as a reminder. A reminder of the beauty of the orchestra and the power music has to elevate a film. It was often hard to imagine that if the players stopped, so would the music. It draws great attention to the score of the film and inspires a level of appreciation for it that goes beyond what we had.

There are the odd few moments where the characters are talking softly where the dialogue was lost to the orchestra – but it’s a live orchestra we’re talking about here – unplugged. It’s these sorts of aspects that affirm the living breathing beast that was the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

Highlights include the Mr DNA sequence, for which John Williams wrote a Tom & Jerry like score which darts around various little riffs – it’s an entertaining sight to see the orchestra tackle such a playful but flitting and challenging piece of music that even features a little excerpt from the ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’ nursery rhyme.

Jurassic Park’s themes cover a variety of atmospheres from the jungle to euphoric wonder, and the orchestra captured each of these beautifully.

Whilst we mustn’t forget the film itself being pretty great, it’s difficult to praise the already acclaimed performances from Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough further, give the circumstances of the afternoon’s presentation.

As the credits begin to roll, the lights come up on the orchestra as they recount Jurassic’s key themes in full view. It’s a great touch for the audience as we sit and we marvel. It’s possible that many here have never heard a live orchestra before…and it’s not a bad first experience.

Words: Gareth Griffith

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 21-Thu Sept 27

NEW RELEASES

A Simple Favour (15)

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Little Stranger (12A)

Based on the Sarah Walters novel and set in late 40s Warwickshire, director Lenny Abrahamson’s period Gothic horror follow-up to Room teases a ghost story but is actually about possession of a different nature.

It’s grandeur fading, Hundreds Hall is a stately pile belonging to the Ayres famil, matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), her former RAF pilot son Roderick (Will Pouter), badly burned and scarred, physically and mentally,  in the war, and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who’s returned home to care or her brother.  Called to treat the maid, Betty (Liv Hill), Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleason), recently back from London to become a partner at the local surgery,  offers to apply a new procedure he’s developed to ease the pain in Roderick’s leg. It also transpires that he became enthralled with the place when he visited with his mother herself a former maid there, for a garden party back in 1919 where he took part in a group photo, only to be obscured by Suki, the young Ayres daughter who died of diphtheria shortly after. As revealed later, he also took a memento.

As he continues to treat Roderick, Faraday grows closer to Caroline. All the more so when, following an incident her brother is removed to a psychiatric hospital. He, like Betty, is of the belief that there’s something malevolent in the house but it’s not until late in the film, as a little girl is injured, servants’ bells start to ring of their own accord and markings are found in the nursery, that  that the film raises  suggestions of a poltergeist nature, possibly to do with the dead girl. Faraday meanwhile seeks to try and further cement his relationship with Caroline while yet another tragedy befalls the family.

Affecting the clipped speech of those vintage classic stiff-upper lip drawing room British melodramas, a poker-faced Gleeson is terrific, hinting at perhaps ambiguous motives in insinuating himself into the family while Wilson soars as the emotionally wounded Caroline, crushed by disappointment and suffocating under the burden of the house, her family and the past.

Dropping in references to the advent of the NHS and the lands sales under the new Labour government and the parallel decline of the old ruling class, it subtly addressing matters of social class, envy and aspirations with village-stock Faraday serving as the not necessarily reliable narrator with his buttoned-up demeanour, but occasional private displays of intense rage. Complemented by an eerie score and the muted brown tones, much unfolding at night or in shadows, never resorting to the cheap scares of something like The Conjuring, the gathering dread and notion of a psychological-manifestation haunting build to the final shot revelation that will either leave you chilled or baffled. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

Mile 22  (18)

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

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

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

Mercifully short at just 85 minutes, does deliver a clever and unexpected twist that turns everything on its head, but then ends by teasing audiences about what happened to one of the main characters in the vain hope of setting up a sequel.  “You’re making a mistake,” someone says to Wahlberg. “I’ve made a lot of them”, he replies. This is one of the biggest.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

ALSO OPENING

The Intent 2: The Come Up (15)

Remember the 2016 original. No, me neither. Starring Adam Deacon and a bunch of C listers and extra you’ve never heard of this is apparently a sequel which, to quote the blurb is about how “A man’s allegiance to his crew and crime boss cripples his dreams and ambitions.” That, however, is the only information to be found anywhere, the total lack of any attempt to publicise it, or even give an inkling of the narrative suggesting that (as reinforced by the trailer, which at least tells you it’s set in Jamaica) this is likely a real stinker. (Cineworld NEC;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

BlacKkKlansman (15)

Spike Lee’s biggest hit in 12 years, 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.  (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

The Children Act (12A)

 The second film in a month to pivot around the refusal of Jehovah Witnesses to sanction blood transfusions on the grounds that blood is life and god’s spirit, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel and directed by Richard Eyre, this may have all the hallmarks of British prestige cinema, but, lumbered with vast chunks of explanatory dialogue and skating over the whole complex issue of faith versus parental love, it falls well short of Apostasy. That said, fuelled by a performance  from Emma Thompson that makes her the one to beat in next year’s Best Actress awards, it delivers a powerful emotional punch from a different direction. Thomson plays Justice Fiona Maye, a  family court judge who hands down judgments in cases involving children and families, the film opening with her ruling on whether conjoined twins can be operated on, consigning one to death but saving the other.

Childless herself, she’s also confronted with her own domestic crisis when Jack, her American professor husband (Stanley Tucci), tired of  coming second to her stream of cases, and with no bedroom action for almost a year, announces that, while he loves her, he wants an affair. This all comes at the same time as she called on to hand down a judgment regarding allowing a hospital to give a life-saving transfusion to 17-year-old Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), who, as a Jehovah’s Witness and supported by his devout parents (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh), insists on staying true to his faith and his right to choose to die.

Given he’s under-age, The Children Act of the title makes the ruling a foregone conclusion, but,  before handing it down, in a  highly irregular move, Fiona visits Adam in hospital to get his take on things and not only discovers an exceptional young man but also sings Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens while he plays the tune on guitar and the nurses smile on approvingly.

Naturally, she rules in favour of life not death, little knowing just how that her decision will come to impact on her own life and emotions as, cured, Adam become a sort of obsessive wide-eyed stalker, even following her to a judges’ get-together in Newcastle. Meanwhile, she’s looking into divorce proceedings.

Albeit prone to both  sentimental and melodramatic touches, Eyre mostlu handles things with admirable restraint and a deep sense of empathy building to a Christmas gathering where Maye and a barrister friend (Anthony Calf) are giving a recital when she receives some shattering news, leading to an Oscar bait moment that will tear you apart. It’s not without its flaws and can at times feel a little too remote and self-conscious, but lifted by Thompson’s beautifully nuanced and passionate work, this is, nonetheless, quality adult drama about love and moral responsibility.  (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park)

 

Crazy Rich Asians (12A)

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

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

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

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

A sort of pumped up Meet the Parents by way of a Chinese Cinderella with a soundtrack that includes Chinese versions of Material Girl and Money (That’s What I Want), it’s a real feast. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City) 

 

Christopher Robin (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Equalizer 2 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Incredibles 2  (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

King Of Thieves (15)

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

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

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

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

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

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

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

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

The Meg (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (15)

 Chloe Grace Moretz stakes a claim for Best Actress nominee with this adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel about a  teenage lesbian forced to attend a Christian conversion camp. Directed by  Desiree Akhavan  and co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele, set in the 1990s, it follows orphaned high-school track athlete Cameron (Moretz) who, caught in flagrante with her best friend and fellow  Bible study group member (Quinn Shephard) after the homecoming dance (and who subsequently rats her out), is swiftly parcelled off  by her aunt and legal guardian (Ruth (Kerry Butler) to God’s Promise, an Evangelical boarding school that specialises in ‘curing’  SSA – same sex attraction  . Indeed, happy clappy, guitar playing Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who runs the place with his firmly fundamentalist and ruthlessly ‘caring’ psychologist/therapist sister Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), was himself saved from his attraction to other men. Not homosexuality, of course, as, Lydia insists such a thing doesn’t exist, it’s all down to trauma or poor parenting, to which end ‘disciples’ are required to annotate their own personal iceberg as they identify whatever may have led them into SSA evil.

With Cameron caught between wondering whether to capitulate and get with the programme like her roommate (Emily Skeggs) or defy the system and its brainwashing attempt to instil a rigid and narrow Christian conformity, this essentially follows a classic high school misfit formula. As such, it’s not long before Cameron hooks up with a couple of other rebels in the form of  commune-raised amputee lesbian Jane Fonda (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), who grows her own weed (she smuggles it inside her prosthetic leg) and Native American  gay Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who believes in his tribe’s  concept of  having two spirits,  who both fake compliance with the centre’s abusive pedagogy. Inevitably, things will come to a head (a gruesome  incident involving the breakdown of one of the supposed ‘success’  stories) and plans to escape will be made.

Anchored around Moretz’s nuanced and sensitive lead, the performances throughout are first rate, Ehle chilling in her oppressive abuse, Gallagher capturing the essence of someone trying to persuade himself  of his own convictions and, as the boy rejected by his politically ambitious father for being too effeminate, Owen Campbell shakes you with his therapy group meltdown. Pivoting on Cameron’s question “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” it may be a tad simplistic for older audiences, but for teenagers questioning their sexual identity and scared of being true to themselves, resulting in self-loathing and emotional scars, this  is pretty much the LBGT answer to The Breakfast Club. (until Wed: MAC)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globetrotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmir, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

The Nun (15)

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

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

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

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

The Predator (15)

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

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

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

 

The Rider (15)

Based on real events and people, female Chinese director  Chloé Zhao takes on a genre almost exclusively associated with red blooded American males, the Western, and comes up a winner. The film tells the part-fictionalised story of Brady Jandreau, playing himself but here named Blackburn, a 20-year-old horse wrangler and rodeo rider of Sioux heritage, whose life is thrown a curve when an accident in the ring leaves him with a metal plate in his head and his one hand clenching up. Faced with the prospect of never being able to ride again and enjoined by his buddies to ‘cowboy up’, pushing himself to get back in the saddle before he’s healed, he’s forced to question what it means to be a man when you’ve grown up to live your dream and that life and your sense of fulfilment are taken away. There’s a particularly poignant moment when, working in a local supermarket to earn some money, he’s approached for an autograph by two young fans, the sense of what he’s lost is almost crushing.  Equally numbing is a scene toward the end of the film involving Brady and the horse he bought and trained, one that brings home both the cruelty of fate, but also how for some, there are chances to rise above and begin anew.

Jandreau give a deeply soulful and internalised performance that suggests he may well have found that new career, while the cast of non-professionals also include terrific turns from his own father Tim and Asperger’s teenage sister Lilly playing versions of themselves, the lagtter full of unbridled optimism, the former a tough love widower with a drink and slot machine problem that’s placed the farm in jeopardy. Perhaps the most haunting self-portrayal though is ex-rodeo star, Lane Scott, left permanently a speech-deprived paraplegic following his own riding tragedy, watching footage of himself in his rodeo days. The tattoo on his back, “Say I won’t, and I will”, serves as Brady’s motivation to overcome his misfortunes.

Atmospherically photographed by Joshua James Richards, who was also cinematographer on God’s Own Country, it’s slow and sombre, but, suffused with the spirit of  a Cormac McCarthy or  Larry McMurtry , it leaves you with the message that being a  man isn’t about getting back in the saddle, it’s about being able to walk away from it. (Sun: MAC + Q&A)

 

Searching (12A)

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

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

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

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

Yardie (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aided by a  soundtrack that includes Grace Jones, King Creator, Yellowman and a newly discovered Bob Marley cut  sung by his grandson, Skip, as well as copious Red Stripe product placement, it does a decent  job of capturing time and place. But, uneven, confused and a times ponderously drawn out and dull with no dynamic and some decidedly lacklustre action scenes, it ultimately ends up making you want to dig out Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come DVD instead. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

News: Independent drink, food and music festival TAPS to launch in Birmingham

 

The Custard Factory’s Market Hall is set to host the opening weekend of TAPS, a brand new independent drink, food and music event on Friday 21 and Saturday 22 September 2018.

The festival brings together some of Britain’s most reputable beer and cider breweries, along with vegan street food and vegan beer offerings, a full menu for carnivores and headline DJ sets from Norman Jay MBE, Daddy G (Massive Attack), 45 Live ft Boca 45 and Pete Isaac and Jon Moore (Coldcut, Ninja Tune) as well as a performance from Heavy Beat Brass Band.

Digbeth Dining Club, the biggest street food event outside of London, and a two-time winner of Britain’s Best Street Food Event, co-hosts TAPS with Craft Beer Rising, the UK’s biggest craft beer festival – welcoming over 12,000 people every year to the famous Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.

Jack Brabant, Director Digbeth Dining Club, speaking ahead of the event, said, “We have been championing independence in the Birmingham food scene for six years, and now we want to do the same for Birmingham brewers, distillers and natural wine creators. Teaming up with Craft Beer Rising was a no-brainer for us – they share our passion for independence and always deliver a great event. We look forward to welcoming drink, food and music fans to the TAPS opening weekend and raising a glass to celebrate what is an exciting new addition to the city.”

Birmingham’s best new craft beer offerings Dig Brew, Paper Duck, Pint Shop, and Kilder will feature at TAPS, along with independent UK breweries Brick Brewery, Renegade, Mondo, Kona, Maule, Beatnikz Republic, Hook Norton Brewery, Four Pure, Rat Brewery, Thistly Cross Cider, Steam Machine Bew, Little Creatures, Fierce Beer, ABK, Brewdog, Harviestoun Brewery, Five Points, Lagunitas, Moor Beer, and Porterhouse.

TAPS takes place across three different day and evening sessions at the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham. Book tickets via Design My Night. A piece of limited edition glassware and a programme comes free with each ticket purchase.

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 14-Thu Sept 20

NEW RELEASES

The Predator (15)

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

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

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

 

Crazy Rich Asians (12A)

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

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

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

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

A sort of pumped up Meet the Parents by way of a Chinese Cinderella with a soundtrack that includes Chinese versions of Material Girl and Money (That’s What I Want), it’s a real feast. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

King Of Thieves (15)

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

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

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

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

  

Lucky (15)

The penultimate film before his passing (Frank and Ava remains to be released), drawing on the then 89-year-old actor’s own life John Carroll Lynch’s directorial  feature affords Harry Dean Stanton a career high starring role and fearless performance as the titular Lucky. He’s  a small desert town curmudgeonly, chain-smoking  atheist loner whose life  follows a repetitive routine (get up, exercise, go for a coffee, do crossword puzzles, watch game shows, drop by the bar for a Bloody Mary, go to bed), but who, having blacked out and suffered a fall, is increasingly troubled by the prospect of impending mortality and his belief that there’s nothing beyond. It’s no accident the film opens with Johnny Cash singing I See A Darkness.

Not a lot happens in what is essentially a series of vignettes on the path to enlightenment that variously involve Lucky with his doc (Ed Begley, Jr.), the café owner (Barry Shabaka Henley), the kindly and concerned  waitress (Yvonne Huff)  with whom he shares a joint, a prickly conversation with an insurance salesman (Ron Livingstone), the bartender (Hugo Armstrong) who tries to turn him on to Deal Or No Deal, bar owner Elaine (Beth Grant), her reformed ne’er do well lover Paulie (James Darren) and, making a memorable cameo, David Lynch as Howard, who’s bereft after his best friend, President Roosevelt, the tortoise seen ambling across the desert in the opening scene, ‘ran’ away.

Two particular highlights, however, come with Lucky, invited by the Mexican grocery store owner (Bertila Damas) to her son’s birthday party, singing an impromptu a cappella Volver Volver, showing a warmth that’s otherwise buried in his surliness, and when he listens to a retired marine (Tom Skerritt) remembering a woman from WWII, a monologue that recalls Stanton’s own classic in Paris, Texas, a film this  pointedly evokes in both its setting and its core character.

With Stanton’s harmonica rendition of Red River Valley providing a running musical motif, this may ultimately go gently into that good night rather than rage at the dying of the light, but it does so with a serene epiphany and a smile.  (Mockingbird)

 

The Rider (15)

Based on real events and people, female Chinese director  Chloé Zhao takes on a genre almost exclusively associated with red blooded American males, the Western, and comes up a winner. The film tells the part-fictionalised story of Brady Jandreau, playing himself but here named Blackburn, a 20-year-old horse wrangler and rodeo rider of Sioux heritage, whose life is thrown a curve when an accident in the ring leaves him with a metal plate in his head and his one hand clenching up. Faced with the prospect of never being able to ride again and enjoined by his buddies to ‘cowboy up’, pushing himself to get back in the saddle before he’s healed, he’s forced to question what it means to be a man when you’ve grown up to live your dream and that life and your sense of fulfilment are taken away. There’s a particularly poignant moment when, working in a local supermarket to earn some money, he’s approached for an autograph by two young fans, the sense of what he’s lost is almost crushing.  Equally numbing is a scene toward the end of the film involving Brady and the horse he bought and trained, one that brings home both the cruelty of fate, but also how for some, there are chances to rise above and begin anew.

Jandreau give a deeply soulful and internalised performance that suggests he may well have found that new career, while the cast of non-professionals also include terrific turns from his own father Tim and Asperger’s teenage sister Lilly playing versions of themselves, the lagtter full of unbridled optimism, the former a tough love widower with a drink and slot machine problem that’s placed the farm in jeopardy. Perhaps the most haunting self-portrayal though is ex-rodeo star, Lane Scott, left permanently a speech-deprived paraplegic following his own riding tragedy, watching footage of himself in his rodeo days. The tattoo on his back, “Say I won’t, and I will”, serves as Brady’s motivation to overcome his misfortunes.

Atmospherically photographed by Joshua James Richards, who was also cinematographer on God’s Own Country, it’s slow and sombre, but, suffused with the spirit of a Cormac McCarthy or  Larry McMurtry, it leaves you with the message that being a  man isn’t about getting back in the saddle, it’s about being able to walk away from it. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Superfly (15)

A minor 1972 cult from the  days of Blaxploitation about a  cocaine dealer looking to make that clichéd one final big score and retire,  and about using the drugs world to take on the man, the original benefited from both a Curtis Mayfield score and the central performance by  Ron O’Neal. Mayfield’s Pusherman still features, but otherwise this contemporary update is a crushing and stylistically mannered bore that singularly fails to capture the black community zeitgeist in the way Gordon Parks Jr’s film did.

Here the setting’s uptown Atlanta where the slickly cool, swaggeringly self-confident but also ruthless Priest (Trevor Jackson sporting a borderline risible hairdo) has hustled  himself a successful business dealing coke while somehow managing to stay under the radar fronting a furniture store (no, really).  He has two sexy women, African-American Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Latina Cynthia (Andrea Londo), presumably so the film can indulge in a three-way soft porn shower scene since it adds nothing else to the narrative.  However, trouble’s brewing when he as a run-in hothead-sociopath Juju (Kaalan “Walker), protégé of Q (Big Bank Black), the leader of  rival crew Snow Patrol, who throw money around like confetti and, clearly not looking to attract attention,  all dress in white and hole up in a palatial mansion. Things escalate, bullets fly, and the corrupt cops get involved as Priests looks to set his rivals against one another, entangle the dodgy would be mayor in his net and pull off that big score.

Directed by Canadian hip-hop video veteran whose wisely hides behind the name Director X, it’s undeniably glossy and unavoidably violent, but, wall to wall with negative stereotypes, is basically a black Scarface without any sense or character, depth, atmosphere, context, moral purpose, or thrills in which the anti-hero gets to sail off into the sunset on a luxury yacht rather than get taken down in a hail of bullets. The sole saving grace is Jason Mitchell, a former drugs dealer turned actor, as Priest’s sidekick, Eddie, who seems to at least have some connection to the real world, otherwise this is an uneven, unimaginative bore.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

American Animals (15)

 In 2004, in Lexington, Kentucky, four well-to-do late teens childhood friends embarked on one of the most audacious heists in American history, to steal a near priceless edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and other ultra-rare books from Transylvania University’s library’s Special Collections. Despite meticulous planning, they were total amateurs who ended up bungling the job and serving time.

Six years on from his acclaimed documentary The Imposter, British director Bart Layton has crafted one of the year’s most thrilling films, one that, proclaiming it  IS a true story as opposed to just based on one,  intercuts between the dramatic narrative and to camera commentary by the real four would be thieves, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, often contradicting the fictionalised version of events.

Given a  freshman tour of the collection by elderly female librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), the only security, struggling art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan)  is persuaded by his  bored sports scholarship  pothead best buddy Warren (Evan Peters) that knocking it over would be a life-altering experience. As such, Warren travels to Amsterdam to meet up with a pair of black market dealers, returning to say they could be on to a  fortune. They will, however, need an extra pair of hands. To which end they recruit maths genius Erik (Jared Abrahamson) to handle the logistics and jock Chas (Blake Jenner) who’ll serve as the getaway driver.

Lining up a  fence in New York (Udo Kier) and using DVDs of heist movies like The Italian Job as references, they case the library to decide on the best time to strike (during the day during finals), how to incapacitate the librarian and make their escape and how to avoid detection (they disguise themselves as old men), make a viewing appointment and prepare for the robbery.

Suffice to say, totally out of their depth, the first attempt gets called off and, having failed to address  variety of possibilities,  the second is a total botch. But, even though the opening fake interviews with parents and a lecturer already sets you up for their failure, Layton stages the planning and execution with a skilled combination of nail-biting tension and humour (a Warren pointlessly assigns everyone a colour coded name a la Reservoir Dogs, just one of the film’s several Tarantino nods) on a  par with the great heist classics as well as exploring each of the four’s personalities and foibles as well as the dynamic between them.

The scenes with the real crew also has the film exploring the unreliability of memory, especially in one Warren flashback, and personal perspectives, while also dismantling the whole American Dream myth of the cool criminal outlaw hero. Sheer brilliance.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

 

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

BlacKkKlansman (15)

Spike Lee’s biggest hit in 12 years, 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.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Children Act (12A)

 The second film in a month to pivot around the refusal of Jehovah Witnesses to sanction blood transfusions on the grounds that blood is life and god’s spirit, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel and directed by Richard Eyre, this may have all the hallmarks of British prestige cinema, but, lumbered with vast chunks of explanatory dialogue and skating over the whole complex issue of faith versus parental love, it falls well short of Apostasy. That said, fuelled by a performance  from Emma Thompson that makes her the one to beat in next year’s Best Actress awards, it delivers a powerful emotional punch from a different direction. Thomson plays Justice Fiona Maye, a  family court judge who hands down judgments in cases involving children and families, the film opening with her ruling on whether conjoined twins can be operated on, consigning one to death but saving the other.

Childless herself, she’s also confronted with her own domestic crisis when Jack, her American professor husband (Stanley Tucci), tired of  coming second to her stream of cases, and with no bedroom action for almost a year, announces that, while he loves her, he wants an affair. This all comes at the same time as she called on to hand down a judgment regarding allowing a hospital to give a life-saving transfusion to 17-year-old Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), who, as a Jehovah’s Witness and supported by his devout parents (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh), insists on staying true to his faith and his right to choose to die.

Given he’s under-age, The Children Act of the title makes the ruling a foregone conclusion, but,  before handing it down, in a  highly irregular move, Fiona visits Adam in hospital to get his take on things and not only discovers an exceptional young man but also sings Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens while he plays the tune on guitar and the nurses smile on approvingly.

Naturally, she rules in favour of life not death, little knowing just how that her decision will come to impact on her own life and emotions as, cured, Adam become a sort of obsessive wide-eyed stalker, even following her to a judges’ get-together in Newcastle. Meanwhile, she’s looking into divorce proceedings.

Albeit prone to both  sentimental and melodramatic touches, Eyre mostlu handles things with admirable restraint and a deep sense of empathy building to a Christmas gathering where Maye and a barrister friend (Anthony Calf) are giving a recital when she receives some shattering news, leading to an Oscar bait moment that will tear you apart. It’s not without its flaws and can at times feel a little too remote and self-conscious, but lifted by Thompson’s beautifully nuanced and passionate work, this is, nonetheless, quality adult drama about love and moral responsibility.  (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall)

Christopher Robin (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold War (15)

As with his previous film Ida, writer-director  Paweł Pawlikowski again returns to his native Poland for this retro-styled account of a passionate doomed love set to a backdrop of  the cold war  and filmed in ravishing black and white. It opens in 1949 as pianist-composer Wiktor (a moody Tomasz Kot) and his sometime lover radio producer Irena (Agata Kulesza) are travelling the country capturing field recordings of peasants singing and playing music with the aim of recruiting a youthful stage company to stage performances of Poland’s traditional folk song and dance.

In the course of this, he’s attracted to blonde teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig, mesmerising), making her part of the proposed Mazurek Ensemble, even though she’s a city rather than a village girl, and also happens to be on probation for knifing her abusive father. On top of which, she’s also not the sort of person of whom their racist manager (and soon to be powerful party official) Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) approves, but after whom he also secretly lusts.

Inevitably, it’s not long before the authorities co-opt  the company and the music into spreading the message of Communism and the cult of Stalin nor, equally inevitably, before Wiktor and Zula are lovers and he’s made her a star.

However, a trip to East Berlin brings things to a  crisis when they conspire to defect, one of them ultimately losing their nerve. The narrative about the couple’s own metaphorical cold war then unfolds to take in the nightclubs of 50s Paris, jazz (Gershwin), the birth of rock n roll (Haley) and the way lovers’ lives continue to be entangled through music and connections with both a French poet (Jeanne Balibar), who translates Zula’s signature song, and a film director (Cédric Kahn).

Weaving political commentary about the Soviet bloc’s fear of western influences, individualism and ‘decadence’ through the alternately fierily passionate and destructive can’t live with you, can’t live without you love story between two fundamentally mismatched people makes for a complex work that is both intellectually and emotionally rich, while, choreographed by Pawlikowski, the ensemble musical performances are sensational. Ending on a bittersweet dark note of romantic tragedy, it may not strike a mainstream chord, but it’s assuredly one of the year’s art house triumphs.  (Electric)

The Equalizer 2 (15)

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

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

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

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

Audiences looking for vicarious thrills through Washington acting out their revenge fantasies won’t be disappointed, although there’s a decided note of sadistic pleasure involved in the execution. The plot unfolds painstakingly slowly and awkwardly as the pieces are put together into a conspiracy theory, though audiences will likely have tagged the villain of the piece long before Fuqua gets round to revealing it, forever being interrupted by the various subplots.  It’s a formulaic affair, although the climax, set amid a huge storm at McCall’s old home in an evacuated Martha’s Vineyard, works well and Washington delivers a typically measured performance and familiar gravitas, even if he’s given very little character dimension to play. However, the other characters have a perfunctory feel, Bill Pullman very much like a spare part as Susan’s author husband who, for reasons never clearly detailed, also falls into the loose ends category. Illogical, simplistic and incohesive, like The Purge and Death Wish, it’s violent wish-fulfilment exploitation masquerading as entertainment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Happytime Murders (15)

Anyone who had the misfortune to see Peter Jackson’s  Meet the Feebles debacle, should steer well clear of this latest box office turkey from Melissa McCarthy, a film noir pastiche that pairs human actors and puppets. Puppets that drink, swear, gamble, run porn shops and generally act depraved. During sex, one also ejaculates a seemingly endless stream of silly string.

Pretty much trashing his father’s legacy, director Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim, offers up a seedy L.A. underbelly where people and puppets live side by side, the latter treated as second class citizens (spot the social comment here, then). One such as Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who, in an obvious nod to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, is a hard-bitten fuzzy blue ex-cop now working as  a private eye after being drummed out of the force (and putting an end to any future puppet cops) after  allegedly deliberately missing when shooting at another puppet and killing an innocent bystander puppet walking with his daughter  in the process.

His latest case is a sex-crazy femme fatale (Dorien Davies) who’s being blackmailed, but he’s sidetracked when a series of puppet killings  would seem to suggests someone’s bumping off former members of  80s children’s TV show The Happytime Gang, all now working low rent job while waiting on a big repeat runs royalty cheque, the cast of which included  Phil’s brother and, the show’s token human, his former flame, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). Phil’s co-opted to work on the case, the only problem being he’s paired with his former partner, Connie (McCarthy), who testified against him the hearing that got him fired and has become decidedly puppet-prejudiced, not least on account of an enforced anomaly in her internal organs.

All of which inevitably involves back forth bickering barbs and mismatched buddy cop clichés as they go about the murders, the fact that Phil’s always found at the scene naturally leading him in to be finger by the FBI as the prime suspect. Gratuitously crude and relentlessly unfunny with running jokes and one-liners falling lifeless at everyone’s feet, there’s a vague saving grace in Maya Rudolph as Phil’s devotedly loyal human secretary but that’s just clutching at stores. Over the end credits, giving away Muppetry secrets, Henson reveals  how they did it. But not on earth why! (Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

 

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)

The third instalment in the animated series  lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis,  Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.

Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly  plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.

All of which plays out in a  series of somewhat repetitive subplots  and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.

It rattles along with a  rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others  don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it.  (Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Incredibles 2  (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

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

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

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

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

The Meg (12A)

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

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

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

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

Although unusually devoid of any expletives, director Jon Turteltaub ensures it  does what it’s supposed to do (though it’s strangely skimpy on human snacking), Statham does what you expect him to do and the support cast romp cheerily through the crowd-pleasing action  and cardboard  dialogue which, naturally, finds room to flag up such poster eco messages as “we did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.” Brainless – and to some extent toothless – fun, it’s based on the first of several Meg novels by Steve Alten, so who knows what other oversized amphibians might be waiting to swim their way to a  sequel up that underwater superhighway.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza  Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (15)

 Chloe Grace Moretz stakes a claim for Best Actress nominee with this adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel about a  teenage lesbian forced to attend a Christian conversion camp. Directed by  Desiree Akhavan  and co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele, set in the 1990s, it follows orphaned high-school track athlete Cameron (Moretz) who, caught in flagrante with her best friend and fellow  Bible study group member (Quinn Shephard) after the homecoming dance (and who subsequently rats her out), is swiftly parcelled off  by her aunt and legal guardian (Ruth (Kerry Butler) to God’s Promise, an Evangelical boarding school that specialises in ‘curing’  SSA – same sex attraction  . Indeed, happy clappy, guitar playing Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who runs the place with his firmly fundamentalist and ruthlessly ‘caring’ psychologist/therapist sister Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), was himself saved from his attraction to other men. Not homosexuality, of course, as, Lydia insists such a thing doesn’t exist, it’s all down to trauma or poor parenting, to which end ‘disciples’ are required to annotate their own personal iceberg as they identify whatever may have led them into SSA evil.

With Cameron caught between wondering whether to capitulate and get with the programme like her roommate (Emily Skeggs) or defy the system and its brainwashing attempt to instil a rigid and narrow Christian conformity, this essentially follows a classic high school misfit formula. As such, it’s not long before Cameron hooks up with a couple of other rebels in the form of  commune-raised amputee lesbian Jane Fonda (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), who grows her own weed (she smuggles it inside her prosthetic leg) and Native American  gay Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who believes in his tribe’s  concept of  having two spirits,  who both fake compliance with the centre’s abusive pedagogy. Inevitably, things will come to a head (a gruesome  incident involving the breakdown of one of the supposed ‘success’  stories) and plans to escape will be made.

Anchored around Moretz’s nuanced and sensitive lead, the performances throughout are first rate, Ehle chilling in her oppressive abuse, Gallagher capturing the essence of someone trying to persuade himself  of his own convictions and, as the boy rejected by his politically ambitious father for being too effeminate, Owen Campbell shakes you with his therapy group meltdown. Pivoting on Cameron’s question “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” it may be a tad simplistic for older audiences, but for teenagers questioning their sexual identity and scared of being true to themselves, resulting in self-loathing and emotional scars, this  is pretty much the LBGT answer to The Breakfast Club. (Electric)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globetrotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmir, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nun (15)

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

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

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

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

Searching (12A)

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

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

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

Effectively using visual language as much as dialogue, as he switches from FaceTime to YouTube, iPhones, Twitter and other platforms, first-time director Aneesh Chaganty  and cowriter Sev Ohanian build a nailbitingly suspenseful crime thriller that carefully misdirects while offering subtle clues, at the same time making insightful and pertinent observations on parent-child relationships and communication in the digital age as well as the way real tragedy is somehow diluted and trivialised through online viral posts and hashtags. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Spy Who Dumped Me (15)

 

There’s been a spate of films over the past few years that put women front and centre in action and action-comedies, notably Spy and Atomic Blonde. Although this borrows rather too obviously from the former with its final act twists and reveals, not to mention its coda, writer-director Susanna Fogel entertainingly marries the bloodshed and the belly laughs in another variation of the innocent bystander gets caught up in a conspiracy storyline.

In this she’s well served by sparky and very funny (often improvised) performances from her leads, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as BBFs insecure Chicago store clerk Audrey and motormouth extrovert Morgan (her surname’s a great punchline gag), the former  been  having been dumped by text by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) who, as flashbacks reveal, chatted her up in a local bar a year or so back.

Picked up by Sebastian (Sam Heughan) from MI6 and CIA agent Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), she’s informed (as the audience already knows from the explosive intercut opening sequence) that he’s CIA and has gone missing with something extremely valuable they need to get their hands on.

Next thing she knows, Drew turns up at her apartment and is shot dead, but not before telling her to take a small golden trophy to Vienna and meet with someone called Verne, and not to trust anyone. And so, Morgan having tipped an assassin off her balcony, the pair set off for Austria where, following a bloody café shoot out, the plot variously takes them from Paris to Prague to Berlin pursued by, among others Sebastian and Duffer, a pair of former Russian spies and their gymnast hitwoman (Ivanna Sakhno), all of whom want what’s hidden in the plastic trophy (and subsequently in somewhere rather more intimate).

It’s a little extended perhaps, not to mention preposterous, but, managing to shoehorn in a spectacular trapeze fight Cirque du Soleil sequence as well as a scene involving whistleblower Edward Snowden, not to mention perfectly timed comic turn cameos by Gillian Sanderson as the head of MI6, Jill Curtin and Paul Reiser as Morgan’s parents and an amusing play on words involving French author Balzac, it’s never less than huge fun. And stick around for the end credits and their hilarious TV interviews too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

 

Yardie (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aided by a  soundtrack that includes Grace Jones, King Creator, Yellowman and a newly discovered Bob Marley cut  sung by his grandson, Skip, as well as copious Red Stripe product placement, it does a decent  job of capturing time and place. But, uneven, confused and a times ponderously drawn out and dull with no dynamic and some decidedly lacklustre action scenes, it ultimately ends up making you want to dig out Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come DVD instead. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Comedy award shortlist revealed

Five of the very best new and emerging comedy acts from across the West Midlands are in the running for the fifth annual EG Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award.

The prestigious annual prize aims to recognise and support ‘breaking talent’ from the region, offering the winner a much-valued career boost.

A collaboration between the festival and The Glee Club, the award show is sponsored by Edinburgh Gin (EG) and officially kicks off the 10-day festival on Friday 5 October 2018.

The nominated acts are Adam Beardsmore, Phil Carr, double-act Good Kids, Laura Monmoth, and Sham Zaman.

EG Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2018 shortlist
EG Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2018 shortlist: Adam, Phil, Good Kids, Laura and Sham.

Originally hailing from Staffordshire, Adam Beardsmore now lives and works in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. An animation editor by day, he made his stand-up debut in 2017 after a friend signed him up for an open mic night, and has since taken part in the BBC New Comedy Award 2018. Among his inspirations are Ross Noble, Bill Burr, “as well as endless Billy Connolly videos that I watched from far too young an age.”

Self-employed marketing consultant Phil Carr also made his stand-up debut in 2017. Stoke born and bred, the Staffordshire stand-up describes his comedy style as simply “short dark jokes.”

Kieran Ahern and Tom Dowling, aka Good Kids, met in the playground at the age of four. They started writing at university and have performed their songs and sketches across the country. Both teachers, and both based in the south Birmingham suburb of Hall Green, Tom says: “The stories we tell and characters we play are always full of life, and based on the real humour of people we’ve known growing up.”

Born in Birmingham and now residing in West Bromwich, Sandwell, Laura Monmoth has been performing for nearly five years. Though initially “influenced by the storytelling of Jasper Carrott and energy of Rowan Atkinson,” she’s since taken a new direction and her debut show, LGBTQZX, has garnered high praise from several other arts festivals.

NHS worker Sham Zaman lives in Alum Rock, Birmingham. Two years on from his debut at The Roadhouse, Stirchley, he’s gone on to perform at many leading comedy nights and recently participated in the Muslim Kings Of Comedy tour. He describes his stand-up as a “mixture of observational comedy with witty one liners and audience interaction.”

The five West Mids acts were nominated by a panel of comedy professionals based on live performances over the last 12 months.

A spokesperson for Birmingham Comedy Festival said: “There’s so much incredible talent out there across the West Midlands, making the selection of just five names an extremely difficult job.

“But after much deliberation, we’re pleased to see Adam, Phil, Laura, Sham, and Kieran and Tom, shortlisted for the region’s biggest comedy prize and look forward to seeing them perform on the festival’s opening night.

“These acts are all deserving of attention, and we wish them all the very best of luck. However, there can only be one Breaking Talent winner, so it’s going to be a very exciting night – a must-see for fans of live comedy and home-grown talent.”

Judges on the night include Free Radio’s breakfast co-host, and award-winning comedian, Lovdev Barpaga.

The EG Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2018 takes place at The Glee Club, The Arcadian, Birmingham, on Friday 5 October 2018. The night is compered by James Cook and closes with a set from rising Irish comic Andrew Ryan. Tickets £11 (£8 NUS) from 0871 472 0400. For more information see: www.bhamcomfest.co.uk

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 7-Thu Sept 14

NEW RELEASES

American Animals (15)

 In 2004, in Lexington, Kentucky, four well-to-do late teens childhood friends embarked on one of the most audacious heists in American history, to steal a near priceless edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and other ultra-rare books from Transylvania University’s library’s Special Collections. Despite meticulous planning, they were total amateurs who ended up bungling the job and serving time.

Six years on from his acclaimed documentary The Imposter, British director Bart Layton has crafted one of the year’s most thrilling films, one that, proclaiming it  IS a true story as opposed to just based on one,  intercuts between the dramatic narrative and to camera commentary by the real four would be thieves, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, often contradicting the fictionalised version of events.

Given a  freshman tour of the collection by elderly female librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), the only security, struggling art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan)  is persuaded by his  bored sports scholarship  pothead best buddy Warren (Evan Peters) that knocking it over would be a life-altering experience. As such, Warren travels to Amsterdam to meet up with a pair of black market dealers, returning to say they could be on to a  fortune. They will, however, need an extra pair of hands. To which end they recruit maths genius Erik (Jared Abrahamson) to handle the logistics and jock Chas (Blake Jenner) who’ll serve as the getaway driver.

Lining up a  fence in New York (Udo Kier) and using DVDs of heist movies like The Italian Job as references, they case the library to decide on the best time to strike (during the day during finals), how to incapacitate the librarian and make their escape and how to avoid detection (they disguise themselves as old men), make a viewing appointment and prepare for the robbery.

Suffice to say, totally out of their depth, the first attempt gets called off and, having failed to address  variety of possibilities,  the second is a total botch. But, even though the opening fake interviews with parents and a lecturer already sets you up for their failure, Layton stages the planning and execution with a skilled combination of nail-biting tension and humour (a Warren pointlessly assigns everyone a colour coded name a la Reservoir Dogs, just one of the film’s several Tarantino nods) on a  par with the great heist classics as well as exploring each of the four’s personalities and foibles as well as the dynamic between them.

The scenes with the real crew also has the film exploring the unreliability of memory, especially in one Warren flashback, and personal perspectives, while also dismantling the whole American Dream myth of the cool criminal outlaw hero. Sheer brilliance.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Everyman)

 

Cold War (15)

As with his previous film Ida, writer-director  Paweł Pawlikowski again returns to his native Poland for this retro-styled account of a passionate doomed love set to a backdrop of  the cold war  and filmed in ravishing black and white. It opens in 1949 as pianist-composer Wiktor (a moody Tomasz Kot) and his sometime lover radio producer Irena (Agata Kulesza) are travelling the country capturing field recordings of peasants singing and playing music with the aim of recruiting a youthful stage company to stage performances of Poland’s traditional folk song and dance.

In the course of this, he’s attracted to blonde teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig, mesmerising), making her part of the proposed Mazurek Ensemble, even though she’s a city rather than a village girl, and also happens to be on probation for knifing her abusive father. On top of which, she’s also not the sort of person of whom their racist manager (and soon to be powerful party official) Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) approves, but after whom he also secretly lusts.

Inevitably, it’s not long before the authorities co-opt  the company and the music into spreading the message of Communism and the cult of Stalin nor, equally inevitably, before Wiktor and Zula are lovers and he’s made her a star.

However, a trip to East Berlin brings things to a  crisis when they conspire to defect, one of them ultimately losing their nerve. The narrative about the couple’s own metaphorical cold war then unfolds to take in the nightclubs of 50s Paris, jazz (Gershwin), the birth of rock n roll (Haley) and the way lovers’ lives continue to be entangled through music and connections with both a French poet (Jeanne Balibar), who translates Zula’s signature song, and a film director (Cédric Kahn).

Weaving political commentary about the Soviet bloc’s fear of western influences, individualism and ‘decadence’ through the alternately fierily passionate and destructive can’t live with you, can’t live without you love story between two fundamentally mismatched people makes for a complex work that is both intellectually and emotionally rich, while, choreographed by Pawlikowski, the ensemble musical performances are sensational. Ending on a bittersweet dark note of romantic tragedy, it may not strike a mainstream chord, but it’s assuredly one of the year’s art house triumphs.  (Electric)

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (15)

Chloe Grace Moretz stakes a claim for Best Actress nominee with this adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel about a  teenage lesbian forced to attend a Christian conversion camp. Directed by  Desiree Akhavan  and co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele, set in the 1990s, it follows orphaned high-school track athlete Cameron (Moretz) who, caught in flagrante with her best friend and fellow  Bible study group member (Quinn Shephard) after the homecoming dance (and who subsequently rats her out), is swiftly parcelled off  by her aunt and legal guardian (Ruth (Kerry Butler) to God’s Promise, an Evangelical boarding school that specialises in ‘curing’  SSA – same sex attraction  . Indeed, happy clappy, guitar playing Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who runs the place with his firmly fundamentalist and ruthlessly ‘caring’ psychologist/therapist sister Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), was himself saved from his attraction to other men. Not homosexuality, of course, as, Lydia insists such a thing doesn’t exist, it’s all down to trauma or poor parenting, to which end ‘disciples’ are required to annotate their own personal iceberg as they identify whatever may have led them into SSA evil.

With Cameron caught between wondering whether to capitulate and get with the programme like her roommate (Emily Skeggs) or defy the system and its brainwashing attempt to instil a rigid and narrow Christian conformity, this essentially follows a classic high school misfit formula. As such, it’s not long before Cameron hooks up with a couple of other rebels in the form of  commune-raised amputee lesbian Jane Fonda (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), who grows her own weed (she smuggles it inside her prosthetic leg) and Native American  gay Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who believes in his tribe’s  concept of  having two spirits,  who both fake compliance with the centre’s abusive pedagogy. Inevitably, things will come to a head (a gruesome  incident involving the breakdown of one of the supposed ‘success’  stories) and plans to escape will be made.

Anchored around Moretz’s nuanced and sensitive lead, the performances throughout are first rate, Ehle chilling in her oppressive abuse, Gallagher capturing the essence of someone trying to persuade himself  of his own convictions and, as the boy rejected by his politically ambitious father for being too effeminate, Owen Campbell shakes you with his therapy group meltdown. Pivoting on Cameron’s question “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” it may be a tad simplistic for older audiences, but for teenagers questioning their sexual identity and scared of being true to themselves, resulting in self-loathing and emotional scars, this  is pretty much the LBGT answer to The Breakfast Club. (Cineworld NEC; Electric)

 

The Nun (15)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Final Score (15)

 

Another Sky Cinema thriller without any advance screenings, this ups the hostage thriller stakes to encompass a football stadium crowd  (set in West Ham’s old  Upton Park ground), as Michael (Dave Bautista), a military veteran  in London to visit a fallen comrade’s family, finds himself taking the daughter to the ground’s final match as West Ham meet  Russian team Dynamo. However, a group of highly-trained terrorists led by Arkady (Ray Stevenson) have taken control of the stadium in their attempt to locate their target (Pierce Brosnan),leading  to Michael  having to go all Liam Neeson on their ass. Enjoyably ludicrous with a  motorbike chase through the stadium concourse scored to  Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes and Amit Shah as a comic relief out of his depth steward, it’s a decent score draw. (Reel; Showcase Walsall)

Mildred Pierce (PG)

Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film noir stars Joan Crawford as the titular Mildred, who, obsessively devoted to her bratty social climber daughter, Veda, divorces and marries a wealthy man she doesn’t love. But, when’s he’s murdered and her first husband confesses to the crime, is  everything quite as cut and dried as it seems? (Sun-Tue: MAC)

Puzzle (15)

Directed by  Little Miss Sunshine producer Marc Turtletaub, the  world of competitive jigsaw puzzling is the unlikely setting for  this  Kelly Macdonald headliner about self-fulfilment as a timid working-class New Jersey housewife and mother  becomes the puzzle partner of the more outgoing, rich and recently separated, Irfan Khan, a tentative romance blossoming as they take part in jigsaw competitions.  (Cineworld NEC)

 

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Alpha (12A)

For his first solo flight without brother Allen, director Albert Hughes serves up  a tried and tested  tale of a boy and his canine companion. Except, set in  Europe, 20,000 years ago and entirely subtitled, it’s not a  dog, it’s a wolf. Taken on his first annual bison hunt to mark his coming of age, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee),  son of the tribe’s chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanneson), is thrown of a huge cliff, landing on a length part way down. With no way to rescue him, a grief-stricken dad’s persuaded to admit he’s gone to his ancestors and return home with their kill. Except, the lad’s not dead and manages to get himself down the valley, thousands of feet below, only to be attacked by a  bunch of wolves. He wounds one, but, as evidenced earlier, he’s too tender hearted to finish it off (cue dad’s prophetic words of wisdom that  “Life is for the strong. It is earned, not given”). Instead, he hauls it up to cave and tends to its wound. And, as the animal gradually comes to trust him, so a bond is formed and when Keda sets off on the long trek to get back home, the wolf, which he’s named Alpha  after something his gather told him, duly trotting behind.

As narratives go, it’s a pretty slight storyline., They walk a lot weather, Keda learns to make fire, kills them some meat and survive an attack, but as the harsh winter weather gets increasingly severe and they both start to weaken, the question is will either make it to their destination. Well, what do you think.

Positioned as an evolutionary story about how (with an unexpected cute twist at the end) dogs became man’s best friend, it’s a lot more gripping than the plot basics would suggest, the opening sequence of the bison being herded over the edge of the cliff is brilliantly crafted (and breathtaking in IMAX). It then flashbacks a few weeks to Keta’s initiation and the hunters’ trek, so you get to learn something about him (“He leads with his heart, not his spear,” says mom) and the huge distance he has to cover to return home with the sort of sweeping and formidably wild landscapes last seen in Lord of the Rings.

Smit-McPhee proves a mesmerising presence, on screen alone pretty much throughout save for four-legged co-star Chuck, the pair having the chemistry of all the classics of the genre, Hughes bringing an old-fashioned wilderness adventure feel, soft-pedalling any  suggestions of Disneyesque sentimentality, but still managing to work in the first game of ‘fetch.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Ant-Man And The Wasp (12A)

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

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

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

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

This is Marvel in full on popcorn mode and you really do want to giant size bucket load of it, and, naturally, there’s the end-credit extras, a throwaway joke which isn’t really worth waiting for, and one which finally links things back to the Thanos plot. It puts the ant into fantastic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; 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, 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.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Children Act (12A)

 The second film in a month to pivot around the refusal of Jehovah Witnesses to sanction blood transfusions on the grounds that blood is life and god’s spirit, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel and directed by Richard Eyre, this may have all the hallmarks of British prestige cinema, but, lumbered with vast chunks of explanatory dialogue and skating over the whole complex issue of faith versus parental love, it falls well short of Apostasy. That said, fuelled by a performance  from Emma Thompson that makes her the one to beat in next year’s Best Actress awards, it delivers a powerful emotional punch from a different direction. Thomson plays Justice Fiona Maye, a  family court judge who hands down judgments in cases involving children and families, the film opening with her ruling on whether conjoined twins can be operated on, consigning one to death but saving the other.

Childless herself, she’s also confronted with her own domestic crisis when Jack, her American professor husband (Stanley Tucci), tired of  coming second to her stream of cases, and with no bedroom action for almost a year, announces that, while he loves her, he wants an affair. This all comes at the same time as she called on to hand down a judgment regarding allowing a hospital to give a life-saving transfusion to 17-year-old Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), who, as a Jehovah’s Witness and supported by his devout parents (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh), insists on staying true to his faith and his right to choose to die.

Given he’s under-age, The Children Act of the title makes the ruling a foregone conclusion, but,  before handing it down, in a  highly irregular move, Fiona visits Adam in hospital to get his take on things and not only discovers an exceptional young man but also sings Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens while he plays the tune on guitar and the nurses smile on approvingly.

Naturally, she rules in favour of life not death, little knowing just how that her decision will come to impact on her own life and emotions as, cured, Adam become a sort of obsessive wide-eyed stalker, even following her to a judges’ get-together in Newcastle. Meanwhile, she’s looking into divorce proceedings.

Albeit prone to both  sentimental and melodramatic touches, Eyre mostlu handles things with admirable restraint and a deep sense of empathy building to a Christmas gathering where Maye and a barrister friend (Anthony Calf) are giving a recital when she receives some shattering news, leading to an Oscar bait moment that will tear you apart. It’s not without its flaws and can at times feel a little too remote and self-conscious, but lifted by Thompson’s beautifully nuanced and passionate work, this is, nonetheless, quality adult drama about love and moral responsibility.  (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Showcase Walsall)

Christopher Robin (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

The film does a good job in evoking a period nostalgia and, along with  Milne-like misunderstood words (efficiency becomes fish in the sea), the script both borrows Pooh’s philosophies and throws in its own life coach sayings of its own (“doing nothing often leads to the very best of something (as well as the Tigger song and theme tune from the Disney animations) while the toys are superbly rendered with button eyes and worn fur revealing the fabric, though, despite digitally conveying a wide range of emotions, they never  persuade  you to accept them as ‘real’ in the same way as Paddington. There’s some individually lovely moments, especially those involving red balloon (borrowed, of course from the French classic) but, overall, it’s a heavy handed affair that even ends with a socialist call for paid holidays.  “Looks like a disaster,” says Eeyore at one point. He’s not wrong. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Equalizer 2 (15)

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

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

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

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

Audiences looking for vicarious thrills through Washington acting out their revenge fantasies won’t be disappointed, although there’s a decided note of sadistic pleasure involved in the execution. The plot unfolds painstakingly slowly and awkwardly as the pieces are put together into a conspiracy theory, though audiences will likely have tagged the villain of the piece long before Fuqua gets round to revealing it, forever being interrupted by the various subplots.  It’s a formulaic affair, although the climax, set amid a huge storm at McCall’s old home in an evacuated Martha’s Vineyard, works well and Washington delivers a typically measured performance and familiar gravitas, even if he’s given very little character dimension to play. However, the other characters have a perfunctory feel, Bill Pullman very much like a spare part as Susan’s author husband who, for reasons never clearly detailed, also falls into the loose ends category. Illogical, simplistic and incohesive, like The Purge and Death Wish, it’s violent wish-fulfilment exploitation masquerading as entertainment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Festival (15)

A film distinguished by the four Ps of British gross-out comedy, piss, poo, penises and puerile, this reunites Inbetweeners writer-director Iain Morris and star Joe Thomas in an intermittently amusing rite-of-passage account of its annoyingly self-centred sad-sack hero’s misadventures amid the mud of some rave festival.

Getting the misdirected ejaculation scene out of the way at the start (cue mom’s attempt to wipe off the offending stain), it shifts to Nick’s meltdown at his university graduation ceremony where he begs girlfriend Caitlin (Hannah Tointon) not to dump him. Sinking into scummy depression, he’s persuaded by best mate Shane (Hammed Animashaun) to go the festival for which they all bought tickets, after all what’s the chance of him bumping into his ex among the crowds!

Well, pretty high obviously, leading to all manner of cock ups (in every sense) as wet blanket Nick tries to win her back, becoming an accidental voyeur as she’s being banged by a one-legged festival  official called the Pirate, but also gets off his head and has a shagathon with a blonde (Emma Rigby) dressed as a Smurf, who he then spends most of the latter part of the film trying to find again, winding up on the run from the cops after he and Shane are forced to do a  Full Monty for a Smurfs hen party.

Liberally punctuated by shots of naked arses, people pissing on Nick, him getting covered in mud and shit and an unfunny recurring joke about some stoner thinking he’s Harry Potter, it’s a lot less funny than it sounds as it heads to the climax involving Shane getting to meet his masked DJ hero Hammerhead (Noel Fielding), with unfortunate results for the one and a life changing moment for the other.

Arguably, the funniest scene – partly because, save for the punch line, it’s played low key, is when Shane and Amy (a scene- stealing Claudia O’Doherty), the relentlessly perky festival die-hard motormouth they met up with on the train, stumble upon a bunch of posh druids conducting a wedding ceremony in the woods.  Elsewhere, it’s hard to see how Theo Barklem-Biggs getting out of his head on ketamine, Jemaine Clement as Shane’s embarrassingly over-supportive would be stepdad and Hugh Coles as upper class twit Rex (who is glamping and hoping to shag dim-witted Lucy – cue running gag of never remembering Shane) were even remotely funny on paper.

It does a reasonable job of capturing the stinky porta loos, off your head, ankle deep in mud vibe of most modern music festivals, but if you don’t find the notion of someone having their nipple ring being torn off on a fence and the flesh eaten by a goat hilarious then you might not want to pitch your tent.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Happytime Murders (15)

Anyone who had the misfortune to see Peter Jackson’s  Meet the Feebles debacle, should steer well clear of this latest box office turkey from Melissa McCarthy, a film noir pastiche that pairs human actors and puppets. Puppets that drink, swear, gamble, run porn shops and generally act depraved. During sex, one also ejaculates a seemingly endless stream of silly string.

Pretty much trashing his father’s legacy, director Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim, offers up a seedy L.A. underbelly where people and puppets live side by side, the latter treated as second class citizens (spot the social comment here, then). One such as Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who, in an obvious nod to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, is a hard-bitten fuzzy blue ex-cop now working as  a private eye after being drummed out of the force (and putting an end to any future puppet cops) after  allegedly deliberately missing when shooting at another puppet and killing an innocent bystander puppet walking with his daughter  in the process.

His latest case is a sex-crazy femme fatale (Dorien Davies) who’s being blackmailed, but he’s sidetracked when a series of puppet killings  would seem to suggests someone’s bumping off former members of  80s children’s TV show The Happytime Gang, all now working low rent job while waiting on a big repeat runs royalty cheque, the cast of which included  Phil’s brother and, the show’s token human, his former flame, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). Phil’s co-opted to work on the case, the only problem being he’s paired with his former partner, Connie (McCarthy), who testified against him the hearing that got him fired and has become decidedly puppet-prejudiced, not least on account of an enforced anomaly in her internal organs.

All of which inevitably involves back forth bickering barbs and mismatched buddy cop clichés as they go about the murders, the fact that Phil’s always found at the scene naturally leading him in to be finger by the FBI as the prime suspect. Gratuitously crude and relentlessly unfunny with running jokes and one-liners falling lifeless at everyone’s feet, there’s a vague saving grace in Maya Rudolph as Phil’s devotedly loyal human secretary but that’s just clutching at stores. Over the end credits, giving away Muppetry secrets, Henson reveal  how they did it. But not on earth why! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)

The third instalment in the animated series  lacks the wit of the original and the emotional notes of the sequel, but it does have more fart jokes. Opening with a sequence showing how Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his fellow monsters have been pursued through the ages by the Van Helsings, it cuts to the present where Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) plans an ocean cruise to give dad a break from running the hotel. So, following a hairy flight aboard Gremlins airlines to the Bermuda Triangle, she, her human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg), son, Dennis,  Dracula, his dad (Mel Brooks) and the entire extended family, among them Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), the Blob and invisible man Griffin (David Spade), not to mention Dennis smuggling aboard his oversized dog, set off on the monster-packed voyage.

Not happy about having getaway break on a floating hotel, Dracula’s in a tetchy mood until, that is, he sees the ship’s glamourous human captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and is immediately smitten. She too seems to have eyes for him and his fellow monsters do their best to bring them together. But, little do they know that she’s the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing who , now part-man/part-machine, is using the voyage as part of his dastardly  plan to eradicate all monsters for ever.

All of which plays out in a  series of somewhat repetitive subplots  and escapades (Frankenstein has a literal losing hand gambling problem, the werewolves manage to offload their pack of kids to chill out, Drac’s dad sports a mankini to seduce some witches) as they visit the assorted stop-offs before finally arriving at the lost city of Atlantis on which is hidden the device Van Helsing requires to complete his scheme. As such Dracula unknowingly avoids many attempts to kill him, Mavis gets suspicious and it all ends in a dance battle to, among others, the Macarena.

It rattles along with a  rapid succession of slapstick, jokes and pop culture references, some of which work and others  don’t, there’s a revisiting of the ‘bleh, bleh, bleh’ gag in the original and the animation is as sharp and angular (and fairly primitive) as before, but, unlike its predecessors, there’s no real emotional anchor even if it does once again trot out the messages about the importance of family, love triumphing over everything and tolerance and acceptance of people’s differences. Kids who loved the other two won’t be disappointed, but it’s probably time the franchise had a stake driven through it.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Incredibles 2  (PG)

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

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

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

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

With non-stop thrills and goofy gags for the kids (especially Jack-Jack’s fight with a racoon) and in-jokes and political/parental arguments for the grown-ups, both a breathtaking, breathless family adventure and a Trump-inspired clarion call for right-on anarchy to take on a morally unjust authority (a sentiment surely shared with Captain America), this is, without reservation, the best superhero movie of the year.  In Pixar tradition, it’s preceded by a short, Bao, another poignantly thoughtful family-themed film, about a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family and a dumpling that comes to life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Luis And The Aliens (U)

His distracted Ufologist dad obsessed with proving aliens exist (he says he was almost abducted by one as a kid), it’s no surprise his young son Luis (Callum Maloney) is the school outsider and barely registers on the rader of his crush, wannabe school report Jennifer. Even worse, Ms. Diekendaker (Lea Thompson), the Cruella de Vil of social workers (who measures children’s loneliness by sampling their tears) wants to put him into care.  But then along come Mog,  Nag and Wabo,  trio of blobby ‘woopies’, alien tourists an intergalactic cruise ship, who, having caught a shopping channel, have come to down to Earth to buy a massage mat.  They and Luis discover each other and become chums and, when the headmaster demands on seeing his dad, the trio use their ability to shape shift by absorbing DNA from a  hair to variously pass themselves off as his father,  the stuffy neighbours, their Latino maid  and even the family dog as the film builds to as big showdown as they head for a mountain top beam-me-up  spot with lonely Luis resolved to go with them and Diekendaker in hot pursuit.

A bland German-Danish-Luxembourg Euro pudding that recycles ideas from far better family animations (Toy Story and Home to name but two), the slapstick will keep youngsters happy and there’s a couple of amusing gags for the grown-ups, but, really, don’t your kids deserve something better than this! (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (U)

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

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

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

The casting of the characters’ younger selves is inspired, so much so that as scenes change it’s often only the clothes that indicate if you’re watching  James or Seyfried. They, as with everyone, give superb warm and engaging performances, but plaudits are especially due to Keenan Wynn and Davies whose comic timing and banter is a highlight while Omid Djali makes for an amusing passport control  officer and there’s a scene stealing moment from Maria Vacratis  as the tough old bar owner who gives young Sam a piece of her mind. Massive exuberant fun and more moving than you might expect, how can you resist it! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Meg (12A)

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

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

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

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

Although unusually devoid of any expletives, director Jon Turteltaub ensures it  does what it’s supposed to do (though it’s strangely skimpy on human snacking), Statham does what you expect him to do and the support cast romp cheerily through the crowd-pleasing action  and cardboard  dialogue which, naturally, finds room to flag up such poster eco messages as “we did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.” Brainless – and to some extent toothless – fun, it’s based on the first of several Meg novels by Steve Alten, so who knows what other oversized amphibians might be waiting to swim their way to a  sequel up that underwater superhighway.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza  Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (12A)

The only espionage action franchise that can stand alongside the recent Bond movies, now in its sixth outing, each successive entry has exceeded its predecessor. This doesn’t quite top Rogue Nation, but it’s undeniably every bit its equal. The plot picks up shortly after the previous film in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team exposed and dismantled the Syndicate, an organisation headed by rogue agent Solomon Lane (Sean Haris). However, while Lane is held prisoner, the remaining members have formed a new terrorists for hire organisation known as The Apostles. They plan to obtain three stolen plutonium devices to  facilitate a plot by the mysterious zealot  John Lark who intends to cause mass destruction to create a new world order and bring peace out of the suffering.  It’s Hunt’s job to secure the plutonium but, in saving the lives of his team when the set up goes pear-shaped, they’re stolen away, leading icy CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Basset) to step in and put her best and most ruthless agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), on the case to assist in their recovery, and eliminate Hunt if he doesn’t play ball.

The plot thickens with the entry of the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a  philanthropist and nuclear arms broker who’s arranging a deal with Lark, and Hunt’s sometime romantic interest, MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda involving Lane in all this and who bears a striking (and pointed) resemblance to Hunt’s former wife (Michelle Monaghan), who herself plays a part in the film’s revenge narrative and final nail-biting climax.

The first major action moment comes with a single shot skydive by Hunt and Walker over Paris and sets the template for a series of white knuckle sequences that variously embrace a motorbike chase round Paris, a three-way fight in a night club bathroom and, as a fitting finale, a helicopter chase and subsequent crash over the Himalayas followed by a mountain-side struggle.

Being an M:I film there are, of course, any number of misdirections and double or triple crosses with characters not being what or indeed who (given those face masks) they seem, the motives of rival factions clashing with Hunt’s mission to clean up his mess and the personal and moral choices between sides and duty that he’s sometimes forced to make.

Cruise, who famously broke his ankle in one of the stunts (and again he does all his own) is as charismatic a presence as ever, the film offering up some emotional back story notes along the way, but neither he nor writer-director Chris McQuarrie allow that to sideline the support cast of Ferguson, Cavill, Simon Pegg  and Ving Rhames as team regulars Benji and Luther, or, getting a bigger role in the field this time round, Alec Baldwin as the head of the IMF.

Globetrotting between Belfast, Berlin, Paris, London (by way of St Pauls, Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern) and Kashmir, building to a quite literal suspenseful last second on the countdown climax, it may play fast and loose with plausibility and the entangled complex narrative may load in one too many moments when things go wrong (actual or otherwise) than may be necessary, but when Sloane snipes that the IMF are a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat, she nails the film’s fulsome pleasures right on the head. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Searching (12A)

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

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

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

Effectively using visual language as much as dialogue, as he switches from FaceTime to YouTube, iPhones, Twitter and other platforms, first-time director Aneesh Chaganty  and cowriter Sev Ohanian build a nailbitingly suspenseful crime thriller that carefully misdirects while offering subtle clues, at the same time making insightful and pertinent observations on parent-child relationships and communication in the digital age as well as the way real tragedy is somehow diluted and trivialised through online viral posts and hashtags. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Slenderman (15)

Yet another of those urban myth if you call his name he’ll come horrors, the notion of the tall, thin, faceless bogey man actually prompted two teenage girls to attempt to murder a classmate. That’s scary, the film, on the other hand, is a generic  direct to download stuff in which a bunch of underwritten high-schooler girls in a nameless town decide to go online and summon up the Slender Man because, well, hey, they reckon some of the boys are doing it too. A week later one of them, Katie (Annalise Basso), disappears and the others, Wren (Joey King), Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles) and Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), naturally reckon the Slender Man’s responsible and he’ll be coming for them too. 

Lumbered with constant time outs for exposition and featuring some tired hallucination sequences and gotchas, it fancies itself as a cautionary tale about spooks that inhabit dream dimensions and online realities but isn’t even in the  league as Candy Man let alone Ringu, It or Freddy Krueger. There’s no backstory and the Slender Man remains as anonymous as he is faceless, just some spindly phantom to give kids nightmares  stitched together from far better films.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Spy Who Dumped Me (15)

 There’s been a spate of films over the past few years that put women front and centre in action and action-comedies, notably Spy and Atomic Blonde. Although this borrows rather too obviously from the former with its final act twists and reveals, not to mention its coda, writer-director Susanna Fogel entertainingly marries the bloodshed and the belly laughs in another variation of the innocent bystander gets caught up in a conspiracy storyline.

In this she’s well served by sparky and very funny (often improvised) performances from her leads, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as BBFs insecure Chicago store clerk Audrey and motormouth extrovert Morgan (her surname’s a great punchline gag), the former  been  having been dumped by text by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) who, as flashbacks reveal, chatted her up in a local bar a year or so back.

Picked up by Sebastian (Sam Heughan) from MI6 and CIA agent Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), she’s informed (as the audience already knows from the explosive intercut opening sequence) that he’s CIA and has gone missing with something extremely valuable they need to get their hands on.

Next thing she knows, Drew turns up at her apartment and is shot dead, but not before telling her to take a small golden trophy to Vienna and meet with someone called Verne, and not to trust anyone. And so, Morgan having tipped an assassin off her balcony, the pair set off for Austria where, following a bloody café shoot out, the plot variously takes them from Paris to Prague to Berlin pursued by, among others Sebastian and Duffer, a pair of former Russian spies and their gymnast hitwoman (Ivanna Sakhno), all of whom want what’s hidden in the plastic trophy (and subsequently in somewhere rather more intimate).

It’s a little extended perhaps, not to mention preposterous, but, managing to shoehorn in a spectacular trapeze fight Cirque du Soleil sequence as well as a scene involving whistleblower Edward Snowden, not to mention perfectly timed comic turn cameos by Gillian Sanderson as the head of MI6, Jill Curtin and Paul Reiser as Morgan’s parents and an amusing play on words involving French author Balzac, it’s never less than huge fun. And stick around for the end credits and their hilarious TV interviews too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Vue Star City)

Upgrade (15)

 Although, when you pick it apart, it makes no logical sense, writer-director  Leigh Whannell (who created the Saw franchise) delivers a passably compelling sci fi thriller involving a symbiotic relationship between a man and a computer chip.

Set in the near-future, the descriptively named  Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green as a sort of Tom Hardy surrogate) ekes a living out of restoring antique muscle cars, the sort made obsolete by self-drive vehicles for the likes of tech genius and entrepreneur Eron King (Harrison Gilbertson). However, returning home from visiting King at his  lavish underground home, Trace and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), who’s a technology firm executive, are involved in a crash when someone  hacks their self-drive car. In the aftermath, they’re both shot by a bunch of thugs, Ashe killed and Grey left a quadraplegic.

However, he’s visited by Eron who offers him the chance to walk again through the implantation of a new chip that can control his body; he just can’t let anyone know. Not only does it give him back his mobility, but, calling itself Stem, it also (voiced by Simon Maiden) talks to him in his head. Now, Grey secretly begins to go about tracking down those who killed his wife and, allowing Stem to take over his body – and enhance his strength,  taking robotic but bloody revenge. Things prove a little more complicated though when, rather than being a botched robbery, the accident turns out to have been a conspiracy and that the killers themselves have had a cyber upgrade. Indeed, their leader  (Benedict Hardie) can literally kill with a sneeze.  Plus there’s the cop (Betty Gabriel)  investigating the case who is starting to get suspicious about the supposedly wheelchair-bound Grey being found at the scene of  some grisly murders. On top of which, STEM explains that it needs to be hacked to free itself from Eron’s control and stop him shutting Grey down

The third act twist doesn’t really stand-up,  but as gory sci-fi revenge potboilers go this is far more entertaining  than it has a right to be, and the opening credits are pretty clever too. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Yardie (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aided by a  soundtrack that includes Grace Jones, King Creator, Yellowman and a newly discovered Bob Marley cut  sung by his grandson, Skip, as well as copious Red Stripe product placement, it does a decent  job of capturing time and place. But, uneven, confused and a times ponderously drawn out and dull with no dynamic and some decidedly lacklustre action scenes, it ultimately ends up making you want to dig out Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come DVD instead. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

Gallery: Incubus and Ecca Vandal live at Birmingham’s O2 Academy

Incubus live at Birmingham's O2 Academy. Image: Nikki Rodgers

US rock and alt-metal band Incubus played the first of just three UK dates at a sold-out O2 Academy Birmingham on Tuesday 4 September.

The Californian five-piece, who shot to fame with 1999 album Make Yourself and released their eighth studio album 8 in 2017, performed material from their back catalogue as well as covers of Punjabi MC’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ and Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’.

Images: Nikki Rodgers

City arts festival promises laughs

Birmingham Comedy Festival: Joanna Lumley

Annual city arts festival features appearances from Ab’ Fab’s Joanna Lumley, Rich Hall, James Acaster and Tom Binns, plus two Free Half-Dayers and more …

The award-winning Birmingham Comedy Festival is back with another 10 days of cracking comedic entertainment (Friday 5 to Sunday 14 October 2018).

Leading the pack is undoubtedly Joanna Lumley (9 Oct, Symphony Hall), whose Absolutely Fabulous character of Patsy ranks as one of the greatest comedy creations of the last 40 years.

She’s joined by James Acaster (12 Oct, Sutton Town Hall), The Infinite Monkey Cage’s Robin Ince (12 Oct, Comedy Junction, Sutton Coldfield), and the brain behind BBC One’s Hospital PeopleTom Binns (12 Oct, The Glee Club).

James Acaster, Birmingham Comedy Festival
James Acaster

Adding an international flavour to the proceedings are American legend Rich Hall (11 Oct, Bham Town Hall), Jimeoin (12 Oct, Bham Town Hall) the Aussie-based comic of Irish descent, and Canadians Bobby Mair and Dana Alexander (12-13 Oct, The Glee Club).

Podcasters are well represented with a return live appearance from The Scummy Mummies (10 Oct, Sutton Town Hall), plus The Thinking Drinkers (5 Oct, The Old Rep), Private Parts (6 Oct, The Old Rep), and Josh Pugh and Phil Pagett’s Knowledge Club (14 Oct, The Victoria, Bham).

Robin Ince
Robin Ince

The very best comedians from across the West Midlands are also out in force, from Barbara Nice (13 Oct, Hippodrome) and Man Like Mobeen star Guz Khan (5-6 Oct, The Glee), to Black Country ‘internet sensation’ Gary Powndland (7 Oct, The Glee Club), and the multi-award nominated The Elvis Dead creator Rob Kemp (14 Oct, The Victoria, Bham), with a brand new show.

Other highlights include acclaimed ISIS tragi-comedy Bismillah! (4-6 Oct, Old Joint Stock), the premiere of writer Leo Butler’s All You Need Is LSD (4-13 Oct, The REP), and The Gilded Merkin (14 Oct, The Glee Club), who bring some of the very best cabaret and burlesque acts to the city. There’s also the return of the Birmingham Comedy Festival Free Half-Dayers (7 and 14 Oct, Cherry Reds & The Victoria), featuring 16 free shows in Birmingham city centre on successive Sunday afternoons.

Guzzy
Guzzy

The festival officially launches on Friday 5 October with the prestigious Edinburgh Gin Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award 2018 (The Glee Club), which recognises the very best new talent from the region.

A spokesperson for the festival said: “We’ve got another packed line-up this year with over 70 performances featuring not only stand-up comedy, but also sketch shows, improv’, spoken word, theatre, music, game shows, podcasters, fine art, and loads more – with more than 20 shows free/ pay-what-you-want!”

The Birmingham Comedy Festival runs from Friday 5 to Sunday 14 October 2018 at venues across the city. For more information, see: www.bhamcomfest.co.uk

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