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Interview: Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts

After the stripped down acoustic sound of his eponymous 2015 album, Scottish folkie Alasdair Roberts returns with the more electric-leaning Pangs.

“There is actually a little electric guitar on the self-titled album too, but there’s more on Pangs,” says the songwriter. “Also what there is on Pangs is electric Nashville guitar – that is, electric guitar strung with all the high strings from a set of twelve-string strings… so the lowest four strings are an octave higher than usual.

“That’s why the guitar solo on the title track is so very high pitched!

“I suppose Pangs is a bit more of a ‘rock’ record,” he says, perhaps misleadingly, “… so electric guitar makes a bit more sense in such a context.

“I play a very simple Danelectro electric guitar, but most of my writing is still usually done on acoustic guitar – and that’s true of Pangs as well, although I wrote most of the songs with the other players, Stevie and Alex in particular, in mind,” he adds, referring to band members Stevie Jones (from Sound Of Yell) and Trembling Bells’ drummer Alex Neilson – both of whom are joining him on tour.

Several Pangs songs, such as Wormwood And Gall, Vespers Chime, and An Altar In The Glade, have been informed by travel excursions, while the theme of faith also recurs.

“I don’t follow any particular faith, but faith and religion and the nature and mystery of them are continual sources of fascination for me and that shows up in some of the lyrical content,” Alasdair explains.

“Vespers Chime was a naive outsider’s attempt to describe the daily cycle of life in a community such as Pluscarden [a Catholic Benedictine monastery in Scotland], and it also touches on the concept of kenosis, which is difficult to ascribe one simple definition to but which I take as a kind of spiritual ’emptying out’ of the self or, perhaps in more modern terms, an abnegation of the ego.”

Meanwhile, the opening/ title track, Pangs (above), refers to an epic Irish legend.

“In the ancient Irish mythological text Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) there’s a reference to something called ‘Noinden Ulad’, which is often translated as ‘The Pangs of Ulster’. There’s some debate about what this means precisely, but many scholars think that it’s a reference to the practice of couvade, which is a birth custom in which, when a child is born, the man experiences the ritual of ‘labour’.

“In some cultures, men would take to their beds, undergo periods of fasting and purification and observe certain taboos.

“I suppose for various reasons – for example, through people I’d come to know and those around me who were experiencing pregnancy and so on – I’d been thinking about birth as a phenomenon, perhaps partly about the impossibility of fully comprehending it as a male person.

“Also just thinking about its place in the totality of life which my work as an artist is often striving to explore – see the line ‘between the birthmark and the deathbed bruise’ on the song The Way Unfavoured from the Drag City album Alasdair Roberts.

“Also, because we recorded the album in Ulster, at the great Analogue Catalogue studio with Julie McLarnon engineering, it seemed to make sense to have an album title which referenced that territory somehow!”

Roberts has been releasing music for over 20 years, first as Appendix One and then under his own name. He’s also collaborated with such artists as Will Oldham, Jason Molina, Karine Polwart, Lisa Knapp and Mairi Morrison, as well as forming one quarter of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominated Furrow Collective.

“It’s an enjoyable group to be in because Emily [Portman], Lucy [Farrell] and Rachel [Newton] are all such cool people and great musicians. They all take their work seriously – but not so seriously that it becomes devoid of joy.”

The quartet are mooted to be appearing at Moseley Folk Festival this year, but before then, Alasdair heads to Warwick Arts Centre for a headline show, ably supported by Stevie Jones’ Sound Of Yell.

“For Coventry, Stevie, Alex and I will play a set as Sound of Yell and I’ll be playing a hurdy gurdy which is in serious need of repair,” he says.

“In fact, does anybody want to buy a semi-functioning hurdy gurdy?”

  • The Alasdair Roberts Trio, plus Sound Of Yell, appear at Coventry’s Warwick Arts Centre on Wednesday 15 March 2017. For more information and tickets, see: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

News: New club to launch in Birmingham, opening line-up announced

The interior of scru:club's Ephraim Room
The interior of scru:club's Ephraim Room

A brand new 1000 capacity electronic music venue located on an historic industrial site in Digbeth Birmingham is set to open in March 2017.

scru:club, housed in the three-storey former Ephraim Phillips factory in Bissell Street, launches on Friday 17 March with a headline show from London grime MC CASisDEAD, along with a line-up featuring performances from Birmingham’s Slick Don, Manchester collective LEVELZ and more.

The venue, which overlooks the River Rea, currently comprises of two spaces – the main Ephraim Room featuring a custom-built VOID Acoustics sound system and the second smaller Phillips Room.

300 metres of LED lighting illuminating both rooms, bespoke 3D mapped visuals projected onto the adjacent warehouse’s wall during events as well as work produced by local street artists are amongst promised additions to the development.

scru-club's Ephraim Room
scru-club’s Ephraim Room

The initial scru:club line-up includes the opening night as programmed by in-house promoters Continuum, a takeover by electronic label Night Slugs on Friday March 24th, bassline revival with Krudd, Marcus Nasty, The Heatwave and Zed Bias on Friday March 31st, plus a Swamp 81 and Exit Records label night on Friday April 7th.

The first in a resident series, featuring Mumdance, Shed, Andy Stott and Logos, takes place on Friday April 14th.

Further to the venue’s bass music heavy programme, a slew of house and techno DJs and producers are set to appear throughout March and April, including an eight-hour back-to-back set from Valentino Kanzyani, Barac and Priku on Saturday March 18th, Cocoon, Steve Bug and Tim Green on Saturday March 25th, Ultramajic’s Jimmy Edgar, Honey Dijon Magda on Saturday April 1st.

The scru:club ‘Season One’ line-up also features The Hacienda present an 808 State live show with DJ Pierre on Saturday April 8th, alongside a 12-hour Crew Love showcase with Soul Clap and Wolf + Lamb, and Mandar, aka Lazare Hoche, Malin Genie and S. A. M. on Saturday April 22nd.

scru:club's VOID Acoustics sound system
scru:club’s VOID Acoustics sound system

Plans for the club, which has pledged to operate a strict no photography policy, also promise the addition of an indoor garden bar lined with vines and sky lights, to be followed by the conversion of an adjoining car park into an outdoor terrace, raising the capacity to 4000.

The building which houses scru:club is notable for its history as the former headquarters of company Ephraim Phillips Ltd, manufacturers of the ‘Phillips’ screw, between 1880 and 1990.

For further information, visit the scru:club official website

MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 17-Thu Feb 23

 

NEW RELEASES

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

20th Century Women (15)

A quintessential Sundance film, as with Beginners, for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar as the  75-year-old widower living his last years as a gay man, writer-director Mike Mills draws on his own family history and his mother for Dorothea (an outstanding Annette Bening)  a fifty-ish divorced nonconformist mother trying to raise her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with a proper moral outlook on life.

A free-thinking, heavy-smoking  independent woman, she owns a sprawling forever being renovated residence in southern California where she sublets rooms to Abbey (Greta Gerwig), a troubled  art school would be photographer recovering from cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a good guy handyman/mechanic but with no real sense of direction or purpose. The extended family also includes Jamie’s slightly older best friend,  Julie (Elle Fanning), the complicated daughter of a therapist, who regularly sleeps over with him, but, while she’s sexually active,  on a  purely platonic basis. Jamie, of course, would like their relationships to become something more and the film, a coming of age story for all the characters, essentially is an observation of self-discovery, identity, wants, needs, the mystery of sex (Jamie gets into a fight about the value of clitoral stimulation)  and family as Dorothea, who came up through the Depression, asks the other two women to help in raising her son.

Although Mills employs some quirky technical touches, including on screen quotes from such writers as Judy Blume, a clip from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi,  Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech and a reading from  a feminist anthology, as well as voiceovers about the future of America and the characters,  is very much an old fashioned and warmly poetic character study. At times reminiscent of both  John Irving and Richard Linklater, it’s full of poignant and insightful moments in vignettes, among them Dorothea discovering the musical differences between Black Flag and Talking Heads  in an attempt to understand Jamie and Abbey’s generation.

All the core performances are terrific, but this is undoubtedly Bening’s film, her Dorothea, graceful mischievous and anxious,  part bemused, part scared by the world into which her son is growing, dispensing lines like  “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.”  Given little by way of promotion and playing on very few screens, it’s likely to disappear without trace, but it’s one of the best films you won’t have seen this year. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

The Founder (12A)

A fascinating history lesson in how McDonalds came to be a globe-spanning franchise, John Lee Hancock’s film also comes with a moral dilemma for its audiences. Should they applaud Ray Kroc (an inspired reptilian Michael Keaton) for his drive and ruthless tenacity (“If my competitor was drowning, I’d go over and put a hose right in his mouth”) in building an empire out of what was a simple single mom and pop fast food takeaway or condemn him for the venality and greed that led him to walk all over the two McDonald brothers with whom he had gone into a Faustian partnership, breaking their contract and denying them their due royalties? Is the film being bitterly ironic or is it, like Wall Street, endorsing the idea that greed is good, especially when it is directly linked to the very idea of America? Given the recent American election, it couldn’t have come at a more timely divisive moment.

When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling 52-year-old travelling salesman with a collection of self-motivation records, a smooth line in patter  and a long line of failed ventures behind him, his latest being trying to persuade diners and burger joints to invest in one of his multiple mixer machines for their shakes. No one wants to know until, to his disbelief, he calls the office and is told he has an order for six machines in San Bernardino, California. Heading out to from Illinois to see them, he finds eager-to-please Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his less trusting brother Dick (Nick Offerman) who tell him how they set up their burger stand and revolutionised it with their Speedee service system, delivering food in 30 seconds not thirty minutes, doing away with car hop service and plates. The world’s first fast food business.

Dazzled by the possibilities, silver-tongued Kroc persuades them to join forces and let him franchise the idea, opening up McDonald’s across the Midwest. Despite the traditionally-minder Dick’s resistance to many of Kroc’s ideas (“You and your endless parade of nos, cowering in the face of progress”), the concept becomes a huge success. The problem is, the deal they cut means Ray’s still struggling to pay the bills and Dick won’t renegotiate. At which point, the banks refusing to lend any more money, enter both Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of the new franchisees and her ideas of introducing powdered milkshakes to save on the cost of refrigerating ice cream, and Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who, later to become Ray’s business manager, opened his eyes to the fact that real money lay in owning the land on which the restaurants were built. All of which eventually leads to the big break between Kroc (the wolf in the hen house) and the brothers.

“Business is war,” declares Kroc, and his is a take no prisoners approach, one  in which his neglected, long suffering wife (Laura Dern) becomes collateral damage to his single-minded ambition and what ultimately turns out to be a David and Goliath battle between the ones with the integrity and the ones with the money, in which Goliath wins.

Given that the film shows how the whole foundation of McDonald’s global empire is built on an act of deliberate theft, it’s patently not a glowing product placement eulogy (though it will likely boost post-screening sales) and kit doesn’t take much effort to draw the dots between the close almost evangelical identification of the Golden Arches with American values and the American dream (Ray’s explanation of why the Mac was a success whereas the Kroc would not be is especially to the point), a parable that won’t be lost on its post-Trump audiences.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC,  Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

The Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007’s Curse of the Golden Flower, (2012 Christian Bale starrer Flowers of War barely troubling cinemas) this is  by far the most lavish and ambitious of his films to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, one guaranteed to reach audiences far beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, many of whom have been there since childhood, it’s designed to keep out a legion of dragon-like monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a green meteor crashed into Gouwu Mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon, workmanlike but solid D) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal as the vague comic relief) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has with him the claw he severed in killing one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle from the wall tethered to ropes, and spared execution, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable help, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

As rammed preview screenings showed, Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor, but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare), the brother of the crime boss he took out in the first film in revenge for the shooting of his dog, this time to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil, a feat gorily reprised here)  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a blood debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane) where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, although Gianna herself goes a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins (some posing as buskers, some as cleaners) when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop at last one final bullet into ever body, just to be sure.

Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix, Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors, while punctuating things with such flourishes as onscreen captions. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King as well as brief turns by Franco Nero and David Patrick Kelly, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Moonlight (15)

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and laden with Oscar nominations, though, surprisingly, not for any of the actors playing the central character across different ages, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by an unrecognisable Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and whom in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forward ten years,  after spending time in juvenile detention,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened. He invites him to visit and, briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

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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.  (Vue Star City)

 

Fences (15)

Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, BAFTA winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Electric; Everyman; Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard,  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Gold (15)

Inspired by the story of Canadian mining prospector David Walsh who, in 1995, became the toast of Wall Street when his company struck gold in Indonesia, only for things to turn out to be not quite what they seemed, this is essentially another cautionary tale about greed can blind you. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, it stars Matthew McConaughey, sporting pot belly, seriously receding hairline and a snaggle tooth giving a deglamourised performance as Kenny Wells, a sweaty, ageing mineral prospector  with the gift of the gab whose late father’s once huge mining company has gone under, he and the remaining salesmen now hustling out of the Nevada diner where girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) works. Then, one night, he quite literally has a dream about finding gold in the Indonesian jungle and, pawning the last of their valuables, jets out to hook up with Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a maverick geologist who made his name discovering a massive copper mine.

Acosta’s looking for gold, but can’t get finance, which is where Kenny comes in, promising to raise whatever it takes. Pretty much operating by the seat of their pants, unable to get any of the Wall Street big boys to buy in, things almost go under. But, when Kenny wakes from a severe bout of malaria, Mike tells him they’ve struck gold. In fact, it would appear they have found the biggest goldmine in decades. Inevitably, these same Wall Street boys  now become vultures looking to get  a  piece of the action, among them his father’s old friend Clive (Stacey Keach), Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll), an investment firm go-getter who tries to swing a partnership, and heavyweight Mark Hancock (an oddly accented Bruce Greenwood) who wants to buy the pair out. And then there’s the corrupt politicians to contend with too.

Suffice to say that having gone from riches to rags and back to riches, Kenny finds himself back to rags again. Except, driven by his dream and his obsession rather than the money (he turns down $300 million), he and Mike manage to reverse fortunes yet again, even if he does lose Kay somewhere along the ride. But, as flashforward scenes of him being interviewed by an FBI agent (Tony Kebbell) about the overnight disappearance of  several hundred million dollars indicate, the see saw isn’t over yet.

Without giving too much away, it seems not everyone was being totally honest about what went down in Indonesia (there’s a nice in joke magazine cover titled Fool’s Gold, a previous McConaughey film), although the screenplay keeps one card up its sleeve to twist in the final moments.

Events occasionally moved along by voiceover as well as constant stream of 80s hits, it is, undoubtedly, overlong with something of a repetitive narrative, while the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience to get the blinded by greed message and feels the need to drop in lines spelling it out. It never gets to play in the same big leagues as Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room or The Big Short, all of which it echoes, but, even so, McConaughey’s underdog trying to grab a better kennel keeps you engaged, even if the end leaves you to question everything you’ve just seen and heard.  (MAC)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed Unec, p in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Having scored all of the big BAFTAs except Best Actor, and  likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

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

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

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

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

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

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

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and  plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

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

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

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

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

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

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

Working from Lonergan’s insightful BAFTA-winning screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Walsall Showcase; Sat/Tue: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. (Vue Star City)

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)

Although the final scene keeps the door open for continuing adventures, this, the sixth in the series all written and mostly directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring wife Milla Jovovich, does draw a line under the long-running post-apocalypse saga of the battle between the Umbrella corporation and Alice (Jovovich), the enhanced is she/isn’t she clone of  Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the corporation’s murdered, co-founder, whose mind was used to create the Red Queen artificial intelligence programme which takes the hologram of a little girl, in a world devastated by the zombies created  as a side effect of  the T-Virus designed to eradicate all illnesses. It turns out that the apparently not dead Umbrella CEO Dr Isaacs (Iain Glenn) to unleash an airborne antidote to cleanse the world so that the rich and powerful, cryogenically frozen in The Hive, can then take over. Which is why, picking up a few weeks after the last installment and blithely dispensing with logical narrative continuity, the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), who wanted to destroy humanity in the previous film but now wants to save it,  tells Alice she has to get back to Raccoon City, where it all began and stop them. Of course, as she herself is infected, that means she’ll die too, Got all that?

Which basically boils down to a long Mad Max aping chase/battle with Isaacs in his armoured tank and the undead hordes in his wake and then another one at the survivors’ stronghold in Raccoon City, where she’s reunited with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from Extinction for another battle against Isaacs, this time inside The Hive itself.

As such, it does what’s expected of it, no more, no less, with an assortment of CGI creatures (this adds a dragon to the tally in a particularly inventive opener as she battles it with a Hummer), relentless explosions and fights, scenery chewing from Glen and the flat but ever-entertaining delivery by a leather-clad Jovovich, along with her impressive athleticism, which this time includes taking out a  bunch of tooled-up goons while suspended upside-down from a  harness. In a plot twist as incredulous and improbably as it is ingenious, she also gets to play another version of herself. Hardly great art or great cinema, nonetheless the series has been an entertaining ride and, if this really does close the book, it goes out in fine style. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza)

 

Rings (15)

Just like the recent Blair Witch reboot, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle  remakes, is that you watch a  certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a  flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend  Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, promoting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (and yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape, rather recklessly by taking it in turns to watch it, and Samara’s background. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?

Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast  provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas hasn’t been before while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently for to the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind  man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed.  (Odeon 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 (Vue Star City)

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Space Between Us (PG)

Director Peter Chelsom’s first since 2014’s dismal Simon Pegg  dramady  Hector and the Search For Happiness, this stars Asa Butterfield as 16-year-old Gardner who was born on Mars since  his astronaut mom didn’t realise she was pregnant when they set off to become the planet’s first colonists. She died in childbirth and, his existence kept secret from those back on Earth, he was raised by caregiver Kendra (Carla Gugino) under the watchful eye of colony head honcho Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman). Gardner’s struck up an online relationship with Colorado foster teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson), though she’s naturally unaware that he’s calling her from space, (he tells her he lives in a New York penthouse which he can’t leave because of a bone disease) and now he wants to visit Earth to meet her and try and find his father.

Despite Shepherd’s objections, he’s given permission, but,  with tests showing that, even with skeletal implants, his body can’t cope with Earth’s environment, he realizes they’ll want to send him back. So, while there’s still time and he and Tulsa take off to try and find the father he’s never known.

A cocktail of fish out of water, teen romance and search for identity and place road trip plot, a sort of adolescents answer to Starman, it may not be a patch of Chelsom’s earlier child-centred feature, The Mighty, Oldman and Butterfield are always good value and the intrinsic sweetness and poignancy at the film’s heart may just about overcome the clunkiness that surrounds it.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Split (15)

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

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

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

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

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

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

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

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

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

Neil Cowley is Spacebound

Neil Cowley Trio

In a varied career, Neil Cowley has performed with Zero 7 and The Brand New Heavies, picked up Jazz FM’s Artist of The Year, saluted the musical talent of Dudley Moore, and helped Adele become one of the biggest artists of the century.

For his latest project, Cowley finds himself moving in another, new direction.

Spacebound Apes is an ambitious cross-platform project from the Neil Cowley Trio. There’s an 11-track instrumental album, featuring the drifting Weightless and punchy The City And The Stars, but also an accompanying book, an online presence, videos and illustrations, and a live show (which comes to Birmingham’s CBSO Centre on 4 March 2017).

Together, these elements tell the story of Lincoln, whose life is transformed when he’s lured into the orbit of Autoscopine Industries.

Has the initial concept/ story for Spacebound Apes grown since its inception? If so, how?

I remember the first day of recording. The idea was pretty raw. I had the basic tenet but no meat on the bone. I had enough to convey the idea to the other two guys in the band [drummer Evan Jenkins and bassist Rex Horan]. But it was only once the album had been recorded and I sat down to write an 11 chapter book (plus a six month long online preface blog!!) that I got to grips with the project. At that point Lincoln started to take on a life of his own. Naturally as his character developed I had little choice but to change a detail here and there. The conclusion to the story I think is different from the original idea, though I’d be hard pushed to remember what it originally was! Then there was the introduction of the illustrations by Sergio Sandoval. He was an Oscar winner for his art direction on Pans’ Labyrinth and is now a DC comic artist. When I saw his drawings they inspired me in different directions. Little details, like whether Lincoln was married or not, gave me cause for long pause as I imagined the implications of heading in one direction or another. These are, of course, the daily trials of being an author. But for a musician with a pen, these are new experiences!

Did you always envisage Spacebound Apes as a multi-media/ cross-platform project?

I did. I wanted it to be more than just an album. I wanted this to really mean something to people on many different levels.

How does it feel looking back, now it’s all out there?

If I’d known the amount of work it would take to get it all of the ground I may not have started, but now I look back at the result, I’m tentatively proud of what we’ve achieved … just to be able to enjoy other people’s contributions and to see experts from other fields create whilst reflecting on the music; and to have an influence on that creativity has been wonderful.

As soon as you mention ‘space’ and ‘apes’, it’s hard not to think of Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet (a book that’s quite different in tone and story to the film it inspired, Planet Of The Apes). Were you aware of the book – with the ape floating in space, and the idea of a story written by someone else? Was it a source of inspiration?

I am aware of the book, but I don’t think it influenced this project directly. This project was directly inspired by another book [Arthur C Clarke’s The City And The Stars]. Though not a year goes by without immersing myself in Planet of the Apes the movie. I have a flashback in my mind of opening the first pages of Pierre Boulle’s book, perhaps on a dusty bookcase in a holiday home somewhere. But I certainly didn’t read the book in full. My half/half ape character is designed to connect with the album title … to highlight our inner ape selves. For those that hold the theory of evolution as the cornerstone to their daily lives such as myself, the figure of an ape is always a huge source of inner reflection.

Your tale begins with Lincoln, who agrees to undergo an experiment to free his mind after being lured to a mysterious lab by the promise of romance … (without giving too much away) where does the story head from there?

Well actually, the story starts on my Tumblr Page, six months before. We get to see Lincoln, bored with his daily life, more like a Reggie Perrin type character in a way (!) He finds an old love letter from a girl called Emmanuelle, his girlfriend from 20 years previous. He tries to track her down online and eventually gets a reply, or so he thinks. He eventually agrees to meet with her and when he arrives he discovers that the girl he has been talking to is actually a Love Algorithm, designed by a company called Autoscopine Industries. They have lured him in to become part of an experiment with a new drug. This drug will rid humankind of love as an emotion, and in so doing create a new super-efficient human, capable of achieving anything. He eventually agrees to become part of the program, which is where the published book begins. After the administration of this drug he finds himself in this inner solar system, experiencing the various planets where one or other abstract human emotion rules. Love, Duty, Endeavour, Hubris etc. After his many experiences he comes back down to earth, but not rid of love as his captors hope, but with a new ‘commandment’. You’ll have to read the book to find out what that is!

Did people around you – the band, label, management – need convincing …?

That is always my fear. That’s why I keep the creative process mostly to myself. It’s very exhausting to have to convince people all the time of your ideas and your intent. It’s much more preferable to just get on with it and then show them the final product. As it happens, those that did jump on board were such great contributors … the aforementioned Sergio Sandoval, my publishers who produced the book, Key Pro who manufactured the record… All of these guys showed a great deal of love for the project.

Performing live in Birmingham soon, will you be doing the album in full? If so, will it be ‘an immersive performance’ with visuals from the book?

We will be doing the album in full. When we played London we had the visuals as an accompaniment to the performance. But it proved so unbelievably costly as an exercise that we’ve had to put it back in the box. However, there were downsides connected with showing all the visuals. Once again, it becomes a very prescriptive experience, with no room for imagination. I think there something to be said to letting people interpret internally.

When you release your first album, you only have that to play essentially. The joy of having six albums is you can play all your ‘hits’. [Debut album] Displaced was just three guys playing raucously. It was (as it was called at the time) somewhat like Punk-Jazz. Spacebound Apes is an altogether more thoughtful affair. It has an 11 chapter book to accompany it, all about the trials and tribulations of Lincoln… our Spacebound Ape. So it’s very much a concept album. The main difference is all the atmospherics and electronics that accompany the live show on this tour. Dom Monks, our producer, helps out on stage with that, so that I can still be essentially just the piano player. Spacebound Apes is our Planet Suite [Gustav Holst’s dramatic suite] whereas Displaced was our Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches [Happy Mondays’ third album].

Will we hear from Lincoln again in the future do you think?

I have no plans to do revive Lincoln currently. It feels like his story is complete, as is that phase in my life. It’s time for a new challenge. Though I am liable to completely contradict that statement and most other statements I make!

What’s been the impact of the inclusion of Spacebound Apes’ Grace on the ‘peaceful piano’ Spotify playlist, alongside Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, Philip Glass and others?

That has been a fascinating development. We released Grace in June last year on Spotify. After a few days it was somewhere near the 3 or 4000 stream level and we were fairly happy with that. Thinking that it had sparked an interest from our fans and made for a nice precursor to the album. Then all of a sudden about a month later I noticed that the streams had gone up by 30,000 in a day. I scrabble around trying to find the reason why and there it was, sitting on the Peaceful Piano’ playlist. Something put together by Spotify in New York. My track was sitting alongside the Ludovicos, Nils Frahms, Philip Glass types, presumable making everyone feel nice and peaceful! The thing about a playlist like that, is it just makes the track grow and grow exponentially. People save the track on their Spotify accounts and every time it plays it’s promoting the band and the Spacebound Apes album. Since then, another track, a reworking of the City And The Stars, has made it on to that playlist. Despite the preconception that Spotify don’t pay, this development has actually paid for a lot of the exuberant artistry associated with the making of Spacebound Apes. It’s dug me out a right hole in other words!!

What’s your plans for the coming months?

There are plans afoot to get a host of remixes done of Spacebound Apes. There are some really exciting new artists getting involved. Other than that, it’ll be lots of composition for me and a fair amount of live shows. With a tour of the US and Canada happening mid-summer.

  • Neil Cowley Trio: Spacebound Apes is at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham, on Saturday 4 March 2017. Tickets £18 via thsh.co.uk
  • For more details on the Neil Cowley Trio see: www.neilcowleytrio.com
  • To find out more about Lincoln and the Spacebound Apes project, see: spaceboundapes.com

 

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Feb 10-Thu Feb 16

 

NEW RELEASES

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s BAFTA Best Animated Film winner, The Lego Movie, is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the ,law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series), it plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then, with the crowds assuming he’ll be off partying,  goes home to the emptiness of the Batcave and Wayne Manor, eats Lobster Thermidor and plays heavy metal guitar. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visit’s Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as its okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk  (15)

Director Ang Lee’s first since 2012’s award-winning Life Of Pi has proven rather less of a success, taking a  dismal $26m worldwide. Adapted from Ben Fountain’s novel, it takes place over the course of a single day (albeit with flashbacks) as decorated Iraq War hero Billy Lynn  (Joe Alwyn) and the other members of his platoon, Bravo Squad,  prepare to take part in the Dallas Cowboys’ 2004 Thanksgiving halftime show, the culmination of a PR photo opportunity victory tour to boost support for the war before they redeploy. Under fire during an operation, Billy went to the rescue of their wounded zen-philosophising sergeant (Vin Diesel), killing an enemy combatant at close quarters, an action captured on cellphone that earned him a medal, but has also left him, just a  small town Texas boy who only enlisted to avoid jail after beating up his sister’s heartless boyfriend, with post traumatic stress disorder.

He’s confused and in a  daze. Everyone treats him like a hero, but his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), the family’s only anti-war liberal, wants him to see a psychiatrists and get discharged, while around him, their manager, Albert (Chris Tucker) is trying to hustle them a  movie deal, the army PR man is in a flap (and has no idea what they’re going to be asked to do) and the event organiser just sees them as a prop for headline act Destiny’s Child (not playing themselves!).  Billy’s also being given the eye Faison (Makenzie Leigh), the star-spangled Christian cheerleader who seems to think it’s her patriotic God-given duty to be his groupie for the day. He, on the other hand, a wide-eyed, inexperienced innocent, is already planning their future.

Rightly, the others in the platoon have a more pragmatic view. Especially Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund), their unit commander who, while committed to doing his duty, is under no illusions about what either the event or the war is about, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind, most notably in scathingly sharp scene with Tim Blake Nelson’s Texas oilman.

Shot at 120 frames per second, five times faster than an ordinary movie, it has a vivid clarity that pulls you right into the picture, something that’s particularly effective in the close-ups. But, even so, whether in his response to team owner Norm Oglesby’s (Steve Martin) offer to bankroll the movie, but with a derisory payment to the men of Bravo, or his internal struggle over self-preservation and loyalty to his fellow soldiers, it’s Alwyn’s performance that pulls you into its emotional heart as the film addresses the differences between the media’s portrayal and the public perception of the troops and the reality, the squad’s reaction to the special effects showing just how affected they have been. The support they give is about the idea not the men themselves, as seen when, after the game, its fake marching band and the cameras are gone, they’re set upon by the stadium’s stage crew.

There are flaws, a somewhat hesitant Martin doesn’t fully make Oglesby the exploitative slimeball he should be,  save for Kathryn, Billy’s family are only loosely sketched, and the others in the squad are, inevitably, never given as much dimension as Billy or Dime; nevertheless, this deserved a far better response and bigger audience than it’s received. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

 

Fences (15)


Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Electric)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first in the adaptations of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named new senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But the,, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard (who just happens to be James’ husband),  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers, got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christians fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making ir rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. ((Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Prevenge (18)

Having written and starred in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, Alice Lowe adds director to the hyphenates, penning another serial killer warped black comedy,  this time involving a seven-month pregnant woman rather than sociopathic caravaners. A wry twist on antenatal depression, it has Lowe (who was herself pregnant during filming) as Ruth, a single mother-to-be following the death of her partner in (as hinted at in brief flashbacks) a  climbing Touching The Void-like tragedy. We first meet her in a pet shop run by a leering creep (Dan Renton Skinner) whose sales patter is loaded with sexual innuendo. As he bends down to show her one of the spiders, she cuts his throat. “One down”, she remarks. And so, adopting  a variety of different names, she moves around Cardiff adding others to the tally, among them DJ Dan (Tom Davis), a repulsive misogynistic pub DJ who pukes into his afro-wig in the back of the taxi and then slobbers all over her. But, it’s not just sexist men she kills. There’s also the kindly guy whose flat share ad she answers, and his flatmate, and also a  cold career woman spinster (Kate Dickie) who has no empathy for pregnant job applicants; but, disappointingly, not the very annoyingly upbeat midwife (Jo Hartley).

All of this is because Ruth’s under the delusion that her unborn baby is telling her to kill (“Baby will tell you what to do… Baby knows best”, says the midwife with wry irony), though clearly it’s her own grief, anger and a twisted  pre-emptive revenge, fuelled by (most of) her victims’ attitudes to women, pregnancy and children,  that leads her to the murders and an eventual Halloween party confrontation with a guy (Kayvan Novak) who runs a climbing school.

A grim, grisly and bleakly black satire as well as an observation on how pregnancy can make you feel you no longer have control over your own body, as with Lowe’s deliberately flat monotone performance, it makes a virtue of the mundanity of the settings, its mood of disorientation underpinned by its nervy electronic score. And, although the fact that the victims don’t all conform to the same type muddles the argument about attitudes to pregnancy and the moral debate between conscience  and foetus feels overdone, this is an impressive – and impressively transgressive – debut. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

The Space Between Us (PG)

 

Unfortunately, the distributor declined to make a screening available for review, but, marking director Peter Chelsom’s first since 2014’s dismal Simon Pegg  dramady  Hector and the Search For Happiness, this stars Asa Butterfield as 16-year-old Gardner who was born on Mars since  his astronaut mom didn’t realise she was pregnant when they set off to become the planet’s first colonists. She died in childbirth and, his existence kept secret from those back on Earth, he was raised by caregiver Kendra (Carla Gugino) under the watchful eye of colony head honcho Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman).

Gardner’s struck up an online relationship with Colorado foster teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson), though she’s naturally unaware that he’s calling her from space, (he tells her he lives in a New York penthouse which he can’t leave because of a bone disease) and now he wants to visit Earth to meet her and try and find his father.

Despite Shepherd’s objections, he’s given permission, but,  with tests showing that, even with skeletal implants, his body can’t cope with Earth’s environment, he realizes they’ll want to send him back. So, while there’s still time and he and Tulsa take off to try and find the father he’s never known.

Reviews have been fairly scathing about its cocktail of fish out of water, teen romance and search for identity and place road trip plot, a sort of adolescents answer to Starman, but, while it may not be a patch of Chelsom’s earlier child-centred feature, The Mighty, Oldman and Butterfield are always good value and the intrinsic sweetness and poignancy at the film’s heart may just about overcome the clunkiness that surrounds it. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

  

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Denial (12A)

This marks the return of director Mick Jackson with his first feature since 1997’s Volcano as, with a screenplay by David Hare, it recounts the true story of the libel case brought by self-proclaimed historian, anti-Semitic Nazi sympathiser David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic teaching Jewish history in Atlanta, who, in her book. Denying the Holocaust, has accused him of being a Holocaust denier, a charge he refuted and claimed had damaged his reputation and career. Had he won, citing the mantra ‘no holes, no Holocaust’, then it would have legitimised denial of six million deaths.

The film opens at a lecture by Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) where Irving (a chillingly creepy Timothy Spall) interrupts, offering money if anyone can produce any document confirming that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz or that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. Save for a haunting research visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland itself (the defence had to provide forensic evidence that the Holocaust happened), the remainder of the film centres around the two year trial in the Royal Courts of Justice in England, where the burden of proof in libel is on the accused, during which her council, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce, and renowned Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) refused to let her speak or for Holocaust survivors to testify so as not to allow Irving a platform.

Irving describes it as a David and Goliath battle and that’s largely how the film plays out, except it’s actually the defence team in the David role, having to engineer ways to ensnare Irving, defending himself, in a net of his own vanity and inaccuracies. Never sensational, it respectfully sticks to the facts (the courtroom dialogue is taken verbatim from the records) but, in great part due to Weisz’s nuanced performance, it is, while not without moments of levity, riveting and emotionally wrenching.  (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.  (Vue Star City)

 

Gold (15)

Inspired by the story of Canadian mining prospector David Walsh who, in 1995, became the toast of Wall Street when his company struck gold in Indonesia, only for things to turn out to be not quite what they seemed, this is essentially another cautionary tale about greed can blind you. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, it stars Matthew McConaughey, sporting pot belly, seriously receding hairline and a snaggle tooth giving a deglamourised performance as Kenny Wells, a sweaty, ageing mineral prospector  with the gift of the gab whose late father’s once huge mining company has gone under, he and the remaining salesmen now hustling out of the Nevada diner where girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) works. Then, one night, he quite literally has a dream about finding gold in the Indonesian jungle and, pawning the last of their valuables, jets out to hook up with Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a maverick geologist who made his name discovering a massive copper mine.

Acosta’s looking for gold, but can’t get finance, which is where Kenny comes in, promising to raise whatever it takes. Pretty much operating by the seat of their pants, unable to get any of the Wall Street big boys to buy in, things almost go under. But, when Kenny wakes from a severe bout of malaria, Mike tells him they’ve struck gold. In fact, it would appear they have found the biggest goldmine in decades. Inevitably, these same Wall Street boys  now become vultures looking to get  a  piece of the action, among them his father’s old friend Clive (Stacey Keach), Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll), an investment firm go-getter who tries to swing a partnership, and heavyweight Mark Hancock (an oddly accented Bruce Greenwood) who wants to buy the pair out. And then there’s the corrupt politicians to contend with too.

Suffice to say that having gone from riches to rags and back to riches, Kenny finds himself back to rags again. Except, driven by his dream and his obsession rather than the money (he turns down $300 million), he and Mike manage to reverse fortunes yet again, even if he does lose Kay somewhere along the ride. But, as flashforward scenes of him being interviewed by an FBI agent (Tony Kebbell) about the overnight disappearance of  several hundred million dollars indicate, the see saw isn’t over yet.

Without giving too much away, it seems not everyone was being totally honest about what went down in Indonesia (there’s a nice in joke magazine cover titled Fool’s Gold, a previous McConaughey film), although the screenplay keeps one card up its sleeve to twist in the final moments.

Events occasionally moved along by voiceover as well as constant stream of 80s hits, it is, undoubtedly, overlong with something of a repetitive narrative, while the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience to get the blinded by greed message and feels the need to drop in lines spelling it out. It never gets to play in the same big leagues as Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room or The Big Short, all of which it echoes, but, even so, McConaughey’s underdog trying to grab a better kennel keeps you engaged, even if the end leaves you to question everything you’ve just seen and heard.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Vue Star City)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)   

It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed Unec, p in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

I, Daniel Blake (15)

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

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

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

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

Jackie (15)

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

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

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

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

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme effectively underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (MAC)

 

 

La La Land (12A)

Having  swept the Golden Globes and likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

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

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

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

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

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

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

 

Lion (PG)

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

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

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

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

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

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

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

 

 

Moana (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny  another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but  it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)

Although the final scene keeps the door open for continuing adventures, this, the sixth in the series all written and mostly directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring wife Milla Jovovich, does draw a line under the long-running post-apocalypse saga of the battle between the Umbrella corporation and Alice (Jovovich), the enhanced is she/isn’t she clone of  Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the corporation’s murdered, co-founder, whose mind was used to create the Red Queen artificial intelligence programme which takes the hologram of a little girl, in a world devastated by the zombies created  as a side effect of  the T-Virus designed to eradicate all illnesses.

It turns out that the apparently not dead Umbrella CEO Dr Isaacs (Iain Glenn) to unleash an airborne antidote to cleanse the world so that the rich and powerful, cryogenically frozen in The Hive, can then take over. Which is why, picking up a few weeks after the last installment and blithely dispensing with logical narrative continuity, the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), who wanted to destroy humanity in the previous film but now wants to save it,  tells Alice she has to get back to Raccoon City, where it all began and stop them. Of course, as she herself is infected, that means she’ll die too, Got all that?

Which basically boils down to a long Mad Max aping chase/battle with Isaacs in his armoured tank and the undead hordes in his wake and then another one at the survivors’ stronghold in Raccoon City, where she’s reunited with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from Extinction for another battle against Isaacs, this time inside The Hive itself.

As such, it does what’s expected of it, no more, no less, with an assortment of CGI creatures (this adds a dragon to the tally in a particularly inventive opener as she battles it with a Hummer), relentless explosions and fights, scenery chewing from Glen and the flat but ever-entertaining delivery by a leather-clad Jovovich, along with her impressive athleticism, which this time includes taking out a  bunch of tooled-up goons while suspended upside-down from a  harness. In a plot twist as incredulous and improbably as it is ingenious, she also gets to play another version of herself. Hardly great art or great cinema, nonetheless the series has been an entertaining ride and, if this really does close the book, it goes out in fine style. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rings (15)

Just like the recent Blair Witch reboot, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle  remakes, is that you watch a  certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a  flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers’ TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend  Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, prompting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?

Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast  provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas haven’t been before, while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently swapped for the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind  man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; 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 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 NEC;   Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Silence (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Split (15)

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

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

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

 

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

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

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

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

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

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City) 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456. 

Odeon Birmingham –Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Releases, Fri Feb 3-Thu Feb 9

NEW RELEASES

Gold (15)

Inspired by rather than based on the story of Canadian mining prospector David Walsh, who, in 1995, made headline news and became the toast of Wall Street when his company,  Bre-X struck gold in Indonesia. However, things turned out to be not quite what they seemed.

Essentially another cautionary tale about greed can blind you, directed by Stephen Gaghan, his first since Syriana, it stars Matthew McConaughey, sporting pot belly and a seriously receding hairline for the bulk of the film (and a snuggle too throughout)  giving a dazzling deglamourised performance as Kenny Wells, a sweaty, ageing mineral prospector  with the gift of the gab whose late father’s once huge mining company has gone under, he and the remaining salesmen now hustling out of the Nevada diner where girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) works. Then, one night, he quite literally has a dream about finding gold in the Indonesian jungle and, pawning the last of his and her valuable jets out to hook up with Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a one of a kind geologist who made his name discovering a massive copper mine.

Acosta’s looking for gold, but can’t get finance, which is where Kenny comes in, promising to raise whatever it takes. Pretty much operating by the seat of their pants, unable to get any of the Wall Street big boys to buy in, things almost go under. But, when Kenny wakes from a severe bout of malaria, Mike tells him they’ve struck gold. In fact, it would appear they have found the biggest goldmine in decades. Inevitably, these same Wall Street boys  now become vultures looking to get  a  piece of the action, among them his father’s old friend Clive (Stacey Keach), Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll), the investment firm go getter who tries to swing a partnership, and heavyweight Mark Hancock (an oddly accented Bruce Greenwood) who wants to buy the pair out. And then there’s the corrupt politicians to contend with too.

Suffice to say that having gone from riches to rags and back to riches, Kenny finds himself back to rags again. Except, driven by his dream and his obsession rather than the money (he turns down $300 million), he and Mike manage to reverse fortunes yet again, even if he does lose Kay somewhere along the ride. But, as flashforward scenes of him being interviewed by an FBI agent (Tony Kebbell) about the overnight disappearance of  several hundred million dollars indicate, the see saw isn’t over yet.

Without giving too much away, it seems not everyone was being totally honest about what went down in Indonesia (there’s a nice in joke magazine cover titled Fool’s Gold, a previous McConaughey film), although the screenplay keeps one card up its sleeve to twist in the final moments.

Events occasionally moved along by voiceover as well as constant stream of 80s hits, it is, undoubtedly, overlong with something of a repetitive narrative, while the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience to get the blinded by greed message and feels the need to drop in lines spelling it out, the Wall Street sharks all but wearing horns. It never gets to play in the same big leagues as Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room or The Big Short, all of which it echoes, but even so, often seen sweating in just his underpants, McConaughey’s balls to the wall performance as the underdog trying to grab a better kennel, along with Ramirez’s smooth charm, keeps you engaged even if the end leaves you to question everything you’ve just seen and heard.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Loving (12A)

In 1958, aptly named white construction worker Richard Loving married his pregnant black girlfriend Mildred in Washington DC. Unfortunately, they lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a state where interracial marriages were still illegal. One night, shortly after the marriage, the local sheriff broke into the house and arrested them. Richard made bail but Mildred was kept in a cell for a further five days. When taken to court they were advised by their lawyer to plead guilty, receiving a one year suspended prison sentence on the condition they left the state and did not return together for 25 years. They moved from the lush countryside where Richard was building their new home to room in a cramped house in a rundown Washington neighbourhood where they would have two further children.

Despite the fact that, five years later, their case was, on the instigation of Robert Kennedy, to whom Mildred wrote,  taken up by the Civil Rights Movement and led to a Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage a human right and overturning state laws against miscegenation their story has been largely forgotten.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose past work has included Mud and Midnight Special, that story is now the subject of this low key, slowly unfolding historical drama that’s anchored by breakout central performances by Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga.

There’s no courtroom dramatics (the eventual verdict is conveyed by a phone message to Mildred), indeed, save for that initial arrest and a tense nighttime scene involving headlights in Richard’s rearview mirror as he and Mildred return to Virginia for the birth, there’s no dramatics at all.

Faced with the judge at the Virginia court house, the couple, quiet and cowed, whisper their guilty pleas and there’s no strident protests about the iniquities of the situation. The most Richard does it mutter “It’s not right” when he’s arrested, unable to comprehend why two people in love cannot demonstrate that affection in public. They risk re-arrest to return to his midwife mother for the birth, and the law does come calling, but it was never an act of defiance. In Washington, they accept their lot, only an accident to one of the sons causing Mildred contact the Attorney General to try and move back to the quiet safety of the countryside. They are never part of the Civil Rights Movement,  but, while the taciturn Richard is reluctant to get involved and draw attention to them, when their lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), talks of it going to the Supreme Court, Mildred can see the bigger picture and, when the media take an interest, is the more vocal of the two.

It’s a conventional narrative taken at an unhurried pace in which, essentially, nothing happens for long stretches. But its impact lies in the way it underplays, most effectively as Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks (Marin Csokas) coldly and contemptously explains why their union is against God’s designs.  Likewise, a brick left on the back seat of Richard’s car is a far more effective than having one thrown through his window. It takes patience but there is a quiet power here.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park)

 

 

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)

Although the final scene keeps the door open for continuing adventures, this, the sixth in the series all written and mostly directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring wife Milla Jovovich, does draw a line under the long-running post-apocalypse saga of the battle between the Umbrella corporation and Alice (Jovovich), the enhanced is she/isn’t she clone of  Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the corporation’s murdered, co-founder, whose mind was used to create the Red Queen artificial intelligence programme which takes the hologram of a little girl, in a world devastated by the zombies created  as a side effect of  the T-Virus designed to eradicate all illnesses. It turns out that the apparently not dead Umbrella CEO Dr Isaacs (Iain Glenn) to unleash an airborne antidote to cleanse the world so that the rich and powerful, cryogenically frozen in The Hive, can then take over. Which is why, picking up a few weeks after the last installment and blithely dispensing with logical narrative continuity, the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), who wanted to destroy humanity in the previous film but now wants to save it,  tells Alice she has to get back to Raccoon City, where it all began and stop them. Of course, as she herself is infected, that means she’ll die too, Got all that?

Which basically boils down to a long Mad Max aping chase/battle with Isaacs in his armoured tank and the undead hordes in his wake and then another one at the survivors’ stronghold in Raccoon City, where she’s reunited with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from Extinction for another battle against Isaacs, this time inside The Hive itself.

As such, it does what’s expected of it, no more, no less, with an assortment of CGI creatures (this adds a dragon to the tally in a particularly inventive opener as she battles it with a Hummer), relentless explosions and fights, scenery chewing from Glen and the flat but ever-entertaining delivery by a leather-clad Jovovich, along with her impressive athleticism, which this time includes taking out a  bunch of tooled-up goons while suspended upside-down from a  harness. In a plot twist as incredulous and improbably as it is ingenious, she also gets to play another version of herself. Hardly great art or great cinema, nonetheless the series has been an entertaining ride and, if this really does close the book, it goes out iwith a bang. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Rings (15)

Just like the recent reboot of Blair Witch, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle  remakes, is that you watch a  certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a  flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend  Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, promoting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (and yes, Holt was one of them) is  investigating the  source of the alleged death tape, rather recklessly by taking it in turns to watch it, and Samara’s background. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?

Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast  provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas hasn’t been before while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently for to the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind  man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Toni Erdmann (15)

A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, directed by Maren Ade this is a bizarre, often very funny and at other mind-bogglingly surreal and absurd German art-house comedy that lasts for almost three hours. The title character doesn’t actually exist, rather it’s the alias that, donning fright wig and joke  buck-toothed dentures, shaggy, middle-aged, bored, divorced provincial music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) adopts to pull pranks on people like the postman. We first see the character at the start of the film, but then he doesn’t reappear until around half way through.

Wearing zombie make-up as part of a somewhat dubious farewell song by his class to a retiring teacher, he fetches up at his ex-wife’s to find his 30ish daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) back from Bucharest for an early birthday party. However, a work-obsessed business consultant for an international firm of specialising in oil trade restructuring (basically working out how many can be fired by outsourcing) , she’s barely off  her phone, leading  her father to sarcastically joke that he’s hired a substitute daughter in her place. Ines goes back to work, where she’s negotiating a deal and her father goes back home to his elderly sick dog. When the dog dies, with nothing else to concern him, he decides to visit Ines and try and rescue her from what he sees as her self-destructive (“Happy is a strong word”) isolation. Turning up unexpectedly, he proves both an inconvenience and an embarrassment as he imposes himself into her professional as well as personal space. She barely has time for him So, it’s a relief when he packs his bags and goes home. Until, that is, while out with a  couple of friends, who should turn up but dad. Or rather Toni, passing himself to her boss as a life coach to the CEO with whom they’re in negotiations. Forced to let him accompany her, Ines slowly finds that having him along tends to make people take her more seriously and, at the same time, she rather seems to enjoy going along with the masquerade.

As if this wasn’t odd enough, the film pushes further with a party scene in which  Ines is forced to deliver an impromptu full rendition of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love Of All and, later, a lengthy sequence where, following a wardrobe malfunction,  Ines blithely strips off completely,  telling the guests arriving for her birthday do that it’s a naked party and then her father turns up dressed as a ‘kukeri’, a  traditional hairy Bulgarian monster.

At times there s a feeling of everyone wondering what outrageousness they can come up with next, but, at heart, this is a serious-minded affair that subtly and often poignantly addresses such themes as parent-child relationships,  work and family, cultural divides, business ethics, corporate culture, workplace sexism, the dehumanising nature of modern technology. Driven by outstanding central performances, he a cocktail of Sir Les Patterson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Peter Sellers, she a cross between Tilda Swinton and Juliette Lewis, it builds to an emotional catharsis; there’s laughs, but when, at one point he snaps, “Are you really human?”, there’s also a sharp intake of breath.  (Electric)

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Assassin’s Creed (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.  (Vue Star City)

 

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

 It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding  performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.

Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of  housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and force him to quit,  before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed up in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Jackie (15)

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

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

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

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

The film does, of course, also address the assassination as the moment when America lost its innocence, a theme effectively underscored in the final moments as Jackie recalls her husband’s favourite Broadway musical, and the film closes with Richard Burton singing “don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”  Outstanding.  (Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC)

 

La La Land (12A)

Having  swept the Golden Globes and likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

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

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

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

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

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

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

 

Lion (PG)

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

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; MAC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

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

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

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

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

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

A Monster Calls (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Passengers (12A)

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

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

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

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

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Split (15)

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

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

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

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

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

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

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

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

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

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many, Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Underworld: Blood Wars (15)

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

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

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


xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; 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 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

News: Northern Soul exhibition opens to public in Birmingham

All Because Of You credit Bethany Kane

An exhibition documenting the underground Northern Soul scene in Birmingham and the Midlands, hosted at Birmingham City University’s Parkside Gallery, has opened to the public. 

All Because of You is a curated collection of photographs, audio, memorabilia and scene insider accounts focussing on younger participants within the subculture.

The exhibition has been produced by Birmingham-based independent photographer Bethany Kane and Sarah Raine, a researcher for the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research (BCMCR) based at Birmingham School of Media.

Sarah Raine of BCMCR, said, “The title of the exhibition is the title of the B-side from a 1967 45” by The Dramatics. This exhibition and my wider research has been a collaborative project not only between Bethany Kane and myself, but also as part of my engagement with the wider Northern Soul scene, in particular the younger members of a historically situated music scene. What I hope to explore is how they place themselves within the dominant ways of seeing the scene, and how they make their engagement meaningful as both a Northern Soulie and a young person in the 21st Century.”

Image: Lyle Bignon

Created through ethnographic engagements with younger members of the Northern Soul scene, All Because of You also invites contributions from current and formers members of the musical community, as well the wider public of Birmingham and beyond.

The exhibition runs until Friday 24 February at Birmingham City University’s Parkside Gallery. Admission is free. For further information visit the Parkside Gallery website.

Image: Bethany Kane

MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 27-Thu Feb 2

 

NEW RELEASES

Hacksaw Ridge (15)   Although the trailer carefully avoided any mention of his name, simply billing it from the director Braveheart, it would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century.  Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding, riveting performance as Desmond Doss, a vegetarian, Sabbath-observing Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, rejected deferment as a shipyard worker and signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised and bullied by the other men in his brigade.

Although faced with court-martial for disobeyed an order, he was (after the intervention of his father) finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated he remained and single-handedly saved the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers and became the first and only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood (with Darcy Bryce as the younger version) and background, the son of a housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends kills, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his sweet  and goofily smiling courtship of  Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (oddly never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.

The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and   superior officers who try and get him to quit (he’s refused permission to go to his own wedding), before the scene shifts to the Pacific and the 1945 battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film, powered by a massive orchestral score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra   of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.

As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed up in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action and ratcheting up the tension to nail-biting levels as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Denial (12A)

Given a very limited release in America last year, this marks the return of director Mick Jackson with his first feature since 1997’s Volcano as, with a screenplay by David Hare, it recounts the true story of the libel case brought by self-proclaimed historian, anti-Semitic Nazi sympathiser David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic teaching Jewish history in Atlanta, who, in her book, Denying the Holocaust, had accused him of being a Holocaust denier, a charge he refuted and claimed had damaged his reputation and career. Had he won, citing the mantra ‘no holes, no Holocaust’, then it would have legitimised denial of six million deaths.

The film opens at a lecture by Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) where Irving (a chillingly creepy Timothy Spall) interrupts, offering money if anyone can produce any document confirming that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz or that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. Save for a haunting research visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland itself (the defence had to provide forensic evidence that the Holocaust happened), the remainder of the film centres around the two year trial in the Royal Courts of Justice in England, where the burden of proof in libel is on the accused, during which her council, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce, and renowned Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) refused to let her speak or for Holocaust survivors to testify so as not to allow Irving a platform.

Irving describes it as a David and Goliath battle and that’s largely how the film plays out, except it’s actually the defence team in the David role, having to engineer ways to ensnare Irving, defending himself, in a net of his own vanity and inaccuracies. Never sensational, it respectfully sticks to the facts (the courtroom dialogue is taken verbatim from the records) but, in great part due to Weisz’s nuanced performance, it is, while not without moments of levity, riveting and emotionally wrenching.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham)

 

 

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, the latest from the Despicable Me studio charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) whose  inherited his love of theatre, and the very theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash and personal possessions to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly (voiced by Brit director Garth Jennings, last heard of with 2007’s  terrific Son of Rambow) sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions, which include a snail singing Ride like The Wind,  a troupe of persistent Japanese kittens and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll in the Wagner role) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and if she can ever overcome her shyness, Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana – co-voiced by Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Saunders as the younger and older versions – into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits (as well as the original Set It All Free), plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo, and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. As the young Nana, Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brim; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid here) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but, after roughing him up, decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raising the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, their pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get revenge, preferably by killing him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades (a sense   of impotence of  manifested literally in one case), basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes of the scan and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise m as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack (Lust For Life finally appearing at the end). Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events. At times it feels more of an updated reimagining than a sequel.

Kicking off with Renton being greeted at the airport by a girl from Slovenia promoting Edinburgh, there’s a strong and often very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue, here delivered to Veronika, where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As, indeed, is nostalgia.

The leads reinhabit their characters as if they’d never been away (and, while still terrifying, Begbie’s afforded a moment of humanity), reinforcing (it opens with Renton on a gym treadmill) how trying to relive the past means we end up running to stand still. Indeed, Veronika underlines the message in saying “In my country, people try to forget the past. In your country, all you do is talk about it.” In case the point is lost there’s also a scene involving Mark and Sick Boy having to sing about the Battle of the Boyne in front of a pub crowd of fierce Loyalists still clinging to ancient hated between the Catholics and Protestants.

Effectively using nostalgia itself to illustrate its dangers, the film doesn’t have quite the same impact as the original, but it does deliver what its audience wants. However, T3 would not be a good idea. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Mockingbird, Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW PLAYING

Assassin’s Creed (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bye Bye Man (15)

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

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jackie (15)

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

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

With frequent intense close ups, the film captures the raw intensity and claustrophobic suffocation of having to deal with the unimaginable, allowing Portman to convey her inner turmoil and distress through subtle facial expressions alone. Perfectly capturing Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, as well as her inner steel in  dealing with  her grief and handling the new administration’s attempts to stage manage the funeral, Portman’s complex and layered portrayal, at times vulnerable at others  spiky,  is outstanding, indicating just how the First Lady could fire up those around her with her own contagious and determined resolve and passion, giving the film both fire and intimacy.

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

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

 

La La Land (12A)

Having  swept the Golden Globes and likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

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

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

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

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

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

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

 

Lion (PG)

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

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Live By Night (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Manchester By the Sea (12A)

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

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

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars.  Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.

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

Working from Lonergan’s insightful screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing –  with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations)  who makes the biggest emotional  impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Cineworld 5 Ways; MAC;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; 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. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Monster Calls (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Vue Star City)

 

Monster Trucks (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Passengers (12A)

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

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

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

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

 

Split (15)

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

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

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

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain. Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

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

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

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

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

 

Underworld: Blood Wars (15)

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

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

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

 

xXx – The Return of Xander Cage  (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware  and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Why Him? (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

News: The Electric Swing Circus release new album ‘It Flew By’

The Electric Swing Circus

‘It Flew By’, the second full-length album by the Birmingham-based electro swing band and UK festival favourites The Electric Swing Circus is out now on Ragtime Records.

The 13-track record is the follow-up to the six piece’s self-titled 2013 debut which helped to deliver a global fanbase and a place on the international live touring circuit.

The collection of songs embrace The Electric Swing Circus’ 1920s swing and electro roots, whilst venturing into new sonic territory, including dubstep, reggae, rock, pop and disco.

The album was recorded over two years at Middle Farm Studios in Devon and Giant Wafer Studios in North Wales and was engineered and produced by James Bragg (Gengahr, Tellison, The Computers, The Skints).

Tom Hyland from the band explained their journey to finish the record, saying, “We’ve spent the last two years experimenting with recording techniques that allowed us to capture the intensity from our live show. The result is a totally new and unique audio adventure and flipping vintage remix and electro swing on their heads. We look forward to unleashing ‘It Flew By’ on the world!” 

Fronted by the female double-act of Laura O and Vicki Olivia on vocals, with Chandra Walker (drums, keys), Tom Hyland (guitar), Rashad Gregory (samples, MPC and synth) and Patrick Wreford (bass and bass synth), The Electric Swing Circus have built up a reputation for their powerful combination of vintage samples, electro beats, gypsy-jazz guitar, electric double bass, keys, live drums and dirty synths.

Since forming in June 2011, the six-piece have headlined Glastonbury’s Avalon Stage and played at UK festivals including Shambala, Boomtown and Eden, as well as undertaking a number of tours across New Zealand and Europe.

As well as running a regular night Hot Club De Swing in their home city of Birmingham, the band also curate the annual festival Swingamajig since 2012. The one-day event presents a programme of international artists, DJs, dancers, vintage cinema, acrobats and outlandish performers.

The Electric Swing Circus play Birmingham’s Hare & Hounds in support of ‘It Flew By’ on Friday February 17th. For information and tickets visit the venue website.

‘It Flew By’ is available to download now on iTunes, to stream via Spotify and CDs are available via Bandcamp.

Interview: There Will Be Blood – Live

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood: Live

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

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

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

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

What are some of the key musical passages?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you come to work with Jonny?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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