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

 

NEW RELEASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monster Trucks (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Why Him? (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Arrival (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ballerina (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bleed For This (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Eagle Huntress (U)

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

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

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

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moana (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Office Christmas Party (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Passengers (12A)

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

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

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

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

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trolls (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Dec 23-Thu Dec 29

NEW RELEASE

The Eagle Huntress (U)

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

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

Narrated by  Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, the film not only offers Aisholpan’s inspirational girl power story, but also affords an illuminating look into Kazakh customs as well as social change that is slowly overtaking tradition, not to mention some ravishiong footage of the starkly beautiful landscapes, as the film builds to the youngster’s first hunt, the true test of her abilities. The fact that of what you see was done for the camera rather, doesn’t negate the story it tells and, while it could possibly have done without Sia warbling  the ‘you can do anything’ message over the end credits, beating the audience over the head with a  vocal hammer, this is a terrific inspiring and educational piece of filmmaking.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Showcase Walsall)

 

Ballerina (U)

An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this animated follow your heart Canadian-French coproduction. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams. Indeed, at the screening I saw there was one tot dancing away in front of the screen.

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

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

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

Needless to say, incorporating a rating a climactic chase up a work in progress  Statue of Liverty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected twist involving Camille, who is being pushed to dance by her overbearing, demanding mother, following a spectacular dance battle between her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.

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

 

Passengers (12A)

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

Finding himself alone save for a perkycorporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial legless android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of  considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to to the right thing  and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned  like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance (not only is she bright and a looker, she also has access to the gold standard breakfasts), two lonely people marooned in space.

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

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

 

 

NOW PLAYING

 

Allied (12A)

Director Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to old fashioned wartime melodrama for Steven Knight’s  love story cum espionage thriller to solid effect, so it’s unfortunate that it’s more likely to be remembered as the film that put an end to Brangelina on account of Brad Pitt’s alleged (and denied) affair with co-star Marion Cotillard star. Pitt is Max Vatan, a  Canadian pilot and intelligence officer who’s dispatched to Casablanca to link up with French spy Marianne Beauséjour (Cottilard), who’s got herself cosy with high up collaborationists in the Vichy government, posing as her Parisian husband as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador.

The mission turns out to a sort of foreplay and, once the job’s done, he arranges for her to come to London where they get married and have a daughter, born, rather dramatically, in the middle of the Blitz. All’s bliss until Max is summoned to see his commanding officer (Jared Harris) and finds himself face to face with an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) from the Special Operations Executive who informs him that his wife is suspected of being a Nazi spy and, if that turns out to be true, he has to execute her himself or face being hung as a traitor himself.

Although Marianne’s words, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works”, come back to haunt him, he refuses to believe she’s not who she says she is and, disobeying orders, armed with her wedding photo, duly sets out to disprove  the accusation, a quest that takes him to a French lock up and a run in with bunch of German soldiers.

It would, of course, be wrong to reveal more and the film cleverly keeps you guessing; however, suffice to say, as per the Casablanca set up, the film has much to do with what is and what is not true, both as regards faked relationships  and the people involved. Like their characters, Pitt and Cottilard have persuasive chemistry, enhanced no little by the glowing

cinematography, as the film slips between domestic bliss (including a picnic in their leafy suburb next to a downed German bomber), domestic tension (she susses something’s up when sex gets angry) and tense action before a dramatic climax that, while it doesn’t somehow quite have the punch it should, won’t leave audiences feeling cheated and will probably give Jolie a sense of vicarious satisfaction too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Arrival (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bad Santa 2 (15)

Thirteen  years after  Terry Zwigoff  brought a  welcome breath of foul air to the annual festive sentimentality, director Mark Waters reintroduces the dissolute, depraved and generally drunk  Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) who, after the shot of redemption at the end of the first film, is back at rock bottom, living in a dump and so depressed he decides to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Unfortunately, it’s electric. Then, midway through trying to hang himself, enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the now grown up pudgy kid from the first film  who has clung to him as surrogate family over the years. More importantly, he’s also reunited former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who, despite trying to stitch him up last time, has another surefire job lined up, in Chicago, with a  far higher payday.

However, much to Willie’s horror, the mastermind turns out to be his long estranged criminal mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates). She’s brought him in to crack the safe at the homeless charity she’s working at, where, on Christmas Eve, while everyone’s watching the children’s concert, she plans to make off with the $2million or so from its Santa collections  which crooked charity boss Regent (Ryan Hansen) is intending to skim for himself.

After much crude  name calling, Willie agrees to go along with the robbery , though this will mean them having to relieve the sex-mad receptionist of the key to the office, a  task for which Marcus happily volunteers, and, as things turn out, Willie, back in the red suit and beard again, screwing Regent’s neglected recovering alcoholic wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks). On top of which, the blissfully innocent Thurman has come to Chicago to spend Christmas with Willie.

There’s rather less of the first film’s satire on Christmas commercialism and rather more references to anal sex, not to mention  jokes about child abuse, disability, race, autism, the list goes on, But, behind the vulgarity and political incorrectness, the film is also about loneliness, the fear of connection that drives nihilistic self-destruction and, just when you least expect it, a poignant  emotional epiphany. Of course, mostly though it’s about booze and sex. Bates is particularly game and scabrously funny as the monstrous, heavily-tattooed mother from hell, while Kelly is a treat as the film’s blissfully unaware angel of light and unconditional love. It is, though  a grizzled Thornton who, even in  Willie’s most debased moments, is the film’s backbone, finding the soft heart beating behind the bile. If you feel you’ll scream if you have to sit through It’s A Wonderful Life again, get yourself on the naughty list and go sit on this Santa’s lap. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bleed For This (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moana (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Office Christmas Party (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trolls (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

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MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 16-Thu Dec 22

 

NEW RELEASE

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

NOW PLAYING

The Accountant (15)

Following box office misfire Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool thriller about a high functioning autistic numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a tooled-up emotionally blank vigilante for hire with a female voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.

Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale.

We first meet the man in question, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman and he’s subsequently hired to looking into possible financial irregularities at Living Robotics, a  high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned  the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused),  the  perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.

Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail leads to them both being marked for elimination as he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.

Punctuating this is a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through  brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, and to prison scenes between  adult Wolff bonds and a former mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Gradually unfolding as an action movie, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck delivers a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually come together. The note of redemption in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller which promises to see a solid  return on investment.  (Vue Star City)

 

Allied (12A)

Director Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to old fashioned wartime melodrama for Steven Knight’s  love story cum espionage thriller to solid effect, so it’s unfortunate that it’s more likely to be remembered as the film that put an end to Brangelina on account of Brad Pitt’s alleged (and denied) affair with co-star Marion Cotillard star. Pitt is Max Vatan, a  Canadian pilot and intelligence officer who’s dispatched to Casablanca to link up with French spy Marianne Beauséjour (Cottilard), who’s got herself cosy with high up collaborationists in the Vichy government, posing as her Parisian husband as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador.

The mission turns out to a sort of foreplay and, once the job’s done, he arranges for her to come to London where they get married and have a daughter, born, rather dramatically, in the middle of the Blitz. All’s bliss until Max is summoned to see his commanding officer (Jared Harris) and finds himself face to face with an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) from the Special Operations Executive who informs him that his wife is suspected of being a Nazi spy and, if that turns out to be true, he has to execute her himself or face being hung as a traitor himself.

Although Marianne’s words, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works”, come back to haunt him, he refuses to believe she’s not who she says she is and, disobeying orders, armed with her wedding photo, duly sets out to disprove  the accusation, a quest that takes him to a French lock up and a run in with bunch of German soldiers.

It would, of course, be wrong to reveal more and the film cleverly keeps you guessing; however, suffice to say, as per the Casablanca set up, the film has much to do with what is and what is not true, both as regards faked relationships  and the people involved. Like their characters, Pitt and Cottilard have persuasive chemistry, enhanced no little by the glowing cinematography, as the film slips between domestic bliss (including a picnic in their leafy suburb next to a downed German bomber), domestic tension (she susses something’s up when sex gets angry) and tense action before a dramatic climax that, while it doesn’t somehow quite have the punch it should, won’t leave audiences feeling cheated and will probably give Jolie a sense of vicarious satisfaction too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Almost  Christmas (12A)

The dysfunctional family Christmas get together comedy has become  a staple of the festive season, and this African-American one won’t deliver anything you don’t expect, but is amusing and warming in all the right places, nonetheless.  A year on since his wife’s death, retired auto-shop owner Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is  having family and friends over to his house for five days. But without Grace and her famous pies to broker disagreements, can having everyone together under one roof possibly go smoothly?

Among those due to gather round the dinner table are daughter  Rachel (Gabrielle Union), now a recently divorced  mum trying to pay her way through law school; her overachieving big sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and her  former pro basketball player slacker husband  Lonnie (JB Smoove); Aunt May (Mo’Nique), a brash and blousy former backup singer with a fondness for a drink and habit of saying what she thinks; Walter’s  assorted grandkids; and, destined to spice things up, Malachi (Omar Epps), the now grown-up kid from next door who had a thing for Rachel, and Jasmine, the supermarket assistant she’s wickedly invited who’s been having an affair with Lonnie. Sparks inevitably fly, pies are inevitably burned, long-delayed romance inevitably blossoms and flashbacks to happier times inevitably punctuate proceedings. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a family  Christmas movie without a seasonal decoration going haywire, here an electric Santa sculpture, and the obligatory huggy ending. But the fact that you know what’s inside the wrapping, doesn’t make the gift less enjoyable. (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

Arrival (12A)

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

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

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

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

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

Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bad Santa 2 (15)

Thirteen  years after  Terry Zwigoff  brought a  welcome breath of foul air to the annual festive sentimentality, director Mark Waters reintroduces the dissolute, depraved and generally drunk  Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) who, after the shot of redemption at the end of the first film, is back at rock bottom, living in a dump and so depressed he decides to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Unfortunately, it’s electric. Then, midway through trying to hang himself, enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the now grown up pudgy kid from the first film  who has clung to him as surrogate family over the years. More importantly, he’s also reunited former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who, despite trying to stitch him up last time, has another surefire job lined up, in Chicago, with a  far higher payday.

However, much to Willie’s horror, the mastermind turns out to be his long estranged criminal mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates). She’s brought him in to crack the safe at the homeless charity she’s working at, where, on Christmas Eve, while everyone’s watching the children’s concert, she plans to make off with the $2million or so from its Santa collections  which crooked charity boss Regent (Ryan Hansen) is intending to skim for himself.

After much crude  name calling, Willie agrees to go along with the robbery , though this will mean them having to relieve the sex-mad receptionist of the key to the office, a  task for which Marcus happily volunteers, and, as things turn out, Willie, back in the red suit and beard again, screwing Regent’s neglected recovering alcoholic wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks). On top of which, the blissfully innocent Thurman has come to Chicago to spend Christmas with Willie.

There’s rather less of the first film’s satire on Christmas commercialism and rather more references to anal sex, not to mention  jokes about child abuse, disability, race, autism, the list goes on, But, behind the vulgarity and political incorrectness, the film is also about loneliness, the fear of connection that drives nihilistic self-destruction and, just when you least expect it, a poignant  emotional epiphany. Of course, mostly though it’s about booze and sex. Bates is particularly game and scabrously funny as the monstrous, heavily-tattooed mother from hell, while Kelly is a treat as the film’s blissfully unaware angel of light and unconditional love. It is, though  a grizzled Thornton who, even in  Willie’s most debased moments, is the film’s backbone, finding the soft heart beating behind the bile. If you feel you’ll scream if you have to sit through It’s A Wonderful Life again, get yourself on the naughty list and go sit on this Santa’s lap. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Birth of a Nation (15)

Reclaiming the  title from  the 1915 racist silent epic, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, the Baptist preacher slave who, in 1831,  led a bloody  uprising of slaves and free Blacks against white plantation owners in Southampton County, Virginia, is a bold move, but, while the production is impressive,  first time director Parker falls short of DW Griffiths in technical mastery, much feeling heavy handed  (an ear of corn leaking blood),  portentously strained  (flashbacks of prophecy and supernatural-hued dream sequences),  mechanical (young Nate playing happily with the plantation owner’s white son),  incongruous  (a candlelit topless scene between Turner and his new bride, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King) or simply cheesy as in his visions of her as a  black angel complete with white robes and wings.

Parker is impressive as Nat who learns to read with the help of his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), albeit only from The Bible, and grows up to become the plantation’s preacher, a gift which, taking him out of the cotton-picking fields,  sees him hiked around the country  by  Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer), the kid who’s now the plantation’s new financially but (until he’s challenged) ostensibly benevolent strapped owner, to deliver sermons exhorting restless slaves to obey their masters.

Ultimately, of course, seeing one too many instances of brutality, he turns his preaching to exhort rage eventually smashing an axe into Samuel and leading the brief but bloody rebellion (which, some argue, lit the spark that led to the Civil War) that took the lives of 60 white men, women, and children, before being cut down in an attack on the armoury, the savage reprisals and his eventual hanging.

However, while Parker is a charismatic presence, the other characters (save for Jackie Early Harley’s leering loathsome slave catcher who rapes and batters Cherry) feel flat and underwritten. Turner says he took Braveheart as one of his templates, but his film never rises to the level of either that or recent American slavery outings, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave. There is a stunning blood-chilling moment as the camera pans back to shows the hanged bodies of slaves, men and women, while Nina Simone’s version of Strange Fruit plays. If only the rest of the film could have had that same power.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City

 

Bleed For This (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

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

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

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

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

 

The Edge of Seventeen (15)

Just turned twenty, Hailee Steinfield drops a few years to play troubled, self-pitying Pacific Northwest high schooler Nadine Byrd, first seen bursting in on her laid back history teacher, Mr. Bruner (a droll Woody Harrelson), to tell him she’s going to commit suicide. What follows covers the events leading up to this drama queen outburst and how things are eventually resolved.

Flashback to her childhood in which a petulantly sulky young school misfit and outsider Nadine (Lina Renna) is pissed off that her over-achieving nice guy older brother Darian gets all the attention, especially from mom Moma (Kyra Sedgwick). Things look up whenshe finally makes a friend in kindred spirit Krista (Ava Grace Cooper) and the two become inseperable. Then, when Nadine’s thirteen, tragedy hits as her  father suddenly dies.  Things get worse when, one drunken night, Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), sleeps with Darian (Blake Jenner) and then becomes his girlfriend. Feeling betrayed, Nadine cuts them both out of her life.

To fill the gap, she becomes friends with shy Korean-American classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), but, while it’s patently obvious he has a crush on her, she’s still fantasising over bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), to whom she sends a rather rash and explicit text about what she like to do to him and he to her that precipitates the opening scene.

Very much in the tradition of John Hughes; high school movies, Nadine’s the prototypical teenager who has to come to realise her self-worth and true beauty, much like Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink, while the film also has echoes of  such similar offerings as Heathers, Clueless and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Although writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig handles the world of teenage relationships and fragile emotions with a knowing but light hand, it’s the scenes and sarcastic banter between Nadine and Mr. Bruner (who’s not the apathetic sad sack she takes him for) that are arguably the strongest and sharpest. A sharply observed witty comedy with a real sense of depth and a protagonist who can be as infuriating as she is engaging, this is Steinfield’s best work yet and a high school movie well worthy of  joining the ranks of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.  (Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl on the Train (15)

One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.

A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.

So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage  and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of  her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.

Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s  same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.

Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.

Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.

Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although  the film works to make Rachel sympathetic,  they’re  all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl.  (Vue Star City)

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (U)

Depressed, suicidal businessman James Stewart discovers the meaning of life and friendship as an angel looking to earn his wings shows sees his what the world would be like if he’d never been born  in the perennial Christmas classic. (Electric)

 

 

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)

Despite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a  franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.

It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while  investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.

So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the  conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of  Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.

So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of  fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.

Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be  and act differently depending on where she is in the plot  and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and  even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent,  lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment.  (Vue Star City)

 

Moana (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Office Christmas Party (15)

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

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

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

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

However, it’s Miller, McKinnon, Munn, Bateman and Aniston who lead the comedic charge, with Bateman providing the bemused centre of calm (and deadpan lines) and Aniston relishing her opportunity to play the bitch, most notably in an airport lounge scene as she ruins one little girl’s Christmas. It’s a bit slow to get going and the script keeps leaving the party mayhem for a different film where Josh, Carol, Tracey and Mary have to rescue Clay (and the $300,000 strapped to his body) from Trina and save Chicago from an internet meltdown. However, there’s also a slyness to it that sets up teasers for scenarios that never actually happen, such as the Rottweiler wife from whom Josh is finally divorced in the opening scenes or the urn Clay has containing dad’s ashes. Or maybe they just got forgotten in the frenzy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paterson (15)

It’s fair to say that you have to have a hefty degree of  patience to watch a Jim Jarmusch film, but the end results are usually well worth it. His latest is a particular case in point, a slow burn meditation on life character piece set over the course of a week in which almost nothing happens, but which is peppered with insightful observations, small epiphanies and a sizeable helping of eccentricity.

Adam Driver is Paterson, a bus driver named for the New Jersey  town in which he lives, the birthplace of, among others, Lou Costello, Dave Prater (from Sam & Dave) , Allen Ginsberg and the celebrated poet William Carlos Williams, author of the five volume poem Paterson. Paterson too is an aspiring poet, regularly jotting down lines in his notebook (which we see handwritten on screen as he composes them), the first about a brand of matches. They are, pretty much exclusively, minimalist love poems to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who is forever urging him to get tem published  or, at least, to make copies. She has a thing about white on black, whether in redecorating the house, her clothes, the cupcakes she makes or the harlequin guitar she buys to follow her latest dream of becoming a  country singer. She’s a tad flaky, but Paterson adores her. They also share their home with Marvin, a bulldog who will play a crucial role in the last act, while, when not at home, Paterson is either observing his passengers (an unlikely percentage of whom are twins) or the folk who hang out at the local bar run by the world weary Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Early in the week he meets a young girl who reads him a poem she’s written, while, on Saturday, feeling dejected and sitting in his favourite spot, watching the  Great Falls of the Passaic River, he’s joined by a mysterious Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase from Jarmusch’s Mystery Train ) who’s reading  William Carlos Williams. They talk about poetry and the man gives him an empty notebook. That’s pretty much it.

Playful but, anchored by a subtly, soulfully melancholic turn from Driver, also quietly sad, essentially it’s about finding poetry in the everyday and often random minutiae of life, but also about the need to escape from the stasis into which we can so easily fall mistaking it for contentment (it’s not hard to image another film about the marriage falling apart) and a reminder that life is a blank page waiting for us to write upon it.(MAC)

Snowden  (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storks (U)

There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of  Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.

Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.

Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a  job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.

Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d  like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.

Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.

There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not.  (Vue Star City)

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

Shaun of the Sesh – Walsh Gambowls Back Into Brum At Club L’Amour

At some point, a philosopher will sit down and analyse the aesthetic of ‘sesh’. They will write down the emotions, the styles and, of course, the aftermath of such a phrase, but can they decipher how, and if, it smells? To get an official olfactory sample, you shouldn’t look any further than Shaun ‘Gambowl’ Walsh.

He admits it himself, but he doesn’t need to; he and his band of merry methheads, The Plagiarists, resemble the long-lost uncles of Sleaford Mods and have a brawny attitude to match. Dressed in trademark cuddly hat, glue-on shades and five-week shadow (strewn with ket crumbs), Walsh is a wily host, but we’ll get to that later.

Before Walsh are a suitably bemused Semantics. Musically, it’s quite a leap and the gig is a test, but they come through it with flying colours (well, black colours, natch). Rob Lilley may have lost his lank locks but he hasn’t had a Samson-like loss of strength; if anything, he seems fitter, happier, beaming broadly and admitting he’s partial to a jalfrezi (Ladbroke’s had bets on his being a bhuna). There isn’t much room for Josh Rochelle-Bates to do his trademark stage invasion (which, in actuality, is a brooding gait that matches his equally menacing basslines), but they still whip up a hell of a lot of charisma through the chiming ‘Another City’, the pounding ‘Games’ and the perversely floor-filling ‘My Detainer’.

The Surrenders are a band again of a different ilk but their brand of power-pop – trebly chords, infectious energy and tumultuous tambourines – whips the crowd into an altogether different frenzy. Their EP was released in the summer and had enough fire, ’60s-inflected infectiousness and, above all, originality, to make them yet another Birmingham band primed for the big leagues.

For Shaun Walsh, aggression and passion aren’t mutually exclusive terms. Returning after his previous sell-out show at Club L’Amour, fans often worry Walsh will mime the much-missed (hmm…) stage antics of GG Allin; it’s only natural, then, that as soon as Walsh wobbles forwards the crowd takes three steps back. While Walsh doesn’t like the presence of the barrier, he breaks down the fourth wall with his usual brand of fiery wit, calling the audience any word in the sun and making sure his Plagiarists are fed enough bravado to plough through their legendary hit ‘Who’s Got the Ket’.

In a world full of square rock stars, we’ll miss Walsh when he’s gone, even if he won’t forget his smell.

Barry Hyde To Hit Birmingham This February

With The Futureheads on ice, Mackem melodicist Barry Hyde is on the solo trail. The singer, who released his orchestral debut album Malady earlier this year, will play the suitably intimate Ort Cafe on Saturday 11 February. 

Sunderland native Hyde is best known for being frontman of The Futureheads, who spliced four-part harmonies with jittery post-punk for four albums (and one a capella collection). With the group only surfacing for Bupa adverts, Hyde has been reestablishing himself as a dowdy crooner, with Malady a triumph of bruised ballads, tearful torch songs and the melodic touch that gave us hits including ‘Meantime’, ‘Decent Days and Nights’ and ‘The Beginning of the Twist’. Just don’t expect many ‘Heads songs to be aired…these days Hyde means business as a solo star, with a timid energy that’s a complete, and refreshing, contrast to his alma mater’s barnstorming indie.

Hyde’s solo success has been a personal victory as well as a commercial one – the troubadour has been battling bipolar disorder for a number of years, and Malady is an incredibly cathartic achievement.

Tickets for the all-seated affair are priced at £7.50 and can be purchased here.

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 9-Thu Dec 15

 

NEW RELEASE

Snowden  (15) On Jun 5, 2013, in an article written by reporters Glenn Greenwald and Edward McAskill, The Guardian newspaper published a headline claiming that the Obama administration had forced telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans. It was the first of a series of revelations unmasking the covert surveillance of communications being carried out by the US government on its allies, other countries and its own citizens. On June 10, it revealed the identity of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, a computer expert, former CIA intelligence officer and employee of defence contractor Booz Allen. In an interview, he said he was revealing the classified information about surveillance programmes (mostly from the NSA), some 10,000 documents in all, because “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded … My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

The political fallout was, if anything, even greater than WikiLeaks and Snowden was, inevitably, declared a traitor by the US government. Others, of course, saw him a hero fighting to expose a Big Brother system. Oliver Stone is one such. In his most politically overt film since Nixon, he tells what led Snowden (played superbly and meticulously by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to make his life changing decision as, initially an enthusiastic, straitlaced (no drinks, no drugs) and basically politically conservative computer geek looking to serve his country, to what he and his colleagues (not all of them with the same reservations) were being asked to do.

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

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

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

The pros and cons of surveillance in a terror-ridden world are open to debate, and, while the film is clearly on Snowden’s side, it does offer enough of the counter arguments to fuel the debate.  In a Trump-climate America, it perhaps rather inevitably floundered at the box office, but, arguably the most important film of the year, it will hopefully prove a far greater draw here. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City

 

The Birth of a Nation (15)

Another politically-charged affair, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, the Baptist preacher slave who, in 1831,  led a bloody  uprising of slaves and free Blacks against white plantation owners in Southampton County, Virginia, has been somewhat overshadowed by the controversy over actor-writer-director Parker’s trial and acquittal of rape in his college years. However, disregarding that and focusing on the actual film, still leaves it wanting, despite its Sundance awards.  Reclaiming the  title from  the 1915 racist silent epic is a bold move, but, while the production is impressive,  first time director Parker falls short of DW Griffiths in technical mastery, much feeling heavy handed  (an ear of corn leaking blood),  portentously strained  (flashbacks of prophecy and supernatural-hued dream sequences),  mechanical (young Nate playing happily with the plantation owner’s white son),  incongruous  (a candlelit topless scene between Turner and his new bride, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King) or simply cheesy as in his visions of her as a  black angel complete with white robes and wings.

Parker is undeniably impressive as Nat who, as the film shows, learns to read with the help of his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), albeit only from The Bible, and grows up to become the plantation’s preacher, a gift which, taking him out of the cotton-picking fields,  sees him hiked around the country  by  Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer), the kid whose now the plantation’s new financially but (until he’s challenged) ostensibly benevolent strapped owner, to deliver sermons exhorting restless slaves to obey their masters.

Ultimately, of course, seeing one too many instances of graphically shown brutality, he turns his preaching to exhort rage eventually smashing an axe into Samuel and leading the brief but bloody rebellion (which, some argue, led the spark that led to the Civil War) that took the lives of 60 white men, women, and children, before being cut down in an attack on the armoury, the savage reprisals and his eventual hanging.

However, while Parker is a charismatic – if slightly dramatically limited presence, the other characters (save for the Jackie Early Harley’s leering loathsome slave catcher who rapes and batters Cherry) feel flat and underwritten. Turner says he took Braveheart as one of his templates, but his film never rises to the level of either that or recent American slavery outings, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave. There is a stunning blood-chilling moment as the camera pans back to shows the hanged bodies of slaves, men and women, while Nina Simone’s version of Strange Fruit plays. If only the rest of the film could have had that same power.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City

 

The Incident  (15)

Making her feature debut, writer-director Jane Linfoot delivers a British psychological drama about a successful young couple whose comfortable lives are disrupted and their relationship unravels when troubled teenage girl Lily sets  off a chain of events that challenges them to examine who they really are. (Sun-Tue: MAC)

 

Office Christmas Party (15)

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

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

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

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

However, it’s Miller, McKinnon, Munn, Bateman and Aniston who lead the comedic charge, with Bateman providing the bemused centre of calm (and some fine deadpan lines) and Aniston relishing her opportunity to play the bitch, most notably in an airport lounge scene as she ruins one little girl’s Christmas. It’s a bit slow to get going and the script, with six credited writers, keeps leaving the party mayhem for a different film where Josh, Carol, Tracey and Mary have to rescue Clay (and the $300,000 strapped to his body) from Trina and save Chicago from an internet meltdown. However, there’s also a slyness to it that sets up teasers for scenarios that never actually happen, such as the Rottweiler wife from whom Josh is finally divorced in the opening scenes or the urn Clay has containing dad’s ashes. Or maybe they just got forgotten in the frenzy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)


 

NOW PLAYING

The Accountant (15)

Following box office misfire Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool thriller about a high functioning autistic numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a tooled-up emotionally blank vigilante for hire with a female voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.

Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale.

We first meet the man in question, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman and he’s subsequently hired to looking into possible financial irregularities at Living Robotics, a  high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned  the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused),  the  perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.

Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail leads to them both being marked for elimination as he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.

Punctuating this is a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through  brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, and to prison scenes between  adult Wolff bonds and a former mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Gradually unfolding as an action movie, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck delivers a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually come together. The note of redemption in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller which promises to see a solid  return on investment.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Allied (12A)

Director Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to old fashioned wartime melodrama for Steven Knight’s  love story cum espionage thriller to solid effect, so it’s unfortunate that it’s more likely to be remembered as the film that put an end to Brangelina on account of Brad Pitt’s alleged (and denied) affair with co-star Marion Cotillard star. Pitt is Max Vatan, a  Canadian pilot and intelligence officer who’s dispatched to Casablanca to link up with French spy Marianne Beauséjour (Cottilard), who’s got herself cosy with high up collaborationists in the Vichy government, posing as her Parisian husband as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador.

The mission turns out to a sort of foreplay and, once the job’s done, he arranges for her to come to London where they get married and have a daughter, born, rather dramatically, in the middle of the Blitz. All’s bliss until Max is summoned to see his commanding officer (Jared Harris) and finds himself face to face with an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) from the Special Operations Executive who informs him that his wife is suspected of being a Nazi spy and, if that turns out to be true, he has to execute her himself or face being hung as a traitor himself.

Although Marianne’s words, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works”, come back to haunt him, he refuses to believe she’s not who she says she is and, disobeying orders, armed with her wedding photo, duly sets out to disprove  the accusation, a quest that takes him to a French lock up and a run in with bunch of German soldiers.

It would, of course, be wrong to reveal more and the film cleverly keeps you guessing; however, suffice to say, as per the Casablanca set up, the film has much to do with what is and what is not true, both as regards faked relationships  and the people involved. Like their characters, Pitt and Cottilard have persuasive chemistry, enhanced no little by the glowing cinematography, as the film slips between domestic bliss (including a picnic in their leafy suburb next to a downed German bomber), domestic tension (she susses something’s up when sex gets angry) and tense action before a dramatic climax that, while it doesn’t somehow quite have the punch it should, won’t leave audiences feeling cheated and will probably give Jolie a sense of vicarious satisfaction too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Almost  Christmas (12A)

The dysfunctional family Christmas get together comedy has become  a staple of the festive season, and this African-American one won’t deliver anything you don’t expect, but is amusing and warming in all the right places, nonetheless.  A year on since his wife’s death, retired auto-shop owner Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is  having family and friends over to his house for five days. But without Grace and her famous pies to broker disagreements, can having everyone together under one roof possibly go smoothly?

Among those due to gather round the dinner table are daughter  Rachel (Gabrielle Union), now a recently divorced  mum trying to pay her way through law school; her overachieving big sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and her  former pro basketball player slacker husband  Lonnie (JB Smoove); Aunt May (Mo’Nique), a brash and blousy former backup singer with a fondness for a drink and habit of saying what she thinks; Walter’s  assorted grandkids; and, destined to spice things up, Malachi (Omar Epps), the now grown-up kid from next door who had a thing for Rachel, and Jasmine, the supermarket assistant she’s wickedly invited who’s been having an affair with Lonnie. Sparks inevitably fly, pies are inevitably burned, long-delayed romance inevitably blossoms and flashbacks to happier times inevitably punctuate proceedings. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a family  Christmas movie without a seasonal decoration going haywire, here an electric Santa sculpture, and the obligatory huggy ending. But the fact that you know what’s inside the wrapping, doesn’t make the gift less enjoyable. (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

 

Arrival (12A)

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

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

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

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

Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bad Santa 2 (15)

Thirteen  years after  Terry Zwigoff  brought a  welcome breath of foul air to the annual festive sentimentality, director Mark Waters reintroduces the dissolute, depraved and generally drunk  Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) who, after the shot of redemption at the end of the first film, is back at rock bottom, living in a dump and so depressed he decides to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Unfortunately, it’s electric. Then, midway through trying to hang himself, enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the now grown up pudgy kid from the first film  who has clung to him as surrogate family over the years. More importantly, he’s also reunited former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who, despite trying to stitch him up last time, has another surefire job lined up, in Chicago, with a  far higher payday.

However, much to Willie’s horror, the mastermind turns out to be his long estranged criminal mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates). She’s brought him in to crack the safe at the homeless charity she’s working at, where, on Christmas Eve, while everyone’s watching the children’s concert, she plans to make off with the $2million or so from its Santa collections  which crooked charity boss Regent (Ryan Hansen) is intending to skim for himself.

After much crude  name calling, Willie agrees to go along with the robbery , though this will mean them having to relieve the sex-mad receptionist of the key to the office, a  task for which Marcus happily volunteers, and, as things turn out, Willie, back in the red suit and beard again, screwing Regent’s neglected recovering alcoholic wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks). On top of which, the blissfully innocent Thurman has come to Chicago to spend Christmas with Willie.

There’s rather less of the first film’s satire on Christmas commercialism and rather more references to anal sex, not to mention  jokes about child abuse, disability, race, autism, the list goes on, But, behind the vulgarity and political incorrectness, the film is also about loneliness, the fear of connection that drives nihilistic self-destruction and, just when you least expect it, a poignant  emotional epiphany. Of course, mostly though it’s about booze and sex. Bates is particularly game and scabrously funny as the monstrous, heavily-tattooed mother from hell, while Kelly is a treat as the film’s blissfully unaware angel of light and unconditional love. It is, though  a grizzled Thornton who, even in  Willie’s most debased moments, is the film’s backbone, finding the soft heart beating behind the bile. If you feel you’ll scream if you have to sit through It’s A Wonderful Life again, get yourself on the naughty list and go sit on this Santa’s lap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bleed For This (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

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

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

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

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

 

The Edge of Seventeen (15)

Just turned twenty, Hailee Steinfield drops a few years to play troubled, self-pitying Pacific Northwest high schooler Nadine Byrd, first seen bursting in on her laid back history teacher, Mr. Bruner (a droll Woody Harrelson), to tell him she’s going to commit suicide. What follows covers the events leading up to this drama queen outburst and how things are eventually resolved.

 

Flashback to her childhood in which a petulantly sulky young school misfit and outsider Nadine (Lina Renna) is pissed off that her over-achieving nice guy older brother Darian gets all the attention, especially from mom Moma (Kyra Sedgwick). Things look up whenshe finally makes a friend in kindred spirit Krista (Ava Grace Cooper) and the two become inseperable. Then, when Nadine’s thirteen, tragedy hits as her  father suddenly dies.  Things get worse when, one drunken night, Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), sleeps with Darian (Blake Jenner) and then becomes his girlfriend. Feeling betrayed, Nadine cuts them both out of her life.

To fill the gap, she becomes friends with shy Korean-American classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), but, while it’s patently obvious he has a crush on her, she’s still fantasising over bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), to whom she sends a rather rash and explicit text about what she like to do to him and he to her that precipitates the opening scene.

Very much in the tradition of John Hughes; high school movies, Nadine’s the prototypical teenager who has to come to realise her self-worth and true beauty, much like Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink, while the film also has echoes of  such similar offerings as Heathers, Clueless and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Although writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig handles the world of teenage relationships and fragile emotions with a knowing but light hand, it’s the scenes and sarcastic banter between Nadine and Mr. Bruner (who’s not the apathetic sad sack she takes him for) that are arguably the strongest and sharpest. A sharply observed witty comedy with a real sense of depth and a protagonist who can be as infuriating as she is engaging, this is Steinfield’s best work yet and a high school movie well worthy of  joining the ranks of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme Danger (15) 

Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about The Stooges, the pioneering American punk outfit led by James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, that revolutionised rock music in the counterculture  60s, featuring new interviews with  Pop, the only surviving original member, and James Williamson  as well as  archive interviews with the late Ron and Scott Asheton alongside  vintage clips and live footage. (Sat/Sun: Electric)

 

The Girl on the Train (15)

One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.

A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.

So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage  and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of  her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.

Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s  same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.

Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.

Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.

Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although  the film works to make Rachel sympathetic,  they’re  all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl.  (Vue Star City)

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)

Despite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a  franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.

It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while  investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.

So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the  conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of  Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.

So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of  fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.

Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be  and act differently depending on where she is in the plot  and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and  even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent,  lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment.  (Vue Star City)

 

Moana (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moving Image (n/a)

Another  writer-director feature debut, featuring both dramatisation and real life interviews, Shola Amoo’s winning multimedia film follows Nina, a young artist who returns to Brixton determined  to unite her divided community through the creation of a piece of art only to find herself  tarred as a symbol of gentrification. (Wed: MAC)

Ouija – Origin of Evil  (15)

Despite being  a thoroughly forgettable  horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to  which Before I Wake  director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set  in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of  local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of  anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Paterson (15)

It’s fair to say that you have to have a hefty degree of  patience to watch a Jim Jarmusch film, but the end results are well worth it. His latest is a slow burn meditation on life character piece set over the course of a week in which almost nothing happens, but which is peppered with insightful observations, small epiphanies and a sizeable helping of eccentricity.

Adam Driver is Paterson, a bus driver named for the New Jersey  town in which he lives, the birthplace of, among others, Lou Costello, Dave Prater (from Sam & Dave) , Allen Ginsberg and the celebrated poet William Carlos Williams, author of the five volume poem Paterson. Paterson too is an aspiring poet, regularly jotting down lines in his notebook (handwritten on screen as he composes them), the first about a brand of matches. They are, pretty much exclusively, minimalist love poems to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who is forever urging him to get them published  or, at least, to make copies. She has a thing about white on black, whether in redecorating the house, her clothes, the cupcakes she makes or the harlequin guitar she buys to follow her latest dream of becoming a  country singer. She’s a tad flaky, but Paterson adores her. They also share their home with Marvin, a bulldog who will play a crucial role in the last act, while, when not at home, Paterson is either observing his passengers (an unlikely percentage of whom are twins) or the folk who hang out at the local bar run by the world weary Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Early in the week he meets a young girl who reads him a poem she’s written, while, on Saturday, feeling dejected and sitting in his favourite spot, he’s joined by a mysterious Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase) who’s reading  William Carlos Williams. They talk about poetry and the man gives him an empty notebook. That’s pretty much it.

Playful but, anchored by a subtly, soulfully melancholic turn from Driver, also quietly sad, essentially it’s about finding poetry in the everyday and often random minutiae of life, but also about the need to escape from the stasis into which we can so easily fall mistaking it for contentment (it’s not hard to imagine another film about the marriage falling apart) and a reminder that life is a blank page waiting for us to write upon it.(Electric)

Storks (U)

There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of  Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.

Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.

Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a  job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.

Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d  like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.

Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.

There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

A Street Cat Named Bob (12A)

Directed by Roger Spottiswood and based on the bestselling autobiography and subsequent series of books, this is a heartwarming tale about someone turning their life around with the help of a loyal friend. In this case, a cat.

It’s 2007 and James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) is a recovering heroin addict on a methadone programme, earning spare change as a London busker (courtesy of songs by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink). Thanks to his supportive case worker (Joanne Froggatt), James gets one last chance when he’s allocated a social housing flat into which, one night, comes a stray ginger tom. When attempts to find its owner prove fruitless, James decides to keep him (or vice versa), which, in turn, introduces him to Betty (Ruta Gedmintas), his vegan neighbour with her own past drugs-related tragedy, who informs him that the animal wants to be called Bob and has come to James for a reason.

And so it would appear as, taking him out busking, Bob’s soon attracting hitherto unknown crowds and turning the pair into a YouTube phenomenon and, when an incident has James banned from busking, joins him selling the  Big Issue, perched on his shoulder outside Angel tube station in Islington with people asking to have a selfie taken with him. His life gradually turning around, James seeks to reunite with his estranged father (Anthony Head), but, while there’s a general lightness of tone and often playful humour,  there will still be darker passages to navigate  before the happy ending.

The tone’s uneven, but, steering clear of mawkishness, while minor, it’s an appealingly and very British  feelgood film about choosing life and  the redemptive power of friendship that’s well served by its central two legged cast, although  it will come as no surprise to learn that, mostly playing himself,  the real star here is Bob who makes Pudsy look like a rank amateur. (Vue Star City)

Trolls (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A United Kingdom (12A)

In 1947, insurance clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) met Oxford graduate and law student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) at a London Missionary Society dance. Despite the objections of her ultra-conservative  shopkeeper father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and sneering British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a  year later the pair married and looked to  face life ahead. This, however, had rather more problems than racism in the streets of London. Seretse  was, in fact, heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), a British protectorate, and his intention for them to return home and take up his position, with Ruth as his queen, did not sit well with either his tradition-minded uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who’d been acting as regent, or the powers that be in Whitehall, caricatured by  both  Canning and even more obnoxious  civil servant Rufus Lancaster  (Tom Felton), as it would threaten Great Britain’s relationship with South Africa in the light of its new apartheid policies. Indeed, things went so far as for the post-war Labour Government to have Khama exiled back to the UK, leaving his wife behind in Africa for several years before she was allowed to join him, his cause championed by the likes of young Leftist politician Tony Benn (Jack Lowden).

Arriving in Africa, Ruth also has her own battle for acceptance from the locals,  as embodied in her sister-in-law Naledi (Terry Pheto), but knuckling down and a couple of stirring she’s my wife  speeches from Seretse soon seem to smooth all that over.

As written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Amma Asante, it’s more a romantic against the odds fairy-tale than political commentary, oversimplifying events (particularly the importance of finding diamonds in the country) to some extent and unsubtly balancing the noble-hearted couple against the weaselly politicians manipulating the marriage for their own ends. The need to deliver exposition often gives a clunky feel to the dialogue, but, delivering well modulated performances, there’s a genuine chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo and, while his is the more charismatic figure, Ruth has determined British get on with it resolve in her blood too. Nonetheless, considerably less impressive than Asante’s previous Belle, which also dealt with themes of colour, society and outsider status,  and feeling longer than its two hours, it never really rises above its soft and politely styled melodrama.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

News: Dollar Dim Sum Club to launch in Digbeth

Dollar Dim Sum Club image credit Tom Bird

A new event aiming to bring together Birmingham’s creative community, food lovers and free thinking individuals over good food, launches at the Zellig building in Digbeth on Saturday, December 10th.

The  Dollar Dim Sum Club, delivered in partnership with Digbeth streetwear concept store Bene Culture, promises live music from Birmingham Rapper Franklin Armstrong, a DJ set from Brum Radio, BBC Introducing and Amazing Radio DJ Jack Parker, screen printed t-shirts designed by local artist Charlie Soffe and a screening of a classic Bruce Lee film during the evening.

On the menu: handmade, freshly steamed Siu Mai dumplings, smashed cucumber salad, sticky boiled rice + more tasty surprises. Vegetarian options of braised cabbage and peanut and chilli boiled dumplings will also be available.

Tickets include entry to the event, one meal, entry into a raffle to win a t-shirt, beer courtesy of Tsingtao and coconut water from Fountain of Youth.

Dollar Dim Sum Club was founded in winter 2016 by budding chef, Birmingham native and longtime traditional Chinese food fan, Alex Situnayake.

For further information, or to buy tickets to the event on Saturday 10 December, visit the official Dollar Dim Sum Club Facebook page.

Lead image: Tom Bird

Theme Park come to Birmingham this Tuesday

London trio Theme Park make a Christmas call to Birmingham this coming week, performing at the Hare & Hounds on Tuesday 6 December. Tickets are still available for the gig, and can be purchased here.

The band’s stop in Brum is one of only four headline shows they have done this year, which is a surprise considering their burgeoning reputation. The three-piece’s most recent record, ‘LA (Is Stealing My Friends)’ is an irresistible slice of lo-fi, dance-tinged eclectism that seems to, daringly and delightfully, throw in Bon Iver, Daft Punk and Bombay Bicycle Club into an unholy cauldron.

Support for the gig comes from established Birmingham indie outfit Cinema, as well as Christobal and the Sea.

Weird Dreams to headline the Sunflower Lounge

The highly-lauded Weird Dreams bid a Christmas visit to Birmingham this coming week, playing at The Sunflower Lounge on Sunday 11 December. The gig, hosted by Counteract, will see the group perform tracks from their latest EP, Luxury Alone. Tickets are available here.

The project of Doran Edwards, Weird Dreams began as a psych-pop duo before evolving into a meditative synth pop act. Edwards and Craig Bowers formed Weird Dreams in 2010 while they were working at an East London vintage clothes shop and bonded over their mutual love of the Beach Boys, David Lynch, and ’60s girl groups. Channeling those interests that bonded them back on the shop floor, this version of Weird Dreams sounded — you guessed it — dreamy and weird, with reverb-drenched catchy pop hooks laced with dark sentiment bouncing along to clean, California-soaked guitar lines.

Weird Dreams will be in good company, too, with support coming from two of Birmingham’s brightest bands. Handwaxx are regulars on the local circuit, with their propulsive, pyschedelic strains giving them plenty of airplay, while James Brown will also play songs from his intriguing Mutes solo project.

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 2-Thu Dec 8

 

NEW RELEASE

The Edge of Seventeen (15)

 

Turning twenty next week, Hailee Steinfield drops a few years to play troubled, self-deprecating and self-pitying Pacific Northwest high schooler Nadine Byrd, first seen bursting in on her laid back history teacher, Mr. Bruner (a wonderfully droll Woody Harrelson), to tell him she’s going to commit suicide. What follows, assisted by such Steinfield voiceover observations as “everyone in the world is as miserable and empty as I am; they’re just better at pretending”, covers the events leading up to this drama queen outburst and how things are eventually resolved.

 

Flashback to her childhood in which a petulantly sulky young Nadine (Lina Renna) is pissed off that her over-achieving nice guy older brother Darian gets all the attention, especially from mom Moma (Kyra Sedgwick). Things look up when, the school misfit and outsider, she finally makes a friend in kindred spirit Krista (Ava Grace Cooper) and the two become inseperable. Then, when Nadine’s thirteen, tragedy hits as her supportive father (Eric Keenleyside) suddenly dies.  Things get worse when, one drunken night, Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), sleeps with Darian (Blake Jenner) and then becomes his girlfriend. Feeling betrayed, Nadine declares she has to choose between her or him, and when she won’t, she does it for her, cutting them both out of her life. Much to the continuing exasperation of  her distracted mother.

To fill the gap, she becomes friends with awkwardly Korean-American shy nice guy film student classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), but, while it’s patently obvious he has a crush on her, she’s still fantasising over bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), to whom she sends a rather rash and explicit text about what she like to do to him and he to her that precipitates the opening scene.

Very much in the tradition of John Hughes; high school movies, Nadine’s the prototypical teenager who has to come to realise her self-worth and true beauty, much like Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink, while also echoing Winona Ryder in Heathers while the film also has echoes of  such similar set offerings as Clueless and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Although writer and first time director Kelly Fremon Craig handles the world of teenage relationships and fragile emotions with a knowing but light hand, it’s the scenes and sarcastic banter between Nadine and Mr. Bruner (who’s not the sad sack of apathetic shit she takes him for) that are arguably the strongest and sharpest. A sharply observed witty comedy with a real sense of depth and a protagonist who can be as infuriating as she is engaging, this is Steinfield’s best work yet and a high school movie well worthy of  joining the ranks of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bleed For This (15)

bleed-2Frank Bruno, Henry Cooper, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, even if you’re not a  boxing fan you’ll probably have heard of all of these. Vinny Pazienza? Probably not. Dubbed the Pazmanian Devil, he was an Italian American boxer from Rhode Island who held lightweight, light middleweight and super middleweight world titles in the 80s and early 90s, but he doesn’t even figure on the Google list of top names in boxing history. All of which suggests there may not be a huge audience for this biopic by Boiler Room director Ben Younger, even if, exec produced by Martin Scorsese,  it I does represent a relative return to form  after the misfire of Prime and features another terrific performance from Whiplash star Miles Teller.

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

All this is dutifully addressed in the film with a charismatic Teller solidly delivering both Vinny’s early flash swagger and subsequent refusal to accept what everyone told him and putting himself through a punishing regime (not to mention the agony of insisting the halo be removed without anaesthetic) – which, with one misstep could have left him paralysed, in order to return to the ring. He’s bolstered by two other effective turns by Ciaran Hinds as Angelo, Paz’s gym-owning high pressure father, and Aaron Eckhart as the balding, hard drinking Rooney finding is own redemption through training Vinny, first taking him up a weight  to beat Dele and then through the gruelling fight back.

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

The film also compresses and skips events. Although it presents the Duran match as Paz’s comeback, in reality he’d already made that in 1992, beating Louis Santana and had won a further three fights before meeting Duran. There’s also the problem in that the ringside action is all rather underwhelming and the actual final fight feels somewhat of an anticlimax.

The film has some fancy footwork and lands several solid blows, but  it’s always a  contender never a champ.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

                          

Indignation (15)

indignationArriving on the heels of Ewan McGregor’s misfiring directorial debut, American Pastoral, James Schamus’ film is not just the most but arguably the only successful cinematic adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. Set in the early 50s, it follows Jewish atheist Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son on a New Jersey butcher. as, partly to avoid the draft (the film opens in the dark with the sound of gunshots and a knifing in the Korean War before cutting to a funeral service) and partly to escape his overprotective father (Danny Burstein), he takes up a scholarship and moves to Winesburg College in Ohio. Here he determines to bury himself in his studies, declining to join the Jewish fraternity or socialise. He does, however, take WASP fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) on what proves to be a somewhat awkward date, but which doe send up with her giving him head in a borrowed car. It is Marcus’ first sexual experience and it is to have major ramifications on both his and her subsequent life at the college. Like McGregor, this too is Schamus’ feature debut as a director, though he is well known as the writer of the likes of The Ice Storm (another film about a chain of events and the tragic fallout from a sexual awakening), Eat Drink Man Woman and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he is far more assured with the material as he channels it towards the dark melancholy of its denouement which returns to the brief opening shot of an elderly woman in a retirement home.

Early on he abruptly cut to a scene of Olivia visiting Marcus in hospital where he talks about vomiting over the Dean’s trophies, audaciously withholding the events leading up to that until much later. Likewise, a scene of the doomed lovers at a restaurant is broken into two lengthily separated sequences. But it works, reinforcing the film’s exploration of causality and how we end up at specific moments.

Lerman, who is in pretty much every scene, is even better than in The Perks of Being A Wallflower and he’s matched by an equally award worthy performance by Tracy Letts as the moralising, contemptuous Dean Cauldwell, a 15 or so minute exchange between them, during which an indignant Marcus defends his position by citing Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize winning essay Why I Am Not A Christian, a masterclass in directing, acting and writing. Likewise, as Marcus’ controlling mother, Linda Emond has a terrific scene as she warns her son he should avoid damaged goods like Olivia. It’s hard a very low key release, but it’s up there with the year’s very best. (MAC)

 

Moana (PG)

moana-2The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (an underused Nicole Scherzinger) and   Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not all everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House), who most tend to regard as the local crazy woman, but who knows – and eventually reveals to Moana – the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.

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

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

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

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

The songs may not have the mass singalong appeal of Let It Go or Do You Want to Build A Snowman , but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny is another highlight. Johnson’s You’re Welcome isn’t bad either, though he shouldn’t consider a solo album. Whether it has the strength and innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. It’s preceded by Inner Workings, an Inside Out-like animated short about a meek clerk’s assorted internal organs, his overcautious brain and taking chances in life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

sully-2 On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Accountant (15)

accFollowing box office misfire Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool thriller about a high functioning autistic numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a tooled-up emotionally blank vigilante for hire with a female voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.

Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale.

We first meet the man in question, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman and he’s subsequently hired to looking into possible financial irregularities at Living Robotics, a  high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned  the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused),  the  perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.

Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail leads to them both being marked for elimination as he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.

Punctuating this is a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through  brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, and to prison scenes between  adult Wolff bonds and a former mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Gradually unfolding as an action movie, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck delivers a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually come together. The note of redemption in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller which promises to see a solid  return on investment.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Allied (12A)

allied-3Director Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to old fashioned wartime melodrama for Steven Knight’s  love story cum espionage thriller to solid effect, so it’s unfortunate that it’s more likely to be remembered as the film that put an end to Brangelina on account of Brad Pitt’s alleged (and denied) affair with co-star Marion Cotillard star. Pitt is Max Vatan, a  Canadian pilot and intelligence officer who’s dispatched to Casablanca to link up with French spy Marianne Beauséjour (Cottilard), who’s got herself cosy with high up collaborationists in the Vichy government, posing as her Parisian husband as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador.

The mission turns out to a sort of foreplay and, once the job’s done, he arranges for her to come to London where they get married and have a daughter, born, rather dramatically, in the middle of the Blitz. All’s bliss until Max is summoned to see his commanding officer (Jared Harris) and finds himself face to face with an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) from the Special Operations Executive who informs him that his wife is suspected of being a Nazi spy and, if that turns out to be true, he has to execute her himself or face being hung as a traitor himself.

Although Marianne’s words, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works”, come back to haunt him, he refuses to believe she’s not who she says she is and, disobeying orders, armed with her wedding photo, duly sets out to disprove  the accusation, a quest that takes him to a French lock up and a run in with bunch of German soldiers.

It would, of course, be wrong to reveal more and the film cleverly keeps you guessing; however, suffice to say, as per the Casablanca set up, the film has much to do with what is and what is not true, both as regards faked relationships  and the people involved. Like their characters, Pitt and Cottilard have persuasive chemistry, enhanced no little by the glowing

cinematography, as the film slips between domestic bliss (including a picnic in their leafy suburb next to a downed German bomber), domestic tension (she susses something’s up when sex gets angry) and tense action before a dramatic climax that, while it doesn’t somehow quite have the punch it should, won’t leave audiences feeling cheated and will probably give Jolie a sense of vicarious satisfaction too.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Almost  Christmas (12A)

almostThe dysfunctional family Christmas get together comedy has become  a staple of the festive season, and this African-American one won’t deliver anything you don’t expect, but is amusing and warming in all the right places, nonetheless.  A year on since his wife’s death, retired auto-shop owner Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is  having family and friends over to his house for five days. But without Grace and her famous pies to broker disagreements, can having everyone together under one roof possibly go smoothly?

Among those due to gather round the dinner table are daughter  Rachel (Gabrielle Union), now a recently divorced  mum trying to pay her way through law school; her overachieving big sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and her  former pro basketball player slacker husband  Lonnie (JB Smoove); Aunt May (Mo’Nique), a brash and blousy former backup singer with a fondness for a drink and habit of saying what she thinks; Walter’s  assorted grandkids; and, destined to spice things up, Malachi (Omar Epps), the now grown-up kid from next door who had a thing for Rachel, and Jasmine, the supermarket assistant she’s wickedly invited who’s been having an affair with Lonnie. Sparks inevitably fly, pies are inevitably burned, long-delayed romance inevitably blossoms and flashbacks to happier times inevitably punctuate proceedings. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a family  Christmas movie without a seasonal decoration going haywire, here an electric Santa sculpture, and the obligatory huggy ending. But the fact that you know what’s inside the wrapping, doesn’t make the gift less enjoyable. (Cineworld NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Arrival (12A)

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

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

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

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

Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bad Santa 2 (15)

bad-santa-2Thirteen  years after  Terry Zwigoff  brought a  welcome breath of foul air to the annual festive sentimentality, director Mark Waters reintroduces the dissolute, depraved and generally drunk  Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) who, after the shot of redemption at the end of the first film, is back at rock bottom, living in a dump and so depressed he decides to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Unfortunately, it’s electric. Then, midway through trying to hang himself, enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the now grown up pudgy kid from the first film  who has clung to him as surrogate family over the years. More importantly, he’s also reunited former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who, despite trying to stitch him up last time, has another surefire job lined up, in Chicago, with a  far higher payday.

However, much to Willie’s horror, the mastermind turns out to be his long estranged criminal mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates). She’s brought him in to crack the safe at the homeless charity she’s working at, where, on Christmas Eve, while everyone’s watching the children’s concert, she plans to make off with the $2million or so from its Santa collections  which crooked charity boss Regent (Ryan Hansen) is intending to skim for himself.

After much crude  name calling, Willie agrees to go along with the robbery , though this will mean them having to relieve the sex-mad receptionist of the key to the office, a  task for which Marcus happily volunteers, and, as things turn out, Willie, back in the red suit and beard again, screwing Regent’s neglected recovering alcoholic wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks). On top of which, the blissfully innocent Thurman has come to Chicago to spend Christmas with Willie.

There’s rather less of the first film’s satire on Christmas commercialism and rather more references to anal sex, not to mention  jokes about child abuse, disability, race, autism, the list goes on, But, behind the vulgarity and political incorrectness, the film is also about loneliness, the fear of connection that drives nihilistic self-destruction and, just when you least expect it, a poignant  emotional epiphany. Of course, mostly though it’s about booze and sex. Bates is particularly game and scabrously funny as the monstrous, heavily-tattooed mother from hell, while Kelly is a treat as the film’s blissfully unaware angel of light and unconditional love. It is, though  a grizzled Thornton who, even in  Willie’s most debased moments, is the film’s backbone, finding the soft heart beating behind the bile. If you feel you’ll scream if you have to sit through It’s A Wonderful Life again, get yourself on the naughty list and go sit on this Santa’s lap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza;  Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

doc3One of the Marvel Universe’s  biggest box office hits, this sees Benedict Cumberbatch  perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant and egotistical New York neurosurgeon who, his hands crippled in a car accident, sets off to Tibet in search of a mysterious order than he believes can heal him, eventually being taken in and mentored by  the so called Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton)  and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mystic arts. Initial skepticism quickly giving way to a driven desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, Strange’s first challenge comes when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disciple turned rogue who stole a forbidden spell, returns to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world, thereby  allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.

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

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

Unlike the comics, here  Wong (Benedict Wong) is the keeper of the Ancient One’s library and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum as opposed to Strange’s valet,  while the romantic interest is provided  not by fellow mystic Clea, but by fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a name Marvel fans will recall from the short-lived Night Nurse and Nightcrawler comics. And while  Ejiofor may feel somewhat underused this time round, his role as Strange’s nemesis in the comic, ensures he’ll have much more to do in the inevitable sequel while the  obligatory  end credit scenes reveal that, before then, Strange will be casting a spell over the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme Danger (15) 

dangerJim Jarmusch’s documentary about The Stooges, the pioneering American punk outfit led by James Osterberg aka Iggy Pop that revolutionised rock music in the counterculture  60s, featuring new interviews with  Pop, the only surviving original member, and James Williamson  as well as  archive interviews with the late Ron and Scott Asheton alongside  vintage clips and live footage. (Sun/Wed: Electric)

 

The Girl on the Train (15)

gott_still-09One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.

A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.

So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage  and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of  her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.

Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s  same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.

Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.

Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.

Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although  the film works to make Rachel sympathetic,  they’re  all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl.  (Vue Star City)

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)

jackDespite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a  franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.

It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while  investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.

So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the  conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of  Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.

So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of  fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.

Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be  and act differently depending on where she is in the plot  and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and  even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent,  lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment.  (Vue Star City)

 

Nocturnal Animals (15)

nocturnalFashion designer Tom Ford follows his 2009 writer-director debut, A Single Man, with a slow burning adaptation of Austin Wright’s revenge thriller, Tony and Susan, its shots of obese naked women dancing in slow motion in front of a camera like no credits opening before them. They are, it transpires, part of the latest exhibition staged by high powered but emotionally distant Los Angeles gallery director Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) businessman husband’s (Arnie Hammer) financial problems are threatening to bring them both down. The marriage is also on shaky ground, confirmed when he says he has take off on a  weekend business trip and we subsequently see him in a hotel with another woman.

Meanwhile, Susan’s received the draft of a  novel by Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her college sweetheart and first husband whom she’s had no contact with in 19 years. Dedicated to her, it’s titled Nocturnal Animals after  her insomnia. The film now divides into three strands: the present as she reads the manuscript, flashbacks to their time together and the events in the novel wherein,  driving through West Texas at night, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India  (Ellie Bamber) are orced off the deserted highway  by a bunch of redneck thugs (led by an effectively repellant  Aaron Taylor Johnson,) who kidnap the women. Eventually found naked, dead after being  raped, the investigation is taken on by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a grizzled lawman who, as the months pass, makes it a personal quest to bring the murderers to justice and, if that fails, to help Tony gain revenge.

As the film interweaves between the real timelines and the fictional events which Susan’s  disturbed by but compelled to read, seems that Edward (never seen in the present) is using the memories the story evokes  to punish his ex-wife, who never offered the support he needed and (echoing her ultra-conservative mother – Laura Linney) saw him as weak. There’s also another very specific reason that only becomes clear in one devastating flashback. Tellingly, Susan visualises Tony as looking like Edward, while casting Fisher as the wife clearly has its own visual resonances. Significantly, the flashbacks are only ever seen from Susan’s perspective, which further compounds the suggestion that this may be about a consuming sense of guilt.

Slowly and assuredly building the suspense, the ending won’t please those who like everything tied up neatly, but there’s no denying it lingers in the mind. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Ouija – Origin of Evil  (15)

ouija-2-originDespite being  a thoroughly forgettable  horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to  which Before I Wake  director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set  in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of  local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of  anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Storks (U)

storksThere have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of  Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.

Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.

Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a  job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.

Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d  like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.

Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.

There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

A Street Cat Named Bob (12A)

bobDirected by Roger Spottiswood and based on the bestselling autobiography and subsequent series of books, this is a heartwarming tale about someone turning their life around with the help of a loyal friend. In this case, a cat.

It’s 2007 and James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) is a recovering heroin addict on a methadone programme, earning spare change as a London busker (courtesy of songs by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink). Thanks to his supportive case worker (Joanne Froggatt), James gets one last chance when he’s allocated a social housing flat into which, one night, comes a stray ginger tom. When attempts to find its owner prove fruitless, James decides to keep him (or vice versa), which, in turn, introduces him to Betty (Ruta Gedmintas), his vegan neighbour with her own past drugs-related tragedy, who informs him that the animal wants to be called Bob and has come to James for a reason.

And so it would appear as, taking him out busking, Bob’s soon attracting hitherto unknown crowds and turning the pair into a YouTube phenomenon and, when an incident has James banned from busking, joins him selling the  Big Issue, perched on his shoulder outside Angel tube station in Islington with people asking to have a selfie taken with him. His life gradually turning around, James seeks to reunite with his estranged father (Anthony Head), but, while there’s a general lightness of tone and often playful humour,  there will still be darker passages to navigate  before the happy ending.

The tone’s uneven, but, steering clear of mawkishness, while minor, it’s an appealingly and very British  feelgood film about choosing life and  the redemptive power of friendship that’s well served by its central two legged cast, although  it will come as no surprise to learn that, mostly playing himself,  the real star here is Bob who makes Pudsy look like a rank amateur. (Vue Star City)

Trolls (U)

trolls-2Created in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, known as Gonks in the UK,  were a huge fad in both the 60s and at different times from the 70s to the 90s.  Now they’re back, making their feature film starring debut in  this animated Day-Glo musical adventure from the various creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda that’s aimed very firmly at the under-7s.

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

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

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

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

Although there’s some sly references, there’s very little here for the grown-ups. However,  as well as a subtle anti-drugs caution about pill-popping to feel good,  the message about how true happiness lies within you has no age limits and, while the film’s relentless energy may be exhausting, it’s also infectious with such various  inspired and funny moments as the talking Cloud Guy. Anyone older than their shoe size may find it annoying, but it’s still hard not to leave without a  smile on your face.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

A United Kingdom (12A)

united-kingdomIn 1947, insurance clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) met Oxford graduate and law student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) at a London Missionary Society dance. Despite the objections of her ultra-conservative  shopkeeper father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and sneering British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a  year later the pair married and looked to  face life ahead. This, however, had rather more problems than racism in the streets of London. Seretse  was, in fact, heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), a British protectorate, and his intention for them to return home and take up his position, with Ruth as his queen, did not sit well with either his tradition-minded uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who’d been acting as regent, or the powers that be in Whitehall, caricatured by  both  Canning and even more obnoxious  civil servant Rufus Lancaster  (Tom Felton), as it would threaten Great Britain’s relationship with South Africa in the light of its new apartheid policies. Indeed, things went so far as for the post-war Labour Government to have Khama exiled back to the UK, leaving his wife behind in Africa for several years before she was allowed to join him, his cause championed by the likes of young Leftist politician Tony Benn (Jack Lowden).

Arriving in Africa, Ruth also has her own battle for acceptance from the locals,  as embodied in her sister-in-law Naledi (Terry Pheto), but knuckling down and a couple of stirring she’s my wife  speeches from Seretse soon seem to smooth all that over.

As written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Amma Asante, it’s more a romantic against the odds fairy-tale than political commentary, oversimplifying events (particularly the importance of finding diamonds in the country) to some extent and unsubtly balancing the noble-hearted couple against the weaselly politicians manipulating the marriage for their own ends. The need to deliver exposition often gives a clunky feel to the dialogue, but, delivering well modulated performances, there’s a genuine chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo and, while his is the more charismatic figure, Ruth has determined British get on with it resolve in her blood too. Nonetheless, considerably less impressive than Asante’s previous Belle, which also dealt with themes of colour, society and outsider status,  and feeling longer than its two hours, it never really rises above its soft and politely styled melodrama.  (Cineworld 5 NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240