Downton Abbey (PG)
Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature. At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode. But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.
Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.
Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.
With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey), Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers, she’s taken under the wing of single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards. Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.
Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished. It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”
Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes, makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Night Hunter (15)
Critically slated and playing on one just out of city screen, writer-director David Raymond’s debut, originally titled Nomis, is nevertheless a watchable police procedural that, if nothing else affords Henry Cavill a chance to do some effective brooding,
Here, he’s Marshall, a bedraggled, insomniac divorced Minneapolis’ detective who’s lost custody of his tweenage daughter (Emma Tremblay) and, in a plot thread that is swiftly forgotten, is concerned about her Facebook friends. Investigating the death of a young woman found on the back of a truck, her gets caught up in a case involving Simon (Brendan Fletcher), a white paranoid schizophrenic man-child with mother issues and an apparent multiple personality disorder, who has abducted, mutilated and murdered a whole string of women.
While novice police profiler Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) tries to get inside Simon’s head, Marshall, with the assistance of Cooper (Ben Kingsley), a retired judge turned vigilante who, using his mouthy female assistant Lara (Eliana Jones) as bait, tracks down and castrates convicted but released paedophiles, is led to dig further when it becomes clear, through the murder of several cops, that Simon wasn’t acting alone.
With Stanley Tucci as the increasingly exasperated Police Commissioner, it’s a complex narrative that hinges on a logically implausible twist as it heads to its frozen lake climax with Marshall seeking to save both Rachel and Lara. Patently drawing on the likes of Se7en, Split and The Silence of the Lambs, it never comes close to such benchmarks, but you won’t feel you want your money back afterwards. (Reel)
His family fallen into a heavy debt, Rafi (The Lunchbox star Nawazuddin Siddiqui) works as a street photographer at Mumbai tourist hotspot the Gateway of India. He delivers his standard pitch to Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a young middle class woman lacking in self-confidence and studying to become an accountant. She agrees, but runs off when her family calls without taking the photo with her. It’s a chance encounter that brings the together when, in an attempt to stop his grandmother, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffer), going on about him getting married, sends her the photo and he tells her he’s engaged, but then she turns up to approve the union, leading Rafi to ask Miloni to play along.
She too is under pressure from her relatives to find a husband (giving rise to an amusing scene where she gives one suitor the brush off) , on top of studying late into the night. Directed by Ritesh Batra, it’s fairly obvious where this is going to go, but, taking in themes of India’s case system, Mumbai’s contrasting economic levels (Rafi shares a flop house with a number of other men) and, framed through doorways and windows, how it’s possible to be isolated in a city full of people, it meanders gently long with low key performances as the two not as yet lovers come to learn more about themselves and each other. Cinnamon rather than cumin,, the flavours are subtle but they still linger. (MAC)
The Souvenir (15)
Critically touted but as yet to make her breakthrough, British writer-director Joanna Hogg may have finally had her eureka moment with this quasi-autobiographical 80s set (seemingly mostly over Christmas though the chronology of background events is inconsistent) tale of an aspirant film student from a well-to-do background about which she feels uncomfortable embarking on her first feature. Living in a flat in Knightsbridge, owned by her wealthy grandparents, a stone’s throw from Harrods (the 1983 bombing of which is heard at one point), she’s Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and she wants to make a documentary about working-class communities in Sunderland in the wake of the shipyards collapse, though she’s not having much luck pitching it to prospective backers. At a party with her Bohemian flatmates, she gets into conversation with the coolly supercilious, sceptical but highly cultured Anthony (Tom Burke), who, apparently holding down a job at the Foreign Office about which he can’t talk, declares a passion for Powell and Pressburger, dismisses the film school of social realism (“We don’t want to see life played out as it is, we want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine”) and takes her to the Wallace Collection to see Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir and tells her “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost” as part of his seduction routine.
Next thing, he’s moved in and is buying her sexy lingerie and taking her off to Venice, putting her filmmaking on hold. However, as it turns out, he always seem to be short of money, quite possibly because, as she’s warned a little too late, he’s a parasitical heroin addict.
Slow, chilled, austere and measured, it offers a non-judgemental look at the class system and a distancing between art and real-life that calls to mind the work of Visconti and Jarman , enfolding into a tale of doomed romance. Swinton Byrne possesses the same inscrutable fragility and reserves her mother Tilda, who plays her mother here, but, in a hint of Princess Diana, with more a suggestion of vulnerability and insecurity behind her eyes while Burke’s underplayed performance delivers a creepy calculated arrogance to perfection. There’s also an amusing cameo from Richard Ayoade as a fellow filmmaker declaring his dismay that, as home of the Stones, the Kinks and the Small Faces, Britain till hasn’t come up with a decent screen musical.
In the search for clarity, “Sincerity isn’t enough,” Anthony tells Julie at one point, but, as Hogg’s film reveals, honesty can be. A sequel is already in the works. (Electric)
Adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel about a German concentration camp survivor seeking passage to North America in Nazi-occupied France, but unfolding as a sort of anachronistic timeless Casablanca that includes reference to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, German director Christian Petzold offers a conceptually daring look at the refugee crisis in the story of a Georg (Juaquin Phoenix-lookalike Franz Rogowski), a young Jewish audio-visual technician who agrees to deliver two letters to a writer’s hotel room in fascist occupied Paris only to find he’s committed suicide, leaving behind a manuscript and two letters from his estranged wife about meeting up in Marseilles (a place where you’re only welcome to stay if you can prove you’re leaving) to take passage to Mexico.
It’s his firm intention to deliver these and the bad news when he gets there, but he’s purpose is distracted when the injured friend accompanying him dies and Georg strikes up a bond with the dead man’s young Northern African immigrant son (Lilien Batman) in the local ghetto. Arriving at the American Embassy, before he has chance to explain he’s assumed to be the writer and told his transit papers were being arranged. He also, although he’s not aware at the time, keeps bumping into and gradually falling for the man’s widow (Paula Beer),who has taken up with a German doctor (Godehard Giese), with whom she was originally going to travel to America, but disembarked to look for her husband and now cannot leave, although her lover can. Georg too has the choice of leaving and abandoning the boy and his mother to their fate as the occupying forces get closer or staying and putting the transit papers to altruistic use.
A Kafka-esque portrait of purgatory in a never-ending loop (underscored by the use of the Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere over the end credits), it doesn’t always make literal sense, but it exercises a compelling magnetism. (Sun-Wed: MAC)
The Vinyl Revival (12A)
A follow-up to Last Shop Standing about the demise of the traditional record store, Pip Piper’s new documentary, as the title suggests, looks at the revival of interest in vinyl records and features interviews with many of the new indie record shops owners, the die-hards, as musicians and industry and cultural pundits to discuss the resurgence and the importance of the record shop and vinyl as a whole. Though quite possibly not why they cost such an exorbitant amount. (Thu: MAC)
Angel Has Fallen (15)
The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.
While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.
Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.
Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.
Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Basically Lake Placid reinvented as a home invasion movie, or Jaws in the basement with alligators rather than a shark, although characters seem perfectly capable of surviving having limps mangled or ripped off by the swamp killers, this is a perfectly respectable and tension-packed thriller. With a Category 5 hurricane on the way and everyone being evacuated, when he doesn’t answer his phone , collegiate swimmer (and yes, that proves a crucial plot element) Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) heads out to her demanding ex-coach dad Dave’s (Barry Pepper), southern Florida home and finds the neighbourhood deserted and him badly injured in the crawlspace. She revives and patches him up but, bad news, the rising flood waters have not just swamped the town, but they’ve brought with them dozens of murderous gators, at least two of whom are in the cellar. So, somehow, she’s got to get herself, dad and the obligatory family dog, to safety before they’re either drowned or eaten.
Virtually, save for some gator fodder, a two-hander (and four paws), it’s a simple B-movie set-up, one which director Alexandre Aja mines for maximum effect as he piles on the suspense and injury and still finds room to throw in some surprises and character background regarding the father-daughter relationship. It’s popcorn, but it’s well-buttered and salted. And don’t worry about the dog. (Vue Star City)
Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)
Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft, ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).
Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo), they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.
Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and, inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).
Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones. In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and, along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)
The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake, a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.
All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).
Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team, the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Good Boys (15)
Far better than you might expect from a film touted as being from the people who brought you Superbad and Bad Neighbours, this is essentially a tweenage coming of age cocktail of Stand By Me, South Park and, well, Superbad. Twelve-year olds Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) are the Bean Bag Boys, best buddies since kindergarten who, while they may regularly drop the f word and talk up how sussed they are about sex and beer, are in fact clueless as to the ways of the world, as evidenced by their disgust and horror at seeing a porno and thinking the sex toys found in Thor’s parents’ bedroom are weapons. An innocence that throws up multiple amusing misinterpretations of the grown up world.
As in all good movies of its kind, they have a mission. Well, two actually. First, they have to recover Max’s dad’s drone which is being held to ransom by two high-schoolers (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) on whom they were spying. The reason they were spying links to the other mission, they need to learn how to kiss before they can go to one of the cool kids’ kissing party, not so much Thor and Lucas, but Max wants to plant lips on his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis, and doesn’t want to mess up. Especially since he’s not yet even summoned up the courage to talk to her.
Somehow these two objectives end up with them having to score sex drug MDMA, much to the earnest Lucas’s horror, to replace the bottle (which they can’t unscrew) they stole from the girls and wound up leaving in the hands of a cop. Which means entering a frat house to hook up with the dealer, and ends up in a mass battle with the resident slackers. And, by way of a comic sidebar, Max gets the money he needs to buy a new drone/replace the drugs by selling Thor’s parents’ blow up sex doll to the guy (Stephen Merchant) who just turned up to buy a collectable gaming card off Lucas.
Needless to say, the screenplay’s peppered with sex and drug gags, machismo challenges and, but there’s also a sweetness and poignancy to the trio, Thor has given up singing, which he loves, because he thinks it makes him seen uncool and the target of the class bully, Lucas has discovered that his folks are divorcing and Max, well he’s struggling to come to terms with nascent puberty and first love inarticulacy. Friendships are tested, bonds renewed, life lessons learnt and, almost inevitably, the ending includes a school musical.
Ultimately, the amusement in kids swearing is overworked and begins to wear out its welcome, but by then the film is on track for its big emotional finish about growing up and all that means. The boys done good. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Informer (15)
Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, clearly taking cues from Michael Mann and Antoine Fuqua, it’s an adaptation (part written by Roland Joffe) of a Swedish crime thriller relocated from Stockholm to New York and, while fairly generic in a 90s sort of way, it never fails to grip.
An ex-con who got early parole by becoming an FBI informant, Polish former sniper Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is recruited by handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to help in a sting to nail Polish drugs lord The General (Eugene Lipinski). However, when one of the underlings decides to improvise a deal on the side, things go awry when a cop gets killed, Pete finds himself being pressured by Wilcox’s boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen), to go along with The General’s demand that, as penance, he break parole so he can get sent back to prison and to act as The General’s inside , but, in fact, work for the FBI to bring down the behind bars networks. Knowing he has the tapes to show what he was doing, he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, NYPD cop Grens (Common) is investigating his buddy’s murder and has Pete pinned as prime suspect. Somewhat inevitably, at some point, cold fish Montgomery orders Wilcox to pull the plug and burn her contact, leaving Pete to survive, unsure of who wants to kill him most, the Polish inmates or the rival African American drug boss.
Throw in supportive Pete’s wife (Ana de Armas) and young daughter, who find themselves caught between Gens, the duplicitous FBI and the General’s goons and there’s plenty of fuse to keep the tangled plot burning.
Between the grim and grimy New York streets and a prison wall to wall with heavily tattooed thugs, the film is high on visual atmosphere and adopts a suitably cynical view of how the FBI use and throw away informants when the situation demands. Kinnaman does strong and soulfully silent to good effect while the supporting cast provide just what the screenplay asks, ranging from cold pragmatism to troubled conscience and doggedly loyal support as it builts to an implausible but nevertheless gripping hostage stand-off climax. There’s enough loose ends for the coda to suggest a sequel. Hopefully the box office will warrant one. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)
It: Chapter Two (15)
Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again), kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor, Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending), bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.
Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.
Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.
Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a mental institution since the first film.
There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of friendship, self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Lion King (PG)
Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet, so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock, this virtual shot by shot, line by line update won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.
There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a roaring success. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Mrs. Lowry And Son (PG)
Ask a member of the general public to name three outstanding British painters and the chances are the only ones they’ll know are Constable, Turner and Lowry. Tim Spall as now played two of them. However, unlike Mr. Turner, this, directed by Adrian Noble, is less about the work and more the relationship with his domineering mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). Having fallen on hard times thanks to her late husband’s impecunious way, she and her son were forced to move from high society to the Lancashire mill town of Pendlebury where, he’s taken up his father’s job as a rent collector and, invalided and taken to her bed, she bitterly spends her time either bemoaning her lot or deriding her son’s ‘hobby’. Cruel to a fault (she tells him no woman would ever have him), she takes great pleasure in reading him a scathing review of one of his paintings and telling him that he’ll never be an artist. At one dramatic point she snaps that she’s never liked any of his work, that is until their new neighbour (Wendy Morgan), another woman who’s suffered a decline in her fortunes, remarks that she thinks Yachts, a work he painted in 1959 for his mother’s birthday, is very pleasant, prompting her to change her tune, at least in regard to this painting, and asks for it to be brought to her bedroom to admire.
All this the modest Laurie (“I’m just a man who paints”) endures with good grace, Spall’s consummate performance constrained to nuanced facial expressions and sighs that speak volumes, comforted by the possibility of a London exhibition, until, realising he’ll never be good enough for her, he can take no more and finally, but briefly, snaps.
Visually muted in its tones, narratively, it’s a slight affair but the way Noble and his leads explore the emotional dynamics is compelling, especially in suggesting, from childhood flashbacks and the opening scene of Lowry playing a game with the children following him up the street, that he’d have been a different, happier man without his mother around. Ending with a credits sequence exploring Lowry’s paintings that now hang in the Manchester gallery dedicated to his work, it’s a slow but ultimately fascinating film. (Empire Sutton Coldfield)
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)
Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows. Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.
A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going, self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.
Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.
Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.
Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.
In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol, Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (12)
Based on assorted tales in the young adult horror series of books by Alvin Schwartz, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s also one of the several writers, set at Halloween 1968 in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (though any political point is never clear) and opening to the strains of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, this sees three friends, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who feels she’s to blame for her mom leaving, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with Latino drifter in town Ramon (Michael Garza) who helps protect them from Tommy (Austin Abrams), the local bully, sneak into a creepy abandoned old house. The former home of a paper mill baron and his family, legend has it that the daughter, Sarah Bellows poisoned several of the town’s children and wrote scary stories in their blood, before hanging herself.
Exploring, they stumble upon a secret room, where Sarah was kept confined, along with her book of stories, which Stella, herself as aspiring writer takes away with her. The creepiness begins when Tommy finds himself being stalked by Harold, the scarecrow on the farm, which he constantly batters with a baseball bat, and being transformed into a man of straw himself. Events which Stella witnesses being written in red in Sarah’s book as they unfold. Tommy’s just the first. Next comes a story in which Auggie is beset by a female corpse looking for her missing toe (it’s in his stew), Chuck’s sister has an infestation of spiders grow inside her cheek and, during a visit to the hospital to research Sarah’ background, her brother is cornered in the ‘Red Room’ by a white faced female ghoul.
This just leaves Ramon and Stella, the latter realising that the book reads them and writes their stories, and, naturally, the local cop refuses to believe a word. Until another creature turns up looking for Ramon. All of which means, Stella has to somehow put an end to things by telling the hidden truth of Sarah’s own story, although at this point the film seems rather confused as to the link between them.
Stories hurt and stories heal is the film’s motto and the episodic screenplay (structured much like Final Destination) doggedly unfolds how both work, playing rather like a Scooby-Doo yarn without the dog and, despite some chilling moments, and, unfortunately largely with about the same degree of scariness. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Sometimes Always Never (15)
Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed in stylised fashion by Carl Hunter who, channelling Wes Anderson, evokes a 70s kitsch sensibility with his use of bright colours (mainly orange and green) and frequent shots through doorways or reflections in mirrors, this rather mannered but ultimately involving road trip tale unfolds the father-son relationship between Alan (Bill Nighy), an emotionally distant widowed Liverpudlian tailor, and his estranged grown younger son Peter (Sam Riley) who paints and makes jingles for ice-cream vans. They meet up for the first time in ages in Merseyside to view a body that may or may not be that of Peter’s brother, Michael, who walked out of the house one day many years back following an argument over using the word Zo in a game of Scrabble (or rather, as Peter reminds him, a knock off cardboard version since his dad always did things on the cheap) and never came back. Alan’s been trying to find him ever since while Peter feels he can never compete with the memory of his vanished sibling.
Alan’s the Scrabble obsessive (good with words but useless at communicating), indeed, when he and Peter meet another couple (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny) staying at the same B&B who have also come to identify the body as potentially their own missing son, Alan hustles the husband out of £200, much to Peter’s embarrassment.
Back home, Alan foists himself upon Peter’s family, sharing the bunk bed in their teenage son Jack’s (Louis Healy) room and taking over his computer to play online Scrabble, gradually convinced that his unknown opponent is actually Michael. Playing alongside this is Peter’s emotional distance from Jack, who reaps the benefits of his grandfather’s dress sense, and how his wife (Alice Lowe, a low-key delight) helps engineer shy Jack’s romance with the girl at the bus stop.
Essentially a film that treats on loss, reconnecting and making the best of what remains behind, it draws excellent performances from Nighy and Riley (and an odd cameo from Alexei Sayle) and build to an understated emotional punch without resorting to sentimentality. You also get to learn why you can’t buy Marmite in Canada. The film’s title is apparently a reference to how the three descending buttons on a suit’s jacket should be fastened, though quite what it has to do with the narrative remains a puzzle. Alan would probably have a word. (Until Mon:MAC)
Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)
Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes), returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that has Ned christening him Night Monkey.
Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.
Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.
Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Toy Story 4 (U)
The fourth and final entry sees the Toy Story out on an emotional high as it pulls together the themes that have run throughout the saga for a finale that will have audiences welling up. It opens several years earlier when Woody (Tom Hanks) and the other toys, among them Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger), were still owned by Andy as Woody (motto ‘leave no toy behind’) daringly rescues a toy car that has got lost and is about to be washed away in the gutter. However, before Woody can climb back through the window, it’s slammed shut as he watches Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her three-headed sheep, Billy, Goat and Gruff, the porcelain lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly, being boxed up to go to a new home. He attempts to rescue her, but she insists it’s time to move on to a new child and invites him to join her. Loyal to his kid, Woody refuses.
Fast forward to the present and his new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is off to kindergarten orientation and, ignoring the advice from the other toys, Woody, who she hasn’t played with in weeks (indeed, she even gives his badge to Jessie) and has lost his lost his role as keeper of the room to Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), sneaks into her backpack to ensure she’s ok. At school, he helps by providing her materials from which she makes herself a new plaything, Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork with pipe-cleaner arms, popsicle-stick feet and googly eyes. He’s her new favourite toy, but it takes a real effort for Woody to convince him that he’s a toy not trash (he keeps trying to get into the rubbish bins in a montage set to Randy Newman’s I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away) and that he’s important to Bonnie. The ironic symmetry is obvious, one is a toy who fears becoming trash, one is trash who doesn’t want to be a toy.
At which point, the family take a road trip to Grand Basin National Park and an amusement park where, separated from the others while he explains things to Forky, Woody comes across Second Chance Antiques and spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the window. For the past seven years, in turns out she has embraced the life of a lost toy, enjoying the freedom of the park and become something of feisty kick ass (another of Disney’s female empowerment touches), riding around the park in a motorised skunk. “Who needs a kid’s room,” she asks, showing Woody the panoramic view of the park, “When you can have all of this?”
The reunion is, however, overshadowed by the fact that the store also contains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a creepy vintage 1950s pull-string doll who, assisted by four Chucky-like ventriloquist dummy henchdolls, takes Forky hostage because she wants to replace her broken pull string voice box with Woody’s in the hope of getting a kid of her own.
What ensues are two extended rescue missions variously involving Bo, Buzz and Jessie (Joan Cusack) alongside new characters joined at the paw plushies Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), mini-toy rescue cop Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canadian stunt biker Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) whose plagued by a sense of failure after being discarded when his abilities didn’t measure up to his marketing.
Exploring themes such as finding your purpose, self-worth, abandonment, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and that letting go and moving on doesn’t mean you stop loving or being loved, it will touch chords in both children and adults alike while also providing thrilling action sequences, dark and scary moments, affecting poignancy, laughs (not least in Buzz thinking his pre-programmed recordings are his ‘inner voice’) and moments of breathtaking beauty. From a joyful reunion to a moving parting of the ways farewell, this will take your heart to infinity and beyond. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Screenings courtesy of Odeon and Cineworld
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240